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Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Embiid and Maxey Lead the Way as Sixers Silence Celtics in Boston

The best sound for a road team to hear--particularly in the playoffs--is silence. After the Philadelphia 76ers pushed their second half lead over the Boston Celtics to 21 points, the Boston Garden silence was deafening and stunning. The fans and the players alike knew that the 76ers would have a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals with a home win in game six. Philadelphia's 115-103 game five victory is surprising both because of the 76ers' recent propensity to fold in this round of the playoffs and because the Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference Finals four times in the past six seasons.

Joel Embiid scored a team-high 33 points and he had a game-high four blocked shots. His field goal shooting (10-23) and rebounding (seven) were not dominant, but this is yet another example of the numbers not always telling the full story. The attention that Embiid attracted on offense opened up opportunities for his teammates as the 76ers shot .506 from the field, and Embiid's imposing presence in the paint played a major role in limiting the Celtics to .398 field goal shooting. Tyrese Maxey added 30 points and seven rebounds, while James Harden contributed 17 points, a game-high 10 assists, and eight rebounds. Tobias Harris scored 16 points, snatched a game-high 11 rebounds, and played excellent defense despite being limited at times by foul trouble.

This playoff series has had many vicissitudes, which is not unusual, but the 76ers may have found a formula for sustained success: flypaper sticky team defense anchored by Embiid in the paint, and an offense featuring Embiid as the first option, Maxey as the second option, and Harden as the third scoring option/primary playmaker.

While the 76ers appear to have the answers, the Celtics--whose motto for this season is "Unfinished Business"--are left with many unsettling questions:

1) Can they slow down Embiid without unleashing the 76ers' perimeter players?

2) Can they figure out a way to get Jayson Tatum going early in the game?

3) Can they get any production out of their bench, which was invisible for most of game five until racking up some meaningless buckets in garbage time?

Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 36 points, but he shot just 11-27 from the field and he was invisible in the first quarter as the 76ers took a 33-26 lead by the end of the opening stanza. Tatum's floor game was good--he finished with 10 rebounds, five assists, and two steals--but the Celtics need more consistency and better efficiency from a player who finished fourth in this season's regular season MVP voting. Jaylen Brown scored 24 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. He is consistent and reliable, but he does not seem to be a player who can just take over a game or a series. Marcus Smart was the only other Celtic who scored in double figures, but when the third option has 14 points on 2-7 field goal shooting that usually adds up to a loss. 

It is possible that the Celtics will get a big road win in game six and then survive and advance by taking game seven at home--but that will require a lot more focus and energy than the Celtics displayed in game five.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM



At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 11:52:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

The Celtics were in this exact situation last year against Milwaukee and I like their chances of forcing a game 7 win at home. I certainly didn't think the 76ers would be up 3-2 after game five and if they do advance to the ECFs it will be a fully deserved appearance and a huge moment for the franchise, though I still think that Boston will ultimately advance.

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 12:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that Boston has the better team, but it is risky to keep putting yourself in must-win situations. What if Embiid goes off for 40 points in game six, or what if Harden has another 40 point explosion? I expected the Celtics to win this series, but not to sweep, which means that I knew that the 76ers are good enough to win a game or two on merit. What if the 76ers win game six on merit? Then it won't matter that the Celtics have the better team and should have ended the series earlier.

The Celtics should win this series and they are capable of winning two games in a row, but they should not have placed themselves in this predicament. They should have won game one when Embiid was out, and they should have won game four with a five point lead with two minutes left in regulation. Those two stumbles may prove to be costly, because if the Celtics had taken care of business then they would be in command instead of being one game away from elimination.

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 3:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't see the game, but by the box score, I'm following up on last comment re Harden's game letter grades:

Game 1 (win): A+, more than 40 pts in getting the win in Boston without MVP Embiid; while trailing, Harden hit the game-winning 3 in last minute
Game 2 (loss): F, "concert tour" FG%
Game 3 (loss): F, "concert tour" FG%
Game 4 (win): A+, more than 40 pts in getting the win in pivotal game; while trailing, Harden hit the game-winning FG in last minute
Game 5 (win): A-/B+, deferred to others on offense (few FG attempts), while posting a near triple-double in key road win by decisive margin

agree or disagree?

