BOSTON — Grant Williams entered only his third playoff game this postseason and met Joel Embiid at the left wing, a bump that sent Embiid flying toward half court and landing Williams a foul. For Embiid, the play proved one of the less physically straining moments in his return from an LCL sprain he suffered two weeks ago.
“Just make it tough on him,” Williams told CLNS Media leaving the Garden. “He’s the MVP, he’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal talent and for me, it was just a matter of making sure that everything he had to work for, and even then, even when he is working for it, he’s gonna get a basket or two, so for me, it’s just making sure that you don’t get discouraged when he gets fouls, don’t get discouraged when he makes a tough shot, just continue to hone in and fight and fight and battle every single night, trying to win the war, not the battle.”
That fight finished with six points for Embiid over 11 possessions, his return allowing Grant to play 29 minutes along with with Jayson Tatum’s foul trouble. The Celtics held the newly-crowned MVP to 15 points and 4-for-9 shooting while shutting down the 76ers around him on the way to a 121-87 win, the worst loss in Philadelphia playoff history.
Embiid’s night looked awkward, tired and at times painful reintegrating into the offense. For Williams, the shift back to guarding Embiid, hitting threes and moving the ball happened seamlessly after playing only four minutes in Boston’s Game 1 loss and last playing 20 minutes on Apr. 4 — against Philadelphia.
Mazzulla’s pronouncement that three-point volume and offensive management would carry Boston back into the series also proved true through one sweeping Malcolm Brogdon sequence that shut down Embiid for good. Brogdon hit a catch-and-shoot three from Jaylen Brown, drove-and-kicked to Williams in the corner, who hit 4-of-8 from three more. Then, Brogdon buried a pull-up around Robert Williams III to turn a 23-point game into a 29-point rout. Williams played a part in that ball movement, with four assists and no turnovers.
“Grant plays a role on our team, when he plays, when he shoots the ball at a high clip and doesn’t pass it up, we need him to shoot it,” Mazzulla said. “He did a great job of that tonight and he just has the ability to guard different guys and execute different matchups and different coverages for us. At his best, (he) just brings a level of physicality and a level of poise to our team. I thought he did a great job of that tonight.”
Embiid — who checked out with two minutes remaining in the third — stayed on the bench to start the final frame as another pair of threes from Williams and Brogdon propelled the game out of reach. The Sixers star hit a rolling layup and driving dunk while otherwise leaning on a jump shot. His shot-blocking disrupted the Celtics early, but once the Celtics’ three-point shot fell, he faded from the game. A few moments where he reached for the right knee spelled concern for a Philadelphia team now reliant on his success as the centerpiece of its offense.
“It felt pretty good to go up and down a little bit,” Embiid said. “I was a bit surprised, yesterday was the first time I really did something, going up and down, in two weeks, so I was pretty surprised, but I said it earlier, I’ve grown a lot and I’ve found ways to take care of myself and I know what to do. There’s nothing like playing a game, finding your rhythm and going up and down … I thought tonight was fine and I should get better as every game goes on. There’s no excuses. I’m out here, so I’m good. I’m good to play. We’ve just gotta be better.”
The Celtics tested Embiid early by putting him in actions and attacking him head-on at the rim. Defense didn’t phase the big man, who watched Brown hit a three over his head before blocking Smart’s first drive. He finished with five rejections, but fouled Tatum on a shrewd side-step finish and later landed awkwardly on that right knee trying to help Jalen McDaniels in the lane guarding Tatum.
Grant entered the game midway through the first quarter and helped double James Harden, who finished 2-for-14, before recovering to Tobias Harris in the corner. Grant dove to the floor chasing an errant Tatum pass, tossing back the ball back to Smart for a three, then Brogdon hit one of his six threes on 10 tries to close the opening frame ahead 28-20. Embiid started 1-for-3, all jump shots as he showed in shootaround this week.
Tatum hit Smart with an alley-oop to begin the second, but Tatum exited after three charges as Boston turned toward running Brown downhill following passes from the guards to find shooters on the wings. Brown served four assists, found Williams III at the elbow, who hit Williams in the corner for three and a 10-point lead. Embiid scored closer to the basket with a rolling layup from Harden and drive past Horford, who only managed 1-for-8 three-point shooting and limited the impact of the Celtics’ early ball movement.
After halftime, Embiid missed a layup, threw a pass away and missed a second three-point attempt. Smart stripped him after face-guarding him to start a possession, diving to force the ball out-of-bounds off Embiid and exiting the game with a stinger from the big man’s fall on top of him. The officials erased Embiid’s leaner over Williams turning a 21-point game into 23 due to a retroactive shot clock violation, Williams signaling it by twirling his finger running back on defense, before the Celtics shot ahead on a pair of Derrick White threes.
Mazzulla focused on winning non-Embiid minutes, but Boston won the ones he did play by 23 points.
“I was just prepared for whatever came,” Williams said. “For me, it’s not a matter of understanding if I’m gonna play or not, I just have to be prepared for whatever moment is gonna happen. Tonight, I was asked to play more and stepped up into that role, but you never know what’s coming the next night, so for me, it’s about maintaining that mental toughness and understanding that whatever your team needs, that’s what you need to do.”
The new rotations served Williams III well too, who blocked three shots in 21 minutes playing alongside Horford and Grant, who allowed Rob to drop in the paint and contest shots while Boston switched across the perimeter. Brown focused on fighting through screens to stay with Harden, while the drive-and-kick game opened up 20-for-51 three-point shooting no Embiid performance could’ve chased.
The hope, Doc Rivers expressed, was that Embiid could step into his central role. Instead, Philadelphia hit the same Celtics defensive wall it did while Embiid played healthy. His return took the air out of a Sixers offense Boston looked puzzled trying to solve on Monday, and Embiid’s return pulled Williams into action, something White, Smart and other players long awaited as a strange run of inactivity for Grant continued into round two.
“The people around me, honestly, they’ve helped me throughout this year in a fluctuating role,” Williams said. “I’m thankful to have great people around me, both my family and my teammates, Blake (Griffin) especially has been great, shoutout to him, Payton (Pritchard), Malcolm, D.White, guys like that have really kept me really zoned in and focused on the success of this team and that’s been my number one priority throughout this road and I’m trying my best to keep it that way.”