BOSTON — Jaylen Brown peeled out of the lane too early, with two minutes to go and a look at the rim. The Celtics’ offense that started the game shooting nearly 77% from the field hit the brakes with a four-point lead.
Malcolm Brogdon fired up a two-pointer that barely clipped the front of the rim. Jayson Tatum couldn’t follow the shot inside and Tyrese Maxey plowed through Marcus Smart and scored to cut three points off the lead.
“I wanted to push the pace, but if you’re not running, you gotta make sure you take care of the basketball,” Brown told CLNS Media. “I could’ve played in transition there, but if I don’t have any outlets and nobody’s running and it’s it’s a bad possession. You always want to make sure your guys are running with you. Right there, I just felt like I was running by myself.”
The play before, Tatum launched a leaning three late in the clock after Philadelphia sent a double team. Two plays after Brown’s slowdown, Brogdon drove, kicked-out a pass to Maxey and led his opponent in transition for a go-ahead dunk. The Game 5 style finish from the Atlanta series doomed the Celtics, 119-115, in Game 1 while Joel Embiid sat in a teal-colored sweatshirt.
James Harden even played Trae Young, pulling up from the top of the three-point arc for his seventh three in 14 tries over Al Horford, whose offensive rebound and finish gave Boston life and a three-point lead with 73 seconds left. Smart drove with eight seconds left eyeing a dump-off to Tatum, threw the ball away and the Celtics’ 16th turnover cost them a chance to tie. Tatum didn’t expect the pass.
The closing stretch almost mirrored the one from one week prior. Boston did not stand as united over where the problems laid.
Horford believed the Celtics let down after the 76ers announced Embiid would play, something the Celtics watched film in preparation for and an absence that became apparent for nearly one week as Embiid sat out practices and Doc Rivers downplayed the likelihood of his availability. Brown disagreed that it played a significant part. Brogdon questioned how Boston handled Harden, allowing him comfortable shots on a 5-for-5 start before double-teaming him late and allowing Harden to find Tobias Harris for a game-tying three.
“You don’t double,” Brogdon said. “You’ve gotta pick your poison. This is a high-level team we’re playing, they got a lot of good players just like we do, and you see, they didn’t double Tatum all night, because other guys on our team are making shots … they wanted Tatum to score, they let him play one-on-one most of the night. For us, I thought we doubled Harden a little bit too much and it cost us. It puts us in long close-outs, it puts us in scramble mode. They got a lot of shooters on the floor. They surround him with shooters, because he’s a good passer.”
Brogdon didn’t point a finger, saying those coverages stemmed from reads by both the players and Mazzulla, who juggled lineups throughout and settled on the five-out lineup with Brogdon in place of White late. The Celtics started hot, starting 23-for-30 and nearly setting the highest field goal percentage by a team in a half all season. Brown exploded into the half court on passes that led him to the rim from Smart and Tatum. He threw down a two-handed cutting dunk and flexed, but only took three shots for the rest of the night after starting 6-for-7.
Brown could not identify why. The only explanation everyone agreed upon became the team’s defensive passivity. Philadelphia did not feel the Celtics as they dropped and allowed Harden and Maxey, who shot threes more aggressively than in past matchups, to step into open jump shots. After hitting three shots in a row early, Grant Williams entered the game and switched onto Harden twice, allowing the Sixers star to drive by him for two.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t do as good of a job defensively as we could,” Horford said. “I don’t think they felt us … I tried to guard (Harden) as best as I could, it probably surprised me how quick he shot the ball, I probably thought he would spend a little more time before going (for the game-winner), but I felt like I was right there contesting.”
“I didn’t think there was a sense of urgency on the defensive end,” he said.
The Sixers opened up the pick-and-roll game in the second quarter after falling behind by 10 points, finding Reed on the roll and De’Antbony Melton for jump shots and secondary drives away from Harden. Their zone slowed the Celtics, who shot 11-for-11 inside in the first, forcing Sam Hauser and spacing lineups into the game. Boston finished 58.7% FG.
Smart and Tatum threw passes away and handed the Sixers extra possessions before halftime that amounted to a 12 three-point attempt advantage for Philadelphia by the end of the game. Harris hit a three to pull within 66-63 after two.
Maxey and Harris stepped into the mid-range after halftime on a 10-for-18 shooting run by the Sixers. Harden and Harris hit additional shots over Horford to establish a lead despite shooting no free throws into the third quarter. Baffling breakdowns occurred, including a baseline out-of-bounds play where Reed caught the pass and quickly fed Harden in the corner for a wide open three. Tatum worked the Celtics back into a tie before the end of the quarter by attacking Melton and Maxey, who received a pair of extra chance possessions to hit floaters.
A Williams III run between the third and fourth generated shots, but a foul on Maxey in the lane and Harden’s return to the game forced Mazzulla to shift back to Horford, who finished -17. Maxey picked up a fourth and later in the fourth a fifth foul. Harden’s aggressiveness put Boston on its heels though, tearing to the rim uncontested for two, then bumping Smart and pulling up for three.
Multi-pass possessions paced a Celtics lead, freeing Brown and Smart toward the rim. Tatum hit Horford in the lane, who found Smart for a cutting and-one that built the late four-point lead. Then — the offense stopped.
A Tatum fadeaway late in the clock. A Brogdon turnover as the Celtics stood around. The Brown pull-out.
“I gotta be better at play-calling and getting us into our spacing quicker,” Mazzulla said, taking credit for the loss again. “Then, at times, we were caught in-between the two-on-one where we could’ve shot it and got a good look, but tried to get a great look, and sometimes in situations like that where they’re scrambling, you can’t pass up good looks. It’s a little bit on me and we’ve gotta have the freedom to shoot the ball and knock down open shots.”