I previously said for Games 1-4, his inconsistent performances were better than straight Bs. If he gets straight Bs in Games 1-4, the Sixers lose G1 and G4, which means the best they can possibly do is to go 2-2 (by winning G2 and G3) -- and that's the same 2-2 record they actually had with his actual performance (leading to wins in G1 and G4). With straight Bs, there's no guarantee they win G2 and G3, so if he gets straight Bs, then they may be down 1-3 or swept 0-4. so how is team better off with straight Bs?

also, you've said character matters in Lillard's loyalty to Portland, so what about JH's character with shooting victim, https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/08/sport/james-harden-john-hao-76ers-celtics-spt-intl/index.html

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 4:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I'd give Harden a B for game 5--he was below his scoring average, below his assists average, and above his rebounding average.

We have a different general perspective about this. I find it unacceptable for the $33 million, allegedly MVP-level player to have any F games, let alone two F games in a three game stretch.

Regarding whether or not 4 Bs would be better than two As and two Fs, you are making unfounded assumptions in reaching your conclusion. You assume that the 76ers would not have won if the As had been Bs, but I am not sure that is correct. You also do not take into account the effect that it has on a team when a key player could produce an A or an F at any time. If we know to expect Bs, we can adjust accordingly. If we don't know if we are getting As or Fs, that is a big problem.

I don't believe that a key player who produces that many Fs can be the primary option on a championship team, and I am skeptical if he can be the second option on a championship team. Harden has a golden opportunity to prove me wrong during this postseason. I've been right about him for 10 years, so I am not too concerned that my Harden theory will be refuted.

Obviously, what Harden has done for the shooting victim is very nice and speaks positively about Harden. I found it interesting that Harden took great pains to make sure that every media outlet knew what he was doing. There are many NBA players who do great things but take great pains to make sure that their actions are not publicized. I am not questioning Harden's sincere desire to help and to be a good person, but he does seem to be seeking a lot of publicity and credit. Did the shoe signing have to take place on the court during his postgame interview? I don't know the answer. Maybe that was pre-arranged, and maybe the shooting victim was thrilled to be on the court. It might have been even nicer to have a private meeting with Harden in the back, away from the cameras and the noise. Again, I don't know the answer.

I don't know Harden as a person--I've never met him, spoken with him, or interacted with him. I judge him strictly as a basketball player, and many of my judgments are not just about him but about those who overrate him (Morey, "stat gurus," various media members).

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 6:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the kind of thing that worries me with these Celtics; they just don't seem to be able to consistently "lock in" during the most important games.

On paper, they are more talented than any team in the league. But that was true last year as well and when it came down to it, the Warriors were better on the court--and even on Boston's court, winning two of three Finals games there.

I share your doubts about Philly but even if Boston can come back and win this series they have likely given Miami four extra days of rest for Butler to heal his ankle and for Spoelstra to fine-tune their game plans, and they may be costly in its own right. Likewise, they have put two unnecessary extra games of mileage on Old Al Horford (finally looking his age five games in) and injury-prone Robert Williams.

Between that and the Warriors being in the hole against LA (and similarly giving up any possibility of rest for their old team even if they can come back from 3-1), I think Denver has to be the clean favorite for now. Perhaps Phoenix will nuke them over the next two games and change the math again, but right now they feel unbeatable at home and "good enough" on the road.

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 6:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the margin of victory was razor thin in G1, G4 -- couldn't possibly have been a smaller margin of victory in either of those games; so I don't see how they win either game with Bs (or even B+ or A-)?

Lillard was public too about proclaiming loyalty to Portland

I'm not saying Harden is primary option generally; just discussing his performance in this series -- where I think he deserves a ton of credit overall (taking into account Fs in G2, G3, and irrespective of failures in past postseasons)

-- same Anonymous from earlier

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 7:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Celtics are puzzling. Despite the flaws that you mention, they have made the Eastern Conference Finals four times in six years, and last year they reached the NBA Finals. So, they are doing something right--but it does seem like they should be more consistent from game to game. If they win this series, then all of that talk becomes a footnote, so right now all we can do is wait to see what happens before drawing sweeping conclusions. Bill Russell's Celtics came back from 3-1 down to beat the 76ers once; does that mean that Russell's Celtics lacked focus?

