The Celtics were probably going to win Game 2 no matter what happened in the last 30 seconds. They’d already come back from a 22-point deficit and were ahead by three with half a minute to play. But the Sixers did something to lessen their already-small chances of winning late last night: They didn’t foul.
This has nothing to do with how the final 30 seconds ended up playing out: Al Horford blowing past Joel Embiid and hitting a layup to clinch the game for the Celtics. The decision not to foul was not even Brett Brown’s worst coaching decision of the night. But it really hurt any chance of the Sixers stealing Game 2.
Here’s what happened: Dario Šarić hit a layup with 30 seconds left to make it 104-101. And then the Sixers just decided to play it out: they’d attempt to make one more defensive stop on Boston, then would try to tie it with a three before the fourth-quarter buzzer.
But with only 30 seconds left, the Sixers set themselves up for failure. Consider the best-case scenario in this situation: The Celtics miss a shot, and the Sixers get the ball back with five or six seconds to play down three points. That’s not great! The Celtics could then foul themselves and send the Sixers to the line, preventing Philly from even getting a look at the game-tying basket. And even if the Sixers got a three off and it went in, they don’t win—the game just goes to OT.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of scenarios where the Sixers don’t even get to take another good, meaningful shot. The Celtics could miss but get an offensive rebound. The Sixers might get the ball with so little time left they don’t get a good look. Or Horford could catch Embiid flat-footed, drive by him and clinch the game with an uncontested layup.
A team that is down three with 30 seconds left needs more than anything else to extend the game. It needs more possessions. Fouling is the only consistent way to do that. After Šarić scored with 30 seconds left, the Sixers should’ve quickly tried to steal the ball. If they failed, they should’ve fouled. Is it likely the Celtics miss enough free throws to get the Sixers back into the game? Not really. The Sixers almost certainly still would not have won, but they sure would’ve had a better chance.