BOSTON — Jayson Tatum walked up the floor as the third quarter concluded, starting late in both the shot clock and the game. As he dribbled side-to-side, lining up his defender with the Celtics trailing by 19 points, the boos rained down unlike any heard since early in 2022.
“We’ve gotten booed before,” Tatum said. “It’s not anything new. We’ve been in that position before and we didn’t play well today, fans could see it, you guys saw it and we know.”
Nothing new. Tatum broke out of an 0-for-6 start midway through the second quarter with the Celtics trailing by seven points. Many fans thought Boston moved past the kind of disasters like the one that took place at TD Garden on Tuesday. The crowd reacted like a group fooled again by the home team in its 115-103 Game 5 loss.
This one potentially placed everything in question, with a Celtics team considered championship favorites, addressing unfinished business for much of the season, fading midway through the game and never mustering a legitimate comeback.
It would’ve shocked fans if it didn’t happened before, and without debating Joe Mazzulla calling it the team’s first really bad game of the playoffs — it occurred at the worst possible time. The Celtics now face elimination on Thursday in Philadelphia.
“It doesn’t come at necessarily the best time, but we just have to shift our perspective and get ready for the next game,” Mazzulla said. “I don’t mean bad, I thought our intentions were good. I thought we tried to play hard. I thought we tried to play the right way, especially at the offensive end. I thought we got a lot of good looks early that didn’t fall, and theirs did, and then I think when you’re in that situation you’re just trying to win it back. Like I said, it’s the first time we didn’t play well.”
Smart hit back-to-back corner threes to open a short-lived Celtics lead while the 76ers committed to making Tatum pass out of the post like they did late in Game 5. Al Horford opened the paint up for Brown and Derrick White, then Embiid stepped up, ignoring Horford to block Smart and stop Tatum short of the rim. Harden led the Sixers ahead, 20-13, with three straight scores in his devastating pick-and-roll.
The Celtics’ three-point shot fell flat quickly, especially from Horford, who missed six straight threes to open the game as Boston fell to 5-for-18 from deep. Tatum’s first three attempts from deep bounced wide and the misses traveled to the defensive end. Philadelphia rode a 7-0 run to begin the second quarter to double digits, Harden picking on matchups for a pair of pull-up jumpers before De’Anthony Melton blocked Tatum and sent Danuel House Jr. running in transition uncontested. Boston never found defensive answers, trying to guard Harden high in the pick-and-roll ended with Paul Reed blowing by Robert Williams III on the roll.
“Unnecessary fouls, got in a little bit of foul trouble as well and it just threw our rhythm off,” Brown said. “We gotta be able to get stops and guard a lot better than we did tonight. It just felt like we couldn’t get a stop tonight. (We need to) definitely get more organized, maintain our spacing. I feel like we got the same looks over and over again. We got a lot of good looks and we didn’t make shots tonight, but I think that we can be better and I think that we will be better.”
The 76ers shot 45% in the first half compared to 37% for Boston. Tatum took 11 shots to Brown’s six. Despite an encouraging pair of dribble drives early in the half, Brown received no shots in the second quarter. He charged on a pair of drives to reach three fouls eight minutes into the frame with the Celtics down by 12 following four straight Embiid free throws and a Tobias Harris three.
Boston lost Harris and Maxey consistently beyond the arc. The crowd didn’t rise to its feet until the officials called a technical foul on the Sixers’ bench after a P.J. Tucker foul navigating Smart’s screen. A mild let’s go Celtics chant emerged, but didn’t last. Neither did Tatum’s run to push Boston within nine points at halftime, powered by a floater and a second-chance slam in the lane.
“We have to make sure we’re getting back in transition, containing them,” Horford said. “Making sure we’re not giving them so many open looks. I feel like they got really good looks from the three-point line. That’s something that we need to address.”
The breakdowns continued into the second half with Smart fouling Harden on a three-point attempt and Embiid erasing a good sequence of Celtics passes by blocking White’s cutting layup try. Smart, Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon missed threes. Boston fell behind by 15 points, where they’d generally reside for the rest of the game. Brown fouled Harden on another three, Tatum began losing the ball driving in the lane and Embiid bombed another pass to House for a 17-point advantage that grew as large as 21 in the fourth.
Potentially too many issues to address in two days dwelled into the fourth. The Celtics shot 4-for-10 in the paint, couldn’t get out on the run — Embiid chased down and blocked Brown after losing the ball. Horford finished 0-for-7 with 0 points, taking blame for the loss in the locker room. The Harden and Embiid pick-and-roll created turned Boston’s on-ball defense into a turn-style again and the Celtics forced only nine Philadelphia turnovers. Not even 38 free throw attempts could close the gap. Brown and Tatum missed seven of them.
The Celtics, content to move on and take things one game at a time, leaned back on a desire to forget the past and focus on next game. Further concern their season could end early with Thursday’s Game 6 that nearly didn’t need to happen if the Celtics closed out Game 4 turned into an elimination game for Boston.
“We’re gonna get on the flight tomorrow, we’re gonna watch film, we’re gonna have shootaround, the routine is gonna be the same,” Tatum said. “We know it’s a win or go home type of game. Everybody’s aware of that … flight tomorrow, we’re gonna watch film when we get there, get some rest, shootaround Thursday, talk to you guys again and say the same s*** again, and get ready for the game on Thursday.”