Jayson Tatum saved Boston’s season by outscoring the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter, 16-13, after playing poorly in the first three quarters of Thursday’s game. Sunday will be the eighth time the sides face off in a Game 7, which is the most between two franchises in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
The C’s boasted about their adjustments, specifically the insertion of Robert Williams III into the lineup over Derrick White. Boston also played Malcolm Brogdon more minutes, which also proved to be a boost for its offense and defense.
Doc Rivers has lost nine times in a Game 7, according to ESPN, and is 17-32 in his career in potential close-out games, according to Sports Illustrated. But the Celtics should not simply bank on history to be on their side. Joe Mazzulla must be ready for the potential counters Rivers will have in store for Sunday’s matchup. Here are three that might give Boston trouble.
Solutions to double-big lineup
The Celtics had trouble containing the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll tandem in the last four games. Al Horford often was on his heels trying to track Embiid or stay in front of Harden. Mazzulla added Williams to the starting lineup to be an extra defender and pressure Embiid at the elbow. Horford adjusted his position on screens to better defend Harden or Tyrese Maxey. The 76ers weren’t able to find a counter to this on the fly. Their only hope was when Williams was on the bench, and that’s when Boston’s troubles came back.
What’s the counter to this? That will be approached further into the next point, but Embiid was forced to settle for jump shots, and the help on the back end helped Horford prevent the MVP from creating space with his jab step, so he was caught wasting too much time on the shot clock. Rivers needs to find a way to fix the spacing, and Embiid must be assertive early and test the referees’ whistles. If Horford or Time Lord get caught in foul trouble, that would insert Grant Williams. The 24-year-old physically can hang with Embiid, but he isn’t as skillful of a defender as Horford and Robert Williams, with 3-point shooting just as inconsistent as Horford’s.
If the calls don’t go Philadelphia’s way, then Rivers needs to surround Embiid and Harden with more consistent 3-point shooting. P.J. Tucker is a strong defender and an emotional leader for the team, but the Celtics are comfortable in leaving him open in the corner while handling the Sixers’ stars. In Game 6, the 76ers made 24% (6-for-25) of wide-open 3-pointers. Boston will continue to leave non-shooting threats open if Philadelphia can’t capitalize on opportunities.
It’s risky, but Rivers might have to rely on his more reliable shooters this season: Georges Niang and De’Anthony Melton. The problem is the pair aren’t great defenders, and if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to pick on them on switches, then it will have to be up to Tobias Harris, Maxey and Harden to make shots. The 76ers need more activity on off-ball actions to force mismatches and catch Celtics defenders just one step behind to get an open shot, and they just have to hit those jumpers.
Stymieing Celtics stars
It’s unlikely Tatum has another disastrous game as he did through the first three quarters of Game 6, but it’s important to understand how Philadelphia has forced him into bad situations. The Boston star has improved his game from last season, but he often falls back to his bad habits. Tatum frequently puts his head down on drives and misses open teammates. Once, he looks up, he’s caught having to read the defense in a split-second, the root of his turnover issues.
While Tatum was able to shoot himself into a groove in the fourth quarter, that’s frequently his method of trying to break his funk. This has led him to force bad shots and not take what the defense gives him. The 25-year-old has developed a stronger floater/runner game and has gotten better at finishing through contact, but the 76ers have done a good job at making him hesitant by having defenders step into driving lanes, which leads to Tatum burping up a bad shot.
That same defensive strategy is what can hurt Brown, who’s ball handling comes and goes throughout a contest. This is primarily due to the inconsistent 3-point shooting from Horford. Smart, Brogdon and White are somewhat reliable shooters, but Horford’s cold streak allows defenders to sag off and contain drives. If that gets fixed, it would open up Boston’s offense more.
The key solution to this for the Celtics is to get their stars more active on screens to force switches and create mismatches. That’s an inconsistent tactic, though, and instead, Mazzulla has Tatum and Brown on an island or looks for them to use their athleticism off the catch to try to barrel their way through a defense.
If Rivers continues to find ways to make Tatum and Brown more hesitant on their drives and force them back to their bad habits, the 76ers will have a chance to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference finals.