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 7:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know what might have happened in game one if Harden had played differently and neither do you. Also, Harden playing differently would not happen in a vacuum; if he did less, than other players might have done more.

The larger point is that you are proposing a theory that two "A" games and two "F" games are better than four "B" games. That theory is only correct if it is applicable broadly, not just for one game or one series. My contention is that, for the reasons I have already stated and thus will not repeat, four "B" games are better than two "A" games and two "F" games.

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 9:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to say that Russell's Celtics are a bit of a different beast. When they went down 3-1, they were the underdogs to the defending champions with three Top 50 players, and had already won nine titles. Old James Harden would not have been the third best player on that Sixers team, let alone the second (and fourth option Chet Walker was no bum himself), and I believe that team's MVP (Wilt) was fully healthy if perhaps starting to make bedroom eyes at LA from afar.

That is somewhat more understandable than going down 3-1 to a team with James Harden and a one-legged Joel Embiid.

This is also not an isolated incident for these Celtics. Even in series they win they tend to fart around more than they should. They let an undermanned Miami team hang around last year, failed to put away the Warriors (understandable but disappointing), and they played with their food with Atlanta this year. Going back further, in 2020 they lost to a Heat team that was really only four players deep before getting to near-replacement level role players like Jae Crowder and Duncan Robinson, and in 2018 they lost in seven to a team that was ostensibly Lebron James, a rapidly decaying Kevin Love, and the Washington Generals.

This is not one series or one game for them, it is a pattern (I was complaining about this flaw before the 76ers series had even started). Though I would argue it has been worse this year under the new coach than it was last year, when Ime seemed to more often be able to snap them out of it.

It is not necessarily a fatal flaw, given how mortal every other remaining team looks in their own ways, but Boston is certainly making things harder on themselves than they need to. You could argue they should be comfortably resting after a 4-1 win right now instead of fighting for their lives.

At Wednesday, May 10, 2023 11:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I understand that Russell's Celtics and Wilt's 76ers are different. My point is that even a team as great as Russell's Celtics can fall behind 3-1 in a series. The Celtics were clearly good enough to win the series, because they won the last three.

It is difficult to win playoff games and playoff series. The players are not robots who will just automatically produce their exact statistical averages every game.

I don't know what to make of the Celtics, but I will have a little bit of a better idea after game six (and game seven, if necessary). If the Celtics win this series, then this is just a continuation of them responding after they are pushed to the brink (as they did against Milwaukee last year). If they lose this series--particularly if they lose without putting up much of a fight--then that raises some questions.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 11:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess where we differ is that I feel like even if they win, there's a cost to all these extra games and miles.

The good news for them is that every other second-round series is also going long, so that cost may not be as high as it could if Miami had swept or if the West had a dominant team knocking out every opponent in 4-5 games.

Still, the Celtics are very thin in the paint and their only two "true" big are the kinds of players I most worry about logging extra playoff minutes. If the Celtics win the series but Robert Williams gets hurt in Game 7 or Al Horford just can't get his legs back under him for the rest of the playoff run, that would still be a major self-inflicted wound, likely a big enough one that even if they win the battle it will cost them the war.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 11:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Regarding your comment about Lillard publicly speaking about his loyalty to Portland, whether or not Lillard stays with the Trail Blazers is by definition a matter of public interest. His reasons for wanting to stay or wanting to leave are relevant to the team, his teammates, and the fans.

If Harden is helping someone because he is a good person who wants to help, then he can do that without making social media posts, without bringing the person he is helping on to the court during his nationally televised interview, and without doing so many things to bring attention to himself. I am not questioning Harden's sincerity, but I am pointing out that Harden did everything he could to make sure that the whole country knew about his charitable activity. There are many NBA players who are doing charitable activities without seeking publicity. When Harden speaks about his game and basketball in general he lacks self-awareness and humility (look up his comments about Giannis), so it is not surprising that when he does something to help another person he makes himself the center of attention.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 11:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Obviously, it is ideal to win in as few games as possible with players logging as few minutes as possible. The Celtics won 57 games this season and the 76ers won 54 games this season. I believe that the Celtics have the better team, but on paper this is not a huge mismatch. If the Celtics win in seven games is that a major indictment of their focus and their coaching? You are passing judgment before we know the outcome. If the Celtics lose the series, then perhaps they need to reevaluate some things, but--as I noted with my Bill Russell example--even some of the greatest players and teams of all-time fell way behind in playoff series before battling back.

