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Thursday, May 04, 2023

Celtics Rout Listless 76ers, Tie Series at 1-1

Jaylen Brown (25 points on 9-17 field goal shooting) led a balanced Boston attack featuring five double figure scorers as the Celtics blew out the Philadelphia 76ers 121-87 to tie their second round series at 1-1. Interestingly, Jayson Tatum--who set Boston's regular season scoring record by averaging 30.1 ppg in 2022-23--scored just seven points. A combination of early foul trouble plus Boston's big lead limited Tatum's playing time. The Celtics never trailed after the 2:38 mark of the first quarter; if this game had been a race, it would have been Secretariat versus a three-legged mule.

If there is one important lesson to understand and remember about the NBA playoffs, it is that individual and team performances can fluctuate from game to game but by the end of a seven game series the best team will prevail (barring major injuries or unusual circumstances). After the Philadelphia 76ers sans 2022-23 regular season MVP Joel Embiid beat the Boston Celtics 119-115 in game one of this series, we heard a lot of noise about the Celtics being in trouble and the 76ers being poised to win the series after Embiid's imminent return. Anyone who follows pro basketball closely knew that James Harden's 45 point game one explosion was an aberration. We know who "playoff Harden" is: we see him every year, from the "concert tour" field goal percentages to the pathetic elimination game performances. Harden is not going to dominate a playoff series against an excellent team; he is going to have one or two good games surrounded by several bad games. This is not a newsflash, nor is it "hate": Harden's playoff resume is a matter of public record.

Embiid's return to action did not provide a boost to his team, to put it mildly. Hobbling around with a big brace on his injured knee, Embiid scored 13 points on 4-9 field goal shooting, and he grabbed just three rebounds, but he did somehow find a way to block five shots. Tobias Harris led the 76ers with 16 points.

What about Harden, the greatest scorer in NBA history? He finished with 12 points on 2-14 field goal shooting. Harden led the 76ers in rebounding (10 rebounds) and assists (four), directing an amazing offense--as only he can, according to Daryl Morey--that shot 31-79 from the field (.392).

Every year around this time, we hear the timeout huddle audio of Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers begging his team to play hard, and we heard that again in game two. Embiid and Harden give great lip service about sacrifice and about how important it is to them to win a championship. Is it too much to ask them to play hard during the playoffs? Embiid has never advanced past the second round, and Harden's epic playoff meltdowns will be remembered decades from now as some of the iconic moments of this era, so it is amazing to watch them surrender meekly against a team that has reached the Eastern Conference Finals four times in the past six seasons. What a powerful statement by the newly crowned MVP, and the former MVP who boasts about how he will do anything to win a title and about how he is built for such moments: if Harden were a manufactured product built for playoff success, he would be subject to immediate government recall for incurable, fatal defects.

The math majors out there will be quick to point out that the 76ers "did what they needed to do by getting a split on the road" and thus are in command of the series because Boston must win in Philadelphia but the 76ers do not have to win another game in Boston. The 76ers were built by tanking and "advanced basketball statistics," so this series is all about math--and, after the 76ers lose the series while Harden disappears in the elimination game, it will be all about excuses.   

There are precious few certainties in this world: Death, taxes, Harden choking in the playoffs, and teams led by Embiid and Harden not playing hard after the first round of the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM



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