It’s not that the Sixers are dumb. They’re not. They are, in fact, quite tough and disciplined. But it is also true that their best players are children, and they are playing a series against one of the very sharpest, most wisely and meticulously coached NBA teams you will ever see. And the consequence of that dynamic is a series that Boston now leads 3-0, after a wonderfully entertaining, fiercely competitive Game 3.
Before we get to the various late-game fuck-ups by the Sixers, we have to talk about Jayson Tatum. Listen. If Tatum improves the way you’d expect a blue-chip 20-year-old playing rotation minutes as a rookie to improve—steadily, and significantly—someday soon he is going to be wielding terrifying cosmic power as he reigns over humanity from atop a throne of skulls. Tatum played 41 minutes Saturday; he knocked down 11 of his 17 shots, and finished a game-high plus-24. Yes, box-score plus-minus is an imperfect stat. But it is also true that the Celtics were dramatically better with him on the floor than off, and that he was the best player in this game for huge, long stretches, and that the Sixers, with all their athletes and an impressive defensive pedigree of their own, have not been able to find a way to make Tatum a vulnerability for the Celtics, at either end. He was huge in this one:
Doris Burke was euphoric watching Tatum make huge clutch buckets down the stretch tonight. With about 1:40 left on the clock in regulation, Tatum dug a shoulder into Ben Simmons’s rib cage on a righty drive, then stepped back and dropped in a jumper over a tough contest to bring the Celtics even. In overtime, with the Celtics down four points—incidentally, the largest deficit either team faced after the end of the third quarter came when Philly took a five-point lead in overtime—Tatum used a nice setup dribble and a mean first step to drive on Joel Embiid, then calmly pump-faked Embiid out of the play and dropped in a layup over a helping Dario Saric. With the lead back at four, the Celtics moved it to Tatum on the left wing, where he pump-faked Belinelli and drove directly into Embiid, finishing with a tough lefty layup through contact, against one of the NBA’s great rim-protectors. Tatum turned 20 just two months ago, and he is already the go-to shot-creator for a team that is in all likelihood headed to the Eastern Conference finals. That’s insane!
Now we must talk about the Sixers. They blew this one. They had possession and plenty of clock to take the final shot of regulation with the score tied at 87, but a mixup between J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons led to an absolutely brutal live-ball turnover, when Redick passed the ball to empty space at the top of the key. Rozier chased down the loose ball and raced the other way before dropping it off to Jaylen Brown for the go-ahead bucket. Simmons, notably, never bothered to run back on defense in transition.
The Sixers survived that disaster via Belinelli’s heroic buzzer-beater, and jumped out to the lead in overtime. With the Sixers clinging to a two-point lead with 46 seconds left on the clock, the Celtics pressured the ball up high and forced Embiid to recover a loose ball near half court; Embiid, who looked tired as shit for most of the fourth quarter and overtime, made a terrible pass that wound up bouncing, once again, to a streaking Rozier, who passed ahead to Al Horford, racing into the lane. Embiid did well to foul Horford and prevent the game-tying bucket, but it was another Sixers possession that could’ve basically sealed the game that wound up resulting in a Celtics breakaway. Horford made one of two from the stripe to bring the lead to one.
The ensuing possession is the one the Sixers will really, really want back. Embiid wound up with the ball working in isolation on the block. Remember, the Sixers were up one. Embiid went to a turnaround jumper that rimmed out, but Ben Simmons—who recovered his lost aggression in this game and scored well all night, but finished minus-11—snagged the offensive rebound on the right block with 18 seconds on the clock.
Okay. The NBA shot clock lasts 24 seconds. The Sixers were up one point. The Celtics had to get the ball back in order to tie or win the game, and the 18 seconds left on the game clock would not provide such an opportunity. The thing for Simmons to do, there, was to come down with the ball, back it out, pass it out, call timeout, do anything at all except provide a way for the Celtics to gain possession. Given his notorious struggles as a free throw shooter, the worst thing that could happen, should the Sixers keep possession, is Simmons shooting a couple free throws. But that is not what happened. What happened, instead, is Simmons panicked terribly and threw up a very bad and completely baffling floating jump hook, when he’d barely established possession of the ball. It missed, and the Celtics took possession with plenty of time for a good possession, plus a couple timeouts to plan their move. It was an incomprehensible error for a player with Simmons’s general court awareness and savvy, and it very likely cost the Sixers the game and any realistic shot at the series.
And that wasn’t even the end of the Sixers engineering their own demise! Good pressure on the ensuing inbounds forced Brad Stevens to use his final timeout to avoid a five-second penalty. On the second try, the Celtics took advantage of the Sixers switching everything on screens to drag Embiid out to the perimeter, and wound up with Robert Covington, who was awful in this one, pinned on the wrong side of Al Horford, in the lane. Horford sealed Covington outside and gathered an over-the-top pass from Marcus Morris, then dropped in the eventual game-winner. Switching in these late-game after-time-out situations is common, but the Sixers deliberately took Embiid off the inbounder, where he was sure to influence the play, and moved him to where he could conceivably be dragged away from the action, and that is at the very least a regrettable tactical error.
But the Sixers had a perfectly fine chance to get a game-winner of their own. Brett Brown spent a timeout to draw up a play and advance the ball to the front court. Simmons, doing the inbounding, bounced far too careless and nonchalant a pass to Embiid, cutting to the top of the key. Horford, right on Embiid’s hip the whole way, cut in front and tapped the ball away, where he was able to chase it down and push the ball ahead the other way. Embiid was forced to foul Horford, and Horford’s free throws established the final margin. The Celtics are tough and versatile, but the Sixers made every damn error down the stretch of this game.
As impossible as it is to believe, the Celtics are now on the brink of sweeping the 76ers. They were definitively better in both Boston games, but this one really could’ve gone either way. The Celtics seemed like they were in control for much of the first half, but the scoreboard says the Sixers won both the first and the second quarter. And the Sixers seemed like they were ready to break out throughout the second half, but the scoreboard once again says the game went the other way. The main takeaway, beyond that this series is now basically over, is this: the Sixers absolutely could’ve won tonight, but in the end they stacked up too many bone-headed errors. And they happen to be facing a relentless Celtics team positioned to pounce on every single one of them.