How Jayson Tatum and the Celtics dominated the 76ers to advance to the Eastern Conference finals

How Jayson Tatum and the Celtics dominated the 76ers to advance to the Eastern Conference finals

After rallying to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 to keep their season alive, the Boston Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a dominant 112-88 win in Game 7. A third-quarter surge led by Jayson Tatum, who rebounded from his 5-for-21 shooting performance in Game 6 to post 51 points in Game 7, turned this into a blowout.

After rallying to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 to keep their season alive, the Boston Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a dominant 112-88 win in Game 7. A third-quarter surge led by Jayson Tatum, who rebounded from his 5-for-21 shooting performance in Game 6 to post 51 points in Game 7, turned this into a blowout. Boston will make the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four years and fifth time in the last seven. Philadelphia, meanwhile, extends its conference finals drought to 22 seasons.

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BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla walked out to midcourt in a hurry Sunday afternoon. After signaling for a timeout, he blasted one of the referees, pointing to different spots on the court to emphasize his message. The Celtics coach almost always huddles with a group of his assistants before addressing the players, but skipped that step this time, spinning straight for the bench after concluding his brief chat with the official.

With veins popping out of his neck, Mazzulla addressed the players next. Three minutes into the second quarter of Game 7, the flames of ruthless competitiveness lit up his face. With a five-point deficit already and James Harden stepping to the free-throw line for two shots, the most important moment of the season sat waiting on the other side of the timeout. Mazzulla called for the Celtics to seize it.

“We have to shift the momentum,” Mazzulla said. “We have to get it back.”

It would be easy to remember the Celtics’ 112-88 win as a laugher, a blowout, a TD Garden celebration. It became those things in the second half as Jayson Tatum, who poured in 51 points, and raced toward the highest-scoring Game 7 in NBA history. His special outing helped set up an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Miami Heat. But before all that, Boston needed to break through the tension of a slow start.

BOSTON — On Sunday morning, Jayson Tatum looked down at his phone to see a photo coming in from his skill trainer Drew Hanlen.

Tatum needed to rise to the occasion, find his swagger and save the Celtics’ season yet again. So Hanlen sent two things to prepare him for what could be a crucial game in his career.

One was a video of him burying side-step 3-pointers, a reminder of who Tatum is at his best. Then Hanlen sent him a screenshot from StatMuse of Steph Curry’s record of 50 points in a Game 7 set just a few weeks ago.

“He started out last game with a mentality of I have to be perfect from the jump,” Hanlen told The Athletic after the Celtics beat the 76ers 112-88 to come back from a 3-2 deficit in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the second straight season. “Tonight, he was relaxed before the game, he was loose, and he just trusted himself. The rest was history.”

BOSTON — The Philadelphia 76ers have won a bunch of games since Joel Embiid stepped onto the floor for the franchise. The issue is that none of those wins have come after the middle of May, which are the victories that all 30 NBA franchises covet.

Since Embiid’s second season on the floor in 2017-18, the Sixers have a regular-season record of 300-173. They won 54 regular-season games, the franchise’s highest number since the magical 2000-01 campaign. Embiid, who was voted the NBA’s most valuable player this season, has been at the center of that sustained success.

And yet, the story ends the same way every season: The Sixers earn one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference with 50-something wins, and like clockwork, they lose in the second round. After a humiliating 112-88 loss to the Boston Celtics at a jubilant TD Garden on Sunday, the Sixers have made the second round of the playoffs in five of the past six years … and have lost all five times.

And now, perhaps more than ever during this stretch, it is clear that Embiid is not exactly an innocent bystander to all the playoff flameouts.

“I’m not gonna overreact,” Embiid said after the Sixers season ended in Boston with a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “I gotta be better, I guess that’s on me. If you want to call me the best player on the team, every failure and every loss, no matter what, I guess you can put on the best player.

“I’ll take it all and it’s all on me. It’s hard to win alone, but it’s all on me. I just got to be better and I will be better. And every time I say it, I always find a way to get better.”

Joe Mazzulla is 34 years old, which to me makes him Rhody Joe, the unproven kid coach from Rhode Island. He has made mistakes this season, plenty of them, and there’s this perception that it’s his players who run the room, as when they seemingly coerced their coach into starting Robert Williams III over Derrick White. Or maybe here’s another way to look at it: Perhaps Mazzulla simply listened to what they had to say.

