PHILADELPHIA — When the 76ers stomped into TD Garden and wrestled away home-court advantage of this second-round series with a surprising Game 1 win, it seemed that everyone in Boston was concerned except the Celtics themselves.
This core has won so many big road games in big moments over the years. And it has also mostly dominated the 76ers, regardless of venue. There was never a worry about doing it at least once more.
If the 76ers were to take advantage of their chance, Friday night figured to be their best shot. Before Game 3, NBA commissioner Adam Silver presented Philadelphia center Joel Embiid with the MVP trophy. The fans inside the Wells Fargo Center who harbored a real belief that this could still be a magical season were roaring and buzzing. Everything felt alive.
But then the Celtics poked the balloon with a needle, made their first five shots, and needed just a few minutes to take a 10-point lead. Even though that advantage was erased later in the quarter, it set the tone and ensured that this night would not turn into some raucous party.
The Celtics were not perfect for the rest of the night, but they were calm and under control, and that was all that was required, as they led for the final 32 minutes and seized a balanced 114-102 win that gave them a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
Game 4 will be played at the same venue on Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine these fans—some of whom booed their team off the court during the final seconds—will have the same energy as they did at the start Friday. And if they do, the Celtics will probably be unbothered.
“We’re so locked in right now,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We’re really connected and we’re competing at an extremely high level. We’re not really worried about anything else other than what we’ve got in this locker room. We’re not letting anything distract us.”
Embiid finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots to lead the 76ers, but constructing that stat line took an extreme amount of effort, as the Celtics sent waves of unique defenses at the big man throughout the game. They switched on screens, they trapped him with guards, they allowed smaller but just-as-tough Marcus Smart and Grant Williams to take their turns.
(At one point, Embiid inadvertently stepped on the back of Williams’s head with all of his 280 pounds during the chase for a loose ball. Williams lived to talk about it, and even to return to the game.)
The Celtics praised Embiid before and after the game, stressing that he was a worthy MVP. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that he does not have enough help to get past this deeper and more talented Boston team.
After erupting for 45 points in Game 1, it appeared James Harden might be prepared to turn back the clock for a couple of weeks and give his team a chance. But now that performance appears to be an anomaly. He has been silenced during the 76ers’ back-to-back losses, disrupted by Jaylen Brown’s constant ball pressure.
On Friday, Harden scored 16 points on 3 for 14 shooting, with five turnovers. His second consecutive messy night appeared to affect his approach midway through the game, as he became reluctant to fire up open floaters even as the crowd audibly coaxed him to shoot. When a 76ers second-half run stalled with a few missed shots by Harden, he was booed.
“We’re purposely making it hard on him,” Brogdon said. “He came out in Game 1 and won them that game. He played terrific. We don’t want him to play like that anymore. So we’ve got to be as specific as we can with him, force him into tough shots, make him uncomfortable, really, for 94 feet.”
The Celtics’ attack, meanwhile, was balanced. Jayson Tatum bounced back from his 1 for 7 night in Game 3 and scored 27 points, Brown added 23, and Al Horford had 17.
Most often this season, the Celtics’ wins and losses have mirrored their successes and failures from long range. But they remained in control of this game despite shooting 35.6 percent from behind the arc while the 76ers connected on 43.2 percent of their tries.
Although the Celtics never led by more than 13 points, they were ahead for those final 32 minutes and did a good job of pushing back the 76ers’ mild surges time and again.
“We definitely had some timely shots, and if those don’t go in, maybe the game is a little closer,” Brown said. “But big players make big shots.”
A putback by Embiid with 3:55 left pulled the 76ers within 100-96 and brought the crowd to its feet.
But Boston grabbed opportune offensive rebounds all night, and after a Williams miss, the ball landed in the hands of Horford, whose 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 103-96. A Tatum baseline jumper, a 3-pointer, and two free throws helped Boston keep the 76ers at bay, and it held on for the win.
“We were locked in,” Horford said. “We knew what we had to do.”