- Another poor game by Ben Simmons and some poor decision making late in the game sees the 76ers facing the possibility of being swept by the Celtics.
PHILADELPHIA—Have you caught your breath yet? The Sixers and Celtics played an instant classic Saturday night, with Boston ultimately prevailing in a shocking, 101–98 win in overtime. The Celtics now have a 3–0 lead in the second-round series, and the Sixers’ Finals hopes are on life support.
Let’s throw out strategy for a second. What. A. Game. This was an absolute rollercoaster, with both teams combining for game-saving and game-losing plays down the stretch. A missed free throw begat a beautiful after-timeout play. A costly turnover begat a clutch shot to send the game to OT. Both teams made plays to win, and both made mistakes that led to some crushing moments. Ultimately, it’s the Sixers, who had some terrible giveaways down the stretch, who will be thinking about their missed opportunities until Game 4.
The series has been a dumbfounding turn of events for Philly, who looked like the cream of the conference after a thorough dispatching of the Heat in Round 1. The Sixers’ struggles on offense are the obvious culprit. The Celtics were great defenders throughout the regular season, and they’ve turned up the intensity in the playoffs. Joel Embiid’s highlight plays are being offset by his struggles in the post. Al Horford, who was a hero Saturday, blocked Embiid twice on post-ups and locked him up on several other possessions.
The Embiid post-ups, and their lack of success, play right into Boston’s hands. Those Sixers possessions slow down the pace, which is a style of play more suited to the Celtics. The 76ers were the fastest team during the first round of the playoffs. Right now, they’re being forced to play grind-it-out basketball, and it’s stymieing their offensive execution.
Ben Simmons also stumbled for the second straight contest. Simmons entered Game 3 with the worst plus-minus for any player in the series, and he finished Saturday's game as a minus-11. The Celtics are happily switching on Simmons on nearly every possession. Brad Stevens is comfortable with any player on the floor checking Simmons, and it’s worked so far. The Sixers’ rookie seems to be thinking more than acting, and the moment caught up to him by the end of Game 3. Simmons was a non-factor down the stretch, and also made a costly mistake by shooting instead of holding the ball for an intentional foul late in OT. (Simmons said in the locker room he takes that shot all the time in practice.)
After the game, Brett Brown talked about walking the line between getting Embiid touches and speeding up the pace. It seems the Sixers want to land somewhere in the middle, and it’s not quite working. Brown also admitted the Celtics “expose some of our weaknesses,” praising Boston’s individual defenders. (Embiid was slightly less charitable, saying, “I don’t see how it's possible for someone to guard me and have zero fouls,” in reference to Horford.)
The Celtics, despite playing slowly during the regular season and in the playoffs, allegedly want to play faster, according to Stevens. The Boston coach said he thinks increasing the pace in the fullcourt could help his team score. But Stevens also emphasized playing with speed in the halfcourt and said field goal attempts late in the shot clock are OK as long as decisive movement precedes them. Boston’s offense hasn’t been great, but it's performed in important moments. Stevens drew up two huge plays at the end of Game 3—a game-tying layup for Jaylen Brown near the end of regulation, and the go-ahead bucket for Horford in the final seconds of OT—that showed the value of his after-timeout acumen and the significance of timely buckets.
Before Game 4, Stevens said something that stood out after such a frantic finish: “Sometimes you do everything right, and the ball doesn’t go in.” While neither team did everything right Saturday, both executed well enough at times to earn a victory. A couple different bounces of the ball could have changed the entire complexion of this series. Instead of Philly having a chance to hold serve at home, Boston, after a gripping slugfest, will be looking to close out the second round on Monday.