Celtics knock out 76ers, will meet Cavs in Eastern Conference finals for second straight year
Boston and Philadelphia may add chapters to their storied rivalry in the coming years, but it wasn’t going to happen this season.
No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit and after dropping Game 4, the Celtics finished the job on Wednesday night, defeating the 76ers 114-112 to reach their second consecutive Eastern Conference finals. They’ll also meet the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second consecutive season, though neither team looks much the same after swapping point guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas last summer.
Game 1 is Sunday in Boston.
In a testament to Brad Stevens’ coaching acumen, the Celtics are back in the East finals despite just one overlapping starter (Al Horford) from last postseason to this playoff run.
This semifinals series highlighted the maturity of rookie Jayson Tatum (25 points), the progress of second-year guard Jaylen Brown (24) and the emergence of point guard Terry Rozier (17). Along with Aron Baynes (13) and Horford (15), all five Celtics starters reached double figures. The Celtics shot 44% from the field and turned the ball over just 10 times compared to 16 from the Sixers.
Their next task? Keeping LeBron James from his eighth consecutive NBA Finals. And just how do the Celtics go about doing that?
“It’s my first year, so I don’t know,” Tatum told TNT in the walkoff interview. “I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. We’re going to enjoy this tonight. And then we’re gonna get into practice tomorrow, talk about it. We’re going to try and figure it out.”
Backup guard Marcus Smart proved invaluable once again, his defense and hustle making a major impact on both ends of the court. He came up with several clutch plays down the stretch, including a pivotal tip-in and assist as time was winding down in the fourth quarter.
“He’s made for this,” Stevens said. “He’s made for these moments.”
The Celtics reeled off an 8-0 run just before halftime to stake a nine-point lead after two quarters. The Sixers chipped away at the margin throughout the third quarter, eventually leading multiple times in the fourth quarter.
The Sixers got 27 points each from Joel Embiid and Dario Saric while Ben Simmons had 18, including two late buckets that had the Celtics on their heels. A Horford alley-oop swung momentum back in favor of the Celtics during the frenetic ending before J.J. Redick’s three-pointer got it to within one with just seconds left.
Smart, after missing the first free throw, unintentionally hit the second one, but Boston stole the ball on the inbounds to clinch it.