In the most basic sense, there’s the 22-point comeback. There’s also the complete disassembling of Ben Simmons and Terry Rozier’s fearlessness and Al Horford’s craft and a whole host of other things that explain how a Boston Celtics team missing both its two best players and a full-strength Jaylen Brown have taken a 2-0 series lead over the healthier and significantly more talented Sixers. But the simplest way to explain how all this has happened is to say that the Celtics are in complete control.
Look at what they did to Joel Embiid last night. It’s one thing for a well-coached defense to force a rookie point guard who cannot shoot from outside into a career-worst game, but the Celtics also did a number on Embiid, an essentially flawless player for whom there are no obvious countermeasures. Boston managed to hold him to 20 points on 22 shots, but it was how they neutralized Embiid’s defensive impact at the end of the game that was most impressive.
Embiid entered the fourth quarter in no immediate foul trouble, with just two personals on his tab. Even when Marcus Morris drove to the hoop, pump-faked, and baited Embiid into committing his third foul with just over 10 minutes left to play, there didn’t seem to be much to worry about. But that pump fake, which wasn’t even particularly crafty and should have been easily ignored, seemed to reveal something to the Celtics. A few minutes later, Jayson Tatum drove to the exact same spot where Morris had drawn his foul, threw almost the exact same pump fake at Embiid, and drew another foul. Suddenly Embiid had four fouls, and it was time for Al Horford to go to work on him. After receiving a pass at the top of the key, Horford just sort of eased his big body toward the rim with Embiid on his hip, and went straight to the floor once he sensed enough contact to merit a foul. He got the call, and with just under five minutes left to play, Embiid was one more foul away from the bench.
Scores of more noticeably meaningful basketball plays were happening while the Celtics were coaxing three late fouls out of Embiid, but I’m not sure if any of them were as important. Less than a minute after picking up that fifth foul, Embiid found himself having to close out on Horford at the three-point line. He made the sort of indecisive defensive play guys with five fouls tend to make, planting himself in no-man’s land and allowing Horford to drive and kick to Rozier for an open three:
Then it was Rozier giving Embiid the same business. Matched up with the big man on the perimeter, Rozier scooted right past Embiid and laid the ball in, knowing that a foul-strapped Embiid wasn’t about to risk attempting a heroic block.
In the dying seconds of the game and with the Celtics needing one more basket to wrap things up, it was time for Embiid to get cooked one more time. Just like Rozier had done previously, Horford went right around the Sixers’ center and fearlessly put the ball in the hoop. Embiid, perhaps convinced that his fouls would be carrying over to Game 3, remained rooted to the ground:
Those plays accounted for seven crucial, crunch-time points that swung what ended up being a five-point game. I’m not sure if any of them would have unfolded they way they did if the Celtics had not put in the earlier work of getting Embiid into foul trouble.
Teams have been failing to come up with viable answers to the question of how to beat the Sixers since the All-Star break. The Heat spent five games in the first round proving that trying to fight and fluster them doesn’t work, but the Celtics are finding success with a more measured approach. They’re simply dictating the course of the game, in ways both big and small. It feels like every possession—with the exception of those that end with Marcus Smart stepping back for a three—has unfolded on terms that are most beneficial to the Celtics. They just aren’t letting even the slightest advantage pass them by.
Highlight reels teach us that playoff games are won and lost in the big, cinematic moments, but these Celtics, a team currently without a classic creator or shot-maker, are showing how big games can be won through work in the margins. You’ll have to go elsewhere to get a real endorphin rush; here you’ll find a few well-timed pump fakes, and a team that knows exactly how and when to exploit the results.