By MyFM's Jake Archer - It took one game longer than we had hoped a few days ago, but we can't get greedy. The Celtics finished off a gentleman's sweep of the preposterously overrated Philadelphia 76ers last night in Boston, 114-112. Seriously, I've never seen a city get so ahead of themselves and a team get so much hype when they haven't proven a thing. Sure they won 20 out of 21 games to close the year and were in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. That's great! The Celtics showed up as underdogs though and took care of business with a better coach, a deeper team and the kid that should be the Rookie Of The Year, Jayson Tatum. The one thing I'll give Philly as that they fought last night, and they didn't go down without making Boston earn it.
In the first three games of this series, the Sixers couldn't have been worse. Then they played a bit better in Game 4, but I attribute that win to the referees more than anything. So in Game 5, it was really the first time I've had any respect for Philly (it still wasn't much). They didn't wilt quite like I thought they would, so I guess there is your silver lining as a fan of the Sixers.
Going into the game, I felt like Philly wasn't focused enough on actually playing basketball. They were jawing back and forth a lot for a team that was down 3-1 and the Celtics were just letting them do it. Boston hadn't lost any confidence and all they were talking about was making sure they ended the series. If the Sixers had just shut up and stayed disciplined, maybe they would have been able to sneak up on the C's a little more and win the game. That would have put the pressure back on Boston's shoulders.
The Celtics were down another man as Shane Larkin was ruled out for the forseeable future. Larkin had sustained a shoulder injury early in Game 4 after running into a hard pick and the crazy thing is, this felt like a significant blow. The Celtics now had to roll with an eight man rotation. Greg Monroe, Guerschon Yabusele and Abdel Nadar all sat out.
On the other hand, there was some good juju for the C's as former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was in the building to keep the whole joke about Eric Bledsoe going from the first round. It's a little ridiculous, but his presence in his Terry Rozier signed jersey had the Garden crowd fired up.
For most of the contest, things were back and forth. There were 21 lead changes which is the most for an NBA playoff game this year, and though Boston built a double digit lead late, it came down to the final few minutes. Philadelphia had hung around and they built a late lead and took the momentum. Things felt off and I think some worry started to set in with Celtics fans. Luckily, the players on the court did not feel it.
In the last minute and a half or so, the C's ripped off eight straight points. After Tatum converted a layup with 23 seconds left to give his team the lead, the ball went to Joel Embiid for the Sixers. Embiid is one of the brightest young stars in the game and it felt like he was just going to back his defender down, and come up with a layup or a foul. Instead, Embiid missed the bunny and tried to tip it in, which missed as well. After he came down with the rebound, Terry Rozier swiped at the ball which Embiid dropped off of his leg and out of bounds. "Scary Terry" had come up with a huge play against a guy he almost fought with in the last game and it was Boston's ball.
Before we get to what happened next, I just want to say I was very unimpressed with Embiid and Ben Simmons in this series. Embiid played well at times but he was always out of gas at the ends of games and last night he felt pretty invisible despite his stats. When the big moment comes or the pressure mounts, he cracks and either lets his emotions get the best of him or sulks. Last night was no different as he was committing frustration fouls and missing big shots. He finished the season 0-8 on game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute which is tied for the most attempts by any player without making one in those circumstances. He's a choker and when the final buzzer went off he scurried off the court as quickly as he could.
Simmons meanwhile, just seemed very unaware of his surroundings at times and has to learn to shoot. Between that stuff and not being the best leader or very accountable at all, I'm not sold on him. He also had the lowest plus/minus of anyone in the series and mentioned postgame how tough it is to play in Boston, so good luck with that soft attitude! The Sixers will be back, and the thought of them getting LeBron scares me, but they were a dumpster fire this time around and need a lot of improvement. Brett Brown even noted postgame how if they ever plan to win anything, they know they'll have to get by the Celtics.
After Rozier knocked the ball away from Embiid, he cashed in two free throws to make it 113-109. JJ Redick drilled a three to cut the lead to one, but Marcus Smart went to the free throw line with 2.4 seconds left looking to make it a three-point game. Instead, he missed one of two and the Sixers needed a full-court heave for a shot to win or go to OT. When they chucked it down court, Smart got up and stole the ball out of the air to seal the win for Boston. The guy just makes winning plays when you need them and even though he can be frustrating at times, he's a key cog to this team.
Jayson Tatum, who isn't old enough to drink yet, grew up and became a go-to star in this series. He led the team with 25 points and along with fellow rook Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz, became the only rookies to score atleast 20 in seven straight playoff games since Dr. J in 1972. Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes (who shot the lights out from three in the series), Al Horford and Smart all scored in double figures as well. They are right up there with one of the most fun, lovable teams I've ever watched. On the Sixers side, Embiid did rack up stats. He scored 27, grabbed 10 boards, four assists and four blocks. Dario Saric, who really battled and earned respect, also scored 27 while pulling down 10 rebounds and picking up four assists, one steal and one block. Simmons and Redick also scored double digit points in the loss.
Now the Celtics will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year (it's the first time they've been to back-to-back conference finals since the original Big Three era when they went to five straight between 1984-1988 and the 25th time one of Boston's four teams has been in the final four since 2002). I'd be arrogant and yell the typical "BRING ON LEBRON" thing, but I've learned my lesson on that. The great thing now is that everything from here on out is gravy. If we beat the Cavs, that's huge. If we lose, well we were not supposed to be here and we broke some records held by our own historically good franchise.
I'm going to pick the C's though. They'll be underdogs again, as they should be to a LeBron-led squad, but I'm firmly believing in them. It feels a little crazy but I think they can pull it off this time and go to the Finals (where they will be lucky to win twice against Golden State). The official pick is Celtics in 7 over the Cavaliers. Game 1 tips at 3:30 on Sunday in Boston so get your mom a nice bouquet of flowers and then tell her you've got to get to a television. It should be a great series!
*One final note: The fact that Brad Stevens didn't get ONE SINGLE VOTE for Coach of the Year in the NBA is a crime. His peers really didn't give him any credit for this masterful job he's done? Dwayne Casey, who is about to be fired by the Raptors, won this thing and Doc Rivers, the coach of a terrible team, got a vote! Brad shrugged it off and said he wouldn't have voted for himself either, but that's because he's too humble. Best coach in the league takes a hobbled, young team to ECF yet can't get any respect. Yikes, what a joke this award is.
**Actually wait, one more: Seeing Markelle Fultz get no run at all and just be a hype man on the bench was amazing as a Celtics fan. Philly fans had to watch as the guy we traded back for, Tatum, torched them and Fultz accounted for literally nothing. Thank God for Danny Ainge.