ORLANDO — It’s only the first round and there are weeks left in this NBA Bubble if the Celtics want to reach their goal. Yet it’s obvious they are trying to atone for their past mental breakdowns, trying to prove to anyone who will listen they are not their previous form.
The Celtics were humiliated out of the postseason last spring by a Milwaukee team that tested their will and found little resistance. Minus Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Morris but with success-starved point guard Kemba Walker joining the young bunch, the Celtics have been determined to prove they won’t break under adversity.
They had every reason to break Friday at The Field House in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoffs. Their frustration with the officiating reached a peak when Daniel Theis was called for a blocking foul with 3:12 left and the Celtics up by 2.
Coach Brad Stevens challenged when it appeared Embiid swung his elbow right into Theis’s ribs. Call confirmed. Embiid fouled out Theis 11 seconds later and then drew another shooting foul on backup Enes Kanter.
The 76ers led by 2 with 2:14 left in a game they desperately needed. The Celtics were out of fouls and had nothing to stop Embiid. Until they did stop Embiid. The Celtics held Philadelphia scoreless for the final two-plus minutes while running off 10 straight and knocking out their archrivals in the 15th round of their latest clash.
The Celtics lead this series three games to zero with a potential clinching Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. And the similarities between last year’s Celtics team and this year’s 76ers are plentiful.
Philadelphia, picked by some experts to reach the NBA Finals after a free-agent spending spree of a combined $289 million for Tobias Harris and Horford, folded when it counted. It was the Celtics who wanted this game more in the end, seeking to exorcise those past demons.
They took the game away from the 76ers, on a night when the 76ers lived at the free throw line, Philadelphia collected 20 offensive rebounds, Jayson Tatum had more fouls (4) than 3-point makes (2) and the Celtics wasted chance after chance to pull away.
It appeared fate would hand the 76ers the victory when Stevens’s challenge was unsuccessful, but the Celtics tightened up their defense. Tatum contributed a block on Embiid, and a brilliant Kemba Walker extended the lead with a jumper while Marcus Smart sealed the game with free throws.
There was an exuberance afterward, not because the Celtics believe they have already won the series, but they won a game they were below average at best. The game waited and waited for that one final Celtics punch, and they waited until the final 97 seconds to apply it.
“We made a lot of mistakes, especially down the stretch, that made that game a little more extended than we wanted and we knew we had to get back refocused, we knew we lost focus,” Smart said. “We knew how important this game was to them and we knew how important this game was to us. We’re a young team but we have a lot of guys who’ve been in this position before. We’re just doing a really good job of showing our leadership skills with those young guys.
“We continue to will our team through times where offensively it just isn’t there.”
The entire game was a rock fight. No team scored more than 26 points in a quarter. Tatum hit a pair of buckets to put the Celtics up 7 with 7:45 left and then the 76ers muddied the game and kept scoring baskets on broken plays. The Celtics defense was stellar but they couldn’t get a defensive rebound, and in past years frustration may have set in, especially when it appeared Embiid — the 7-foot-1-inch behemoth — was getting every call.
But the Celtics weren’t content with winning two of the first three games. And they knew the consequences of extending this series and giving the wounded 76ers momentum. This remains a fierce rivalry and privately the Celtics are relishing in perhaps causing major offseason changes to the franchise they’ve despised for decades.
“We just gotta call it straight, we didn’t make enough shots,” said Harris, who is 16-for-49 shooting in the series. “That’s really what it came down to. We were on the glass. We got looks. We didn’t convert them. That was the letdown of the battle of the two.”
The Celtics are the tougher and more determined team. They wanted to win this game and this series more. Embiid got tired. Harris got frustrated with his lack of offense and the rest of the 76ers were just unsure of themselves, kinda like the Celtics last season. That’s the team the Celtics did not want to be this season.
“I just thought we played with the right poise,” Stevens said. “Playoff basketball is hard. Philly’s got talent. They’re physical as hell. They’re big and strong. They lean on you all game. You just have to battle. I just told the team three wins doesn’t mean anything because you have to do all that that you just exerted again. You have to get yourself ready to battle. Physical competitiveness all the way through and a great closing run there.”