What matters, for now, is that it’s pointless to levy any big-picture criticisms at Mazzulla. In a world of what have you done for me lately, what Rhody Joe Young has done is get the Celtics to play their best game of the season just as they are going to step into the ring against the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Mazzulla doesn’t always bring just the box of X’s and O’s with him for these postgame media availabilities. Sometimes he brings a box of chocolates as well. Now I ask you: Have you ever heard a coach say how much he loves this or that player as often as this cat does?

Asked a question about how to keep Jayson Tatum from being pressured by all the “outside forces” that come with a Game 7, Mazzulla said, “I told him that I love him and that when the game starts don’t listen to people (by trying) to get out on a good start scoring. You’re not defined by scoring in my book, and that’s most important.”

That's the new record for the most Game 7 points in NBA history: Jayson Tatum – 51 on the 76ers.

With Boston's impending win, it's now official: the 2023 conference finals will be the exact same as the 2020 conference finals in the bubble. Miami vs. Boston on one side. Lakers vs. Denver on the other.

And that's 51. Jayson Tatum hits a 3 over Joel Embiid with seven and a half minutes left to eclipse the big five-oh. Celtics by 26. Counting the last quarter of Game 6, Tatum has now scored 67 points in his last four-and-a half quarters. What a response.

What happens when you make playoffs 5+ years in a row and can't make conference finals?

That was the Sixers’ nightmare quarter, a 33-10 Boston romp. They can’t make a 3-pointer while the Celtics rain fire on the other end, James Harden and Joel Embiid go out with a whimper and Jayson Tatum plays a flawless game in the biggest moment. The Sixers will now face an offseason full of uncertainty (and likely, change), regretting the massive opportunity they had to get over the hump in Game 6.

Another elite defensive game from Al Horford, who not only has been locking up Embiid all over the court and forcing multiple turnovers, but he has been great at rotating to the weak side too when the Celtics double.

Outside of Jayson Tatum's heater, the biggest story of this game is Boston's pick-and-roll defense on James Harden and Joel Embiid. Beginning in Game 6, the Celtics used an unconventional scheme where Al Horford stuck to Embiid instead of helping on Harden, with Robert Williams III flying off PJ Tucker in the corner to pick up the ball. The Celtics fine-tuned that approach over the course of the game, with Harden's initial defender peeling off to the corner to pick up Tucker or whichever 76er was there while that man helped on the drive. They also shifted the weak side elbow defender down into the gap between Tucker and the elbow to make Tucker hesitate on the read off the catch. that really took the wind out of Philly's offense.

Early on, the 76ers appeared to solve that problem in Game 7 by having Harden drive hard, force help and kick to Tucker or another open shooter quickly. But in problem-solving in this manner, the 76ers were actually playing into Boston's hands. Harden refused to drive to finish, while Embiid didn't get the ball in his preferred office around the elbow area because Horford stuck closely to him.

The result so far? A combined 7-24 from the field, six turnover performance from Harden and Embiid, the battery for the best pick-and-roll in the NBA this season, through two and a half quarters.

Jayson Tatum is hunting the MVP and putting him on an island right now. Already up to 30 points in what is shaping up to be one of the signature games of his career if it keeps going this way.

Joel Embiid offered no resistance on the last two switches onto Jayson Tatum. One layup, one stepback 3. Thirty already for Tatum and we're just a few minutes into the third quarter. Boston leads by 7. More concerning: Embiid is already trotting back as if he's exhausted.

This has kept this game going back and forth as they keep countering each other’s adjustments. The Sixers did a great job taking advantage of Rob Williams’ spacing on both ends of the floor to get PJ Tucker open 3s and close off the lanes on the defensive end so the Celtics kept getting blocked on tough layup attempts. Then Joe Mazzulla figured out how to live in the gaps on defense to take away the weak-side 3s and start pushing in transition. Al Horford hitting shots has been massive for Boston keeping up with Tucker stepping up, but this game has been all Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on offense for Boston.

It’s a bit reductive, but Jayson Tatum was awesome and Joel Embiid and James Harden were not. The Sixers should feel decent about going into halftime only down three with that discrepancy, if they can get their stars going in the second half.

One of the Celtics coaches told me before the game Jayson Tatum was going for 50 tonight. He’s halfway there at halftime.

You get the sense Boston is trying to throw a knockout punch, led by Jayson Tatum and his 18 first-half points. But the 76ers are hanging around despite a brutal game from James Harden and a mediocre one from Joel Embiid. Credit Tyrese Maxey for making a couple big plays to keep them in front.

It appeared Georges Niang grabbed Jaylen Brown's leg from the Sixers' bench as Boston's star was trying to run down the floor. Instead of continuing on, Brown turned to the Sixers' bench and picked up a technical foul. But now the refs are reviewing the action, and you have to think this call will change