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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Teetering Tatum Steadies Himself, Saves Celtics in Fourth Quarter

For most of game six, Jayson Tatum's shot was so off target that he could not have hit the broad side of a barn with a laser-guided bazooka--but with the game on the line and the season at stake, Tatum scored 16 fourth quarter points on 4-8 field goal shooting (including 4-5 from three point range) to lead the Boston Celtics to a 95-86 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers had a golden opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, but they scored just 13 fourth quarter points on 5-20 field goal shooting (.250). It should surprise no one that James Harden scored zero points on 0-4 field goal shooting in the final stanza, a fitting conclusion to yet another "concert tour" performance for Harden, who thought that May 11 was April 16 (4/16 field goal shooting, 13 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five turnovers)--and yes, I will keep mentioning that Daryl Morey insists that Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan until Morey publicly retracts one of the most absurd player comparisons ever made by an NBA executive.

Marcus Smart was the only Celtic who scored more than 20 points (22 points on 8-15 field goal shooting). Tatum finished with 19 points on 5-21 field goal shooting, plus nine rebounds, six assists, two steals, and two blocked shots; his overall shooting numbers are obviously and indisputably ugly, but both teams shot poorly in a defensive struggle, and when the game could have gone either way Tatum took control and made sure that the Celtics won. Jaylen Brown had a solid game (17 points, six rebounds, four assists). Robert Williams III, inserted into the starting lineup in place of Derrick White, had a huge impact with his athleticism, amassing a game-best +18 plus/minus number (tied with Smart) while scoring 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and blocking two shots. Malcolm Brogdon scored 16 points off of the bench.

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey scored 26 points each. Embiid shot 9-19 from the field while snaring 10 rebounds and blocking three shots. Embiid was not the reason that the 76ers lost--but he also did not impose his presence on the game and dominate so that he would be the reason that they won. Maxey shot 9-20 from the field, and he played tenacious defense, which is not something he is known for doing. Tobias Harris scored just two points, but he is the fourth option at best on this team (and he was fifth on the team in field goal attempts in game six); he does not have the ball in his hands to create shot opportunities, and even though he is a good three point shooter he does not receive many spot up shots. Harris is the highest paid player on the team ($37.6 million this season), but he has never been given a role or responsibilities commensurate with his salary.

Harden is the player who Daryl Morey signed and paid $33 million this season to lift this team into championship contention. Much has been made about Harden's great performances in game one and game four, but this is the third time in six games this series that Harden's field goal percentage has been .250 or worse, and the 76ers lost all three of those games. Harden has a playoff resume stretching back more than a decade, and the consistent pattern is that he may have one or two good or great games in a series but he will also have several awful games, and he is regularly awful near the end of playoff series--and when Harden has a bad game, he tends to be even worse in crunch time, the exact opposite of what Tatum did in game six. There is probably some idiotic "advanced basketball statistic" that purportedly shows that Harden outplayed Tatum in game six. Anyone who watches basketball with understanding knows better.

The Celtics jumped on the 76ers right from the start. For all of the talk about the NBA being a fourth quarter league--and there is no doubt that the fourth quarter is important when a game is close, as this one was--the NBA is often a first quarter league: the team that takes command early often wins the game, even if the other team retakes the lead at some point. At the 7:19 mark of the first quarter, the Celtics led 12-3, and any 76ers players or fans who expected to show up at a coronation understood that the Celtics had no intention of just handing over the Eastern Conference crown that they won last season.

The Celtics were ahead 50-43 at halftime, but the 76ers used a balanced attack in the third quarter to take a 73-71 lead heading into the final 12 minutes. 

In the fourth quarter, Tatum did most of his damage in a dramatic three minute stretch when he hit three three pointers to help transform an 81-80 76ers advantage into a 92-84 Celtics lead.

This series has featured many twists and turns, but after six games we have arrived where we reasonably could have expected to arrive: the 57 win Celtics enjoy the advantage of having game seven at home versus the 54 win 76ers. These teams have different strengths and weaknesses--and the Celtics have a much better recent playoff pedigree than the 76ers--but they have proven to be rather evenly matched. 

Of course, this series is not over and the 76ers could still advance by winning game seven in Boston--but is it logical and reasonable to expect Embiid, Harden, and the 76ers to rise to the occasion on the road after falling on their faces at home?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:52 PM



At Friday, May 12, 2023 7:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched Q4 and there was something wrong with Harden mentally, it seemed -- disengaged, low energy level.

Tobias was the same player on the Clips; nice guy, good scorer early in game, disappears later in game. his agent is a genius for getting him all that $$$. speaking of disappearing, what happens to Jaylen B late in these games?

Tatum stated his "humble" opinion that he's one of the best in the world. maybe true, but they can have him. let him enjoy his All-Star MVP from all the uncontested layups and 3s.
the star players I trust in big moments, who are left in these playoffs, are:

-- Butler
-- Jokic (and maybe Murray)
-- LeBron sporadically (age/mental)

the 3-pt shot is supposed to reflect the ratio of difficulty on a very long shot. it no longer does, as these guys hit it with regularity. it has ruined the game. I regretted watching part of Sixers game last night, it was terrible

At Friday, May 12, 2023 10:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Harden looked like "playoff Harden"--which, by definition, means "disengaged, low energy level."

Harris obviously did not distinguish himself but with Harden monopolizing the ball to little effect what exactly can Harris do? He's vastly overpaid, but it is not his fault that the 76ers opened up the bank vault and then could not figure out how to best utilize his skills.

Tatum's resume includes a lot more than the All-Star Game MVP. He led the Celtics to the NBA Finals last year, and he has had many outstanding playoff games. That said, I agree with you that I trust LeBron, Jokic, and Butler more than Tatum, though it is evident that due to age LeBron is not quite the player that he was in his prime.

I don't mind the three point shot (and I have shot many of them in rec league games and pick up games); I mind the misuse of the three point shot, and I mind the way that "experts" misunderstand the factors that are essential for winning.

At Friday, May 12, 2023 11:34:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Tatum’s performance last night may have been the most bizarre game a superstar has ever had: he didn’t have his first field goal until the 8:34 mark of the third quarter and was 1-14 with 4:14 remaining in regulation. He then massacred the 76ers with a ruthless barrage of three pointers after playing timidly for most of the game. He was expected to force a game seven at home and although it wasn’t pretty, he did just that. Hopefully, he won’t be nearly as erratic in game seven.

At Friday, May 12, 2023 2:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I hesitate to say "ever"; I recently suggested that no Top 75 player had ever had back to back shooting games as bad as Harden's 5-28, and someone sent in a comment with a list of similar (if perhaps not quite so bad) games by Top 75 players. That being said, I agree that Tatum's performance was very bizarre. He has a complete skill set and he is respected for his work ethic, so his struggles during this series are difficult to understand. I don't think that the 76ers have anyone who can stop him, so it is just a matter of Tatum patiently going to where he wants to go on the court and then elevating into his shot.

I suspect that he will have a big game seven performance. Whatever psychological burden he carried has probably been lifted by the way that he emerged in the fourth quarter of game six.


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