Many "stat gurus" use numbers in an uninformed way, and they have influenced people to think about things in an uninformed way. The home team is not going to win every game and the superior team is not going to win every game. If Boston should be, say, a 60% favorite to beat the 76ers in a seven game series that also means that if they played 10 seven game series the 76ers would win four of them. Not every loss is a failure or a catastrophe signaling that the coach should be fired.

I picked Boston to win the series, and I will be disappointed if the Celtics lose because I like to be right (and because I find it very annoying to watch how Harden plays, and because I don't want the 76ers to be rewarded in any way for years of tanking). However, it is not a stunning development if a 54 win team wins a seven game series against a 57 win team.

Between the "stat gurus" not understanding numbers and guys like "Screamin' A" overreacting to every game, it is difficult to cultivate intelligent dialogue about sports and competition.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 12:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To your point, the games are not played on paper. It is one thing for a 57 win team to have a close series against a 54 win team. It is another to watch that 57 win team frit away two winnable games in crunchtime to James Harden of all people (one of them with no Embiid) and a 54 win team that isn't even playing particularly well, and get blown out in a third.

The Warriors are also down 3-2, but the Warriors' losses felt less to be an issue of effort or intensity, and more the Lakers exploiting matchup advantages the Warriors simply had no answer to (and getting to the line at a high rate didn't hurt). The Warriors look competitive with the Lakers when the free throw gap isn't too high and/or their high-variance three point shots are falling, and they struggle when neither of those things are true (though they seem to have found something offensively with their new lineup). Their struggles feel primarily systemic, not psychological.

The Knicks and Suns are also down 3-2, but in their cases they both seem to just not have the same level of talent and/or depth as their opponents. There is no one on New York who can guard Jimmy Butler and there is no one on Phoenix who can guard Jokic, and they simply don't have the horses to guard everyone else at the same time. Their struggles also feel primarily systemic.

You could argue that any of those teams perhaps "should" be up 3-2 instead of down, but Boston is the one team that feels like they "should" have already won the series. Embiid has not been dominant and Boston is overstocked with strong perimeter defenders who ought to be able to mitigate Harden/Maxey/Harris, but they have not played with the energy and focus necessary to do so.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 12:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should also clarify I am not advocating for any coaches to be fired. The Celtics are still a very good team and a title contender, but the difference between who they are and who they could be seems to be largely a psychological issue, not a talent one.

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 12:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Unless someone does a detailed analysis of every series in NBA playoff history to see which games were "frittered away," which games were won based on talent differential, and which games were won due to injuries/other factors, I am not sure how to respond to your point beyond what I have already said.

We agree that on paper Boston is the better team and "should" win the series. If Maxey does not steal the ball a fraction of a second before the shot clock expired and then dribble down court for an uncontested layup, the series would likely be 3-2 in Boston's favor now, which would be the "expected" score. Should our entire perspective of both teams be shaped by that one play?

It seems to me that you have preconceived narratives about what "should" be happening in each series. I am attempting to analyze what has actually happened, and I try to avoid making sweeping conclusions from small sample sizes. If the Celtics were up 3-2 instead of down 3-2 that would not change my opinions of the coaching abilities of Mazzulla and Rivers. Mazzulla is still building his coaching resume, while Rivers has a large coaching resume filled with both highs and lows (some of which were not his fault).

At Thursday, May 11, 2023 10:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Game 6: D/F; tentative down stretch, plus terrible shooting and TOs

I call it like it is

Jimmy B is a better post-season player than anyone on these teams

-- Anon from before (Harden grading)

At Friday, May 12, 2023 12:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Three D/F performances out of six is pretty bad for a $33 million dollar player who won an MVP and was voted on to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team.


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