Six months ago, during a meaningless regular-season game against the Suns, the Houston Rockets scored 90 points in a half. If that half was the peak of offensive efficiency, then what transpired in Game 3 of Celtics-Sixers was the chasm: Neither team reached 90 points in regulation.
The game would have been over in regulation had it not been for Marco Belinelli who, with the Sixers down two and just 1.7 seconds left, hit a running fadeaway shot in the corner by the home bench. Red, white, and blue confetti descended onto the Wells Fargo Center court as if to signal a game-winning 3. It wasn’t. The small pieces of paper instead became a hazard that delayed the start of overtime, and five minutes of play later, after Bellinelli’s attempt at another buzzer-beater missed, the confetti scene transformed into dark humor. When the final buzzer sounded, what was once unbridled (albeit premature) celebration became something else entirely: silence.
The Celtics won 101-98, and took a 3-0 lead because of their ability to muck up the game and because of Al Horford. The Boston center didn’t score a bucket until the second half, but ended up making the game-winning layup after Brad Stevens drew the perfect out-of-bounds play with 8.4 seconds left:
Big bucket from AL! pic.twitter.com/fmAogQhI8v— NBA (@NBA) May 5, 2018
“Brad is a genius,” Horford said postgame. The only healthy All-Star left for the Celtics also sealed the victory with a steal on the other end:
Al Horford's HUGE defensive stop! #CUsRise #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/z5cjVXRuuS— NBA (@NBA) May 5, 2018
While Horford surged late, Joel Embiid couldn’t finish the job after carrying the Sixers for most of the game. Overall, Embiid was a monster—he finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds. The physical grind of the game was almost engineered for the giant masked man; he fed off the energy, talked junk to almost every Celtics player, and contributed two poster dunks and a slew of other winning plays. But Horford, who reportedly was among the last picks in this year’s All-Star draft and was the butt of jokes because of his unexciting style of play, became the hero.
Saturday’s slog favored one team, and it wasn’t the home team. Philly thrives on speed and fast breaks. Ben Simmons is a freight train in transition who can usually barrel his way to the rim or draw the defense to open space for the Sixers’ many 3-point threats. Every one of the Sixers’ wins in the first round against the Heat came in games at a pace of at least 98. The Sixers were the fourth-fastest team in the league this season, and were the third-fastest in the playoffs going into Saturday’s game.
But like they have all postseason, the Celtics acted as the disruptors. The pace of Saturday’s game was a lowly 91.9 possessions. Boston, which boasted the NBA’s best defense in the regular season, was in control of the tempo, giving its roster time to execute coach Brad Stevens’s game plan. The Celtics were the 23rd-fastest team in the regular season, and are 13th out of 16 in the postseason. All three games in this series have been played at molasses-like speeds, and all three have ended in Celtics wins.
Simmons, in particular, has looked off this entire series. And while it’s easy to say the moment is too big for him, it’s much more than that. Boston has thoroughly disrupted what the rookie does best: run in order to find the crevices in a scrambling defense. Take this play, for example:
So disrespectful that Aron Baynes is now no longer with us #TrustTheProcess #RingerNBA pic.twitter.com/RilGgpZDFV— The Ringer (@ringer) May 5, 2018
Embiid’s dunk is an all-timer, but it was created by Simmons’s pass in transition. It looked like the Simmons we’ve come to know: smooth, confident, accurate, and always on the move. But it’s been hard to find many of those instances when he looked like that player this series. And when he’s not in motion, his lack of shooting is exposed. Boston has impeded his movement, and as a result, the Sixers’ offensive flow. The Celtics are eschewing offensive rebounds (only nine in this game) in order to get back on defense quicker so as to combat any downhill momentum Philly would create. And they’re playing physical with every Sixer; it’s how they ended up forcing 14 turnovers in Game 3, 11 turnovers in Game 2, and 12 turnovers in Game 1.
This has been a nightmare scenario for Brett Brown, who has had no real counter move to combat the Celtics. Philly relies on an engaged Simmons, shooters making 3s, and Embiid’s extraterrestrial abilities. The three have yet to converge in any game this series.
The 76ers are done. They’re in a 3-0 series hole that’s nearly impossible to come back from. Boston hasn’t done anything out of this world. The Celtics are being led by a defensive anchor in Horford, a rookie (Jayson Tatum, who finished with 24 points) and an inexperienced point guard (Terry Rozier, who finished with 18 points). The Celtics’ talent doesn’t match up on paper as long as their two best players remain in street clothes, and they don’t win any style points by dunking on opponents via Instagram geotags after games. But they’ve managed to control this series through cold, hard execution, and as a result, completely overturned expectations for the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket.