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Game 7: Tatum Powers Celtics to Win

Jayson Tatum Game 7
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight season, the Boston Celtics faced the grim reality after falling behind 3-2 in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, this time to the Philadelphia 76ers. In front of them was the task of overcoming the 84% of the time when the team ahead 3-2 wins the series.



Even more concerning, The Celtics’ play and decision-making had sputtered in major moments through the series’ first five games. As they were squarely looking into the jaws of defeat heading into the fourth quarter in Game 6, the second-seeded Celtics were salvaged by a barrage of three-pointers from Jayson Tatum. Boston stole that game, and unfortunately for their opponent, his play woke up too prior to Game 7.


To that point, Tatum was shooting a woeful 1-14 shooting in the game. His struggles began snowballing in three consecutive games to the point where some wondered if he should be benched. However, during the last 54 minutes of the series between Game 6 and Game 7, Tatum showcased the best basketball of his career. En route to a clinching win, he put together one of the best playoff performances in recent memory to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.


Aligned History


These two teams are beyond familiar foes. The historical lineage of the rivalry fomented in the 1960s through the 1980s and has lasted because of how they have competed in building their teams.


At the 2014 NBA Draft, the 76ers drafted Joel Embiid with the third overall pick. That same year the Celtics picked Marcus Smart with the 6th pick. This initiated the start of the Celtics rebuild and ushered in the first steps in Philadelphia’s “Process.” Each year after, the teams made moves that felt like answers to each other. Whether Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, or Markelle Fultz, their decisions were similar in scope (Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and so on…)


The Celtics have had the upper hand, not just in the head-to-head matchup but in achievements. The 76ers took swings and tried to narrow the gap each year. But the Celtics have either advanced further (NBA Finals) or been the ones to send them home in the playoffs (2-0 in playoffs versus the 76ers before the series).


Heading into these playoffs, the 76ers had closed the gap. Led by MVP winner Joel Embiid, James Harden, and some nice ancillary pieces, Philadelphia was right on Celtics heels all season.


The Playoff Road Here


The 76ers were able to dispatch the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets with relative ease in the opening round. The 76ers bullied the Nets with size and a balanced attack on offense. As a team, Philadephia had 45/40/86% shooting splits for the series. They suffocated a weaker Nets team defensively by only allowing the Nets to score over 100 points once in four games. That mainly was what people expected, a four or five-game series. What was unexpected or at least unappreciated for 76ers fans was a knee injury to Embiid.


Officially diagnosed as an LCL sprain in his left knee kept Embiid out of the last game of the series and uncertain for the start of the second round. Deja vu, certainly for fans, as the Cameroon native, has dealt with varying degrees of injuries that have hampered him come playoff time.


The Celtics had a more challenging time eliminating the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. They were pushed to six games by a team of around .500 and one that fired their coach halfway through the season. The Celtics had trouble finding the right defensive coverages on Trae Young all series, and his heroics in Game 3 and Game 5 reminded fans of the Celtics flaws. The Celtics finished the series at Atlanta in Game 6 thanks to 62 combined points from Tatum and Brown.


Boston vs. Philadelphia


Perhaps more ire should have been directed at the Celtics before facing the 76ers because of their effort level in the Atlanta series. That didn’t serve as the wake-up call many predicted it would. The Celtics played down to an undermanned 76ers team in Game 1, losing on a Harden game-winner.


As Embiid returned, the Celtics would win two straight games. Harden again notched a 40-plus point performance in Game 4, and the Celtics failed to execute in the game’s final seconds on both ends. The breakdowns for the Celtics carried into the next contest. The Celtics lack of energy was countered by a 76ers team that took almost every missed opportunity and converted on it.


In Game 6, the series shifted for good. Joe Mazzulla inserted center Robert Williams III over guard Derrick White in the starting lineup. Williams III’s role was as a roamer, helping off shooters in the corner to pressure close shots and drives. It ended up working, as the 76ers were only able to score 86 and 88 points, respectively, in Game 6 and Game 7.


The 76ers could only muster three-fifths of a game’s worth of effort and execution during Game 7 on Sunday afternoon. A three-point deficit at halftime for Philadelphia ballooned to a 26-point deficit. Philadelphia went almost six minutes without scoring in the third quarter and finished the same quarter with more turnovers than made field goals.


Beyond Game 7


The headline is Tatum’s performance in the closeout game. But the deeper takeaway from the series is that, once again, the 76ers were unable to advance past the second round, and their stars didn’t show up. Harden has had to answer the critics from his entire career concerning his playoff performances, and this will be no different. Many in the organization will have to answer questions about what went wrong. Daryl Morey has some hard decisions to make, accelerated even more by an age 30 Embiid.



The Celtics passed another battle test, even if it wasn’t always pretty. The seven-game series included more growing pains than anticipated. In the regular season, The Celtics won the series 3-1 but found themselves trailing in the postseason twice. Overcoming that was due to contributions from each member of their seven-man rotation.


Since 2018 the core of this Celtics group has now played in six Game 7’s together. They are 5-1 in those games. It’s time to recognize that the Celtics are able to work through hardships better than most teams. Bouncing back from the brink is clearly a strength of theirs. It might be time to embrace their daredevil attitude.


The Celtics will begin a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat tonight on TNT.


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