There was a time earlier this year when a first-round series between the Celtics and 76ers, with their All-Stars, their rabid fan bases, and their simmering rivalry, would have been a seductive matchup.
But then the games moved to silent Orlando, then Ben Simmons and Gordon Hayward were hurt, and then the Celtics established that this seemingly fair fight was not fair at all. In Game 4 on Sunday the Celtics defeated the 76ers, 110-106, to complete a series sweep.
Kemba Walker, who has advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time, led Boston with 32 points. Jayson Tatum added 28 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Toronto’s sweep of Brooklyn sets up a Celtics-Raptors series in the conference semifinals.
With the score tied at 77 late in the third quarter the Celtics created separation with a 14-0 run that was sparked by Tatum, who had been relatively quiet. The All-Star had 7 points in the flurry, including a deep dagger from the top of the key. The Celtics never trailed again.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics’ tone after closing out the series win was pretty muted. Celebrations will probably be different anyway in these sterile environments, but for the Celtics, it’s also because there remains unfinished business.
“At the end of the day there’s not a lot of savoring when you’re in the middle of it,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I think you end up looking back on things after seasons are over, careers are over or people move on or whatever, and that’s when you enjoy it.”
Added Walker: “I don’t know if it’s much to celebrate, honestly. We didn’t do much yet.”
In the locker room after the game, Stevens actually focused on how the team had let a double-digit lead slip away in the final minute.
▪ Tatum averaged 8.7 3-point attempts over the first three games of this series but didn’t take one in the first half. He was moving the ball well, but there were a couple of times when it looked like he was actually over-passing, which is rare. On one, he passed up an open look so Walker could have one, perhaps knowing the point guard was cooking. Nevertheless, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, and Smart combined to take eight shots from beyond the arc in the first half, so that’s not the best ratio.
That silence did not last, though. In the second half Tatum hit a pair of 3-pointers and had 19 points. Few players can flip from ho-hum to dominant as quickly as he can.
▪ Theis started the day by throwing the ball away and committing a foul, and he was replaced by Enes Kanter just 30 seconds into the game in one of the quickest switches in Stevens’s coaching career. The turnover was bad, but Theis has been very good in this series, and he did not play again in the first quarter. It was a bit surprising, especially because the 76ers feasted at the foul line in the first quarter and Theis is one of Boston’s best defenders. But perhaps Stevens was just trying to send a message.
Theis checked back in to start the second quarter and hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first three minutes, as the Celtics claimed the lead.
▪ There were times when it looked like the 76ers had quit on this series, but do not lump Tobias Harris into that group.
With the Celtics leading, 80-77, Harris was inadvertently clipped by Tatum on a drive and his head slammed into the floor as he fell. There was blood, and Harris stayed down for several minutes before going to the locker room to be evaluated. He came back to the bench midway through the fourth quarter with the game and his team’s season likely over, but he checked back in anyway.
“That was very unfortunate,” Tatum said of the fall. “I’m glad he was all right.”
▪ Smart was whistled for a questionable foul against Joel Embiid in the opening quarter. He was frustrated by the call, and he let the officials know. Then Embiid missed both free throws, and Smart received a technical foul moments later. It seemed late, but according to the Globe’s man on the scene in Orlando, Gary Washburn, it was because Smart said to the official, “Ball don’t lie.” That probably doesn’t deserve a technical, but it at least gets some humor points.
▪ Walker had his way on offense, but one solid defensive stretch in which he appeared overmatched stood out, too. Late in the second quarter he found himself on Embiid near the free throw line. He got low and held his ground against the Philly big man, and Embiid settled for a fadeaway jumper that thudded off the rim. On the next possession Al Horford tried to back down Walker on the wing, but Walker stripped him.
“I thought his defense in Games 3 and 4 was excellent,” Stevens said.
▪ Celtics fans and Walker were upset about Walker’s minutes restrictions during the seeding games as the team tried to strengthen his troublesome left knee. But those seeding games meant very little, and the Celtics understood that. This was the best-case scenario they were hoping for. Walker looks like a new player, and he even has some extra energy along with good health.
“It’s been great,” said Walker, who was battling a stomach bug Sunday morning. “It’s not over. I’ve got to stay on top of it. I’ve been doing a great job at just sticking with it.”
During the series Walker made 49.3 percent of his shots and averaged 24.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists.
▪ In the first half the Sixers attempted 23 free throws and committed just one turnover, and led by just 1 point at the break. That wasn’t the best sign for them.
▪ This, in all likelihood, will mark the end of Brett Brown’s tenure as the head coach of the 76ers. Selfishly, it will be sad to see him go. He’s one of the most thoughtful and insightful coaches, and his interview sessions are always a must-listen.
▪ Tatum wore a purple armband during Game 4 in honor of Kobe Bryant, who would have turned 42 on Sunday.
“Everybody knows how much he meant to me and still means to me,” Tatum said.