PHILADELPHIA — With his team trailing by 2 and 30 seconds remaining in overtime, 76ers center Joel Embiid dribbled his way into the paint with every intention of taking a shot.
Veteran forward P.J. Tucker had just delivered a pep talk at the end of regulation in Sunday’s Game 4, urging the newly crowned MVP to stay aggressive. Embiid had struggled to score against Celtics center Al Horford in the fourth quarter, but Tucker demanded that his teammate not back down.
“Nobody can guard Jo one-on-one,” Tucker said. “There’s no way. I’m sorry. It’s not any disrespect to Al or anybody else. But I’ve guarded him for a lot of years, and when he’s aggressive and assertive, it’s impossible.
“I saw him two or three plays in a row not do that. And we can’t have that. We can’t have that. Not with the season on the line.”
So, in the final moments of a critical game, Embiid took Tucker’s message to heart, with plans of attacking the rim against Jayson Tatum.
After a pump-fake, though, Embiid saw Jaylen Brown moving to double-team him, leaving James Harden open in the corner. Instead of forcing a contested shot, Embiid dished to an open Harden. The decision proved to be game-winning and potentially season-saving for the Sixers, as Harden knocked down the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
“No matter who was on me, I just figured I would go score,” Embiid said following Philadelphia’s 116-115 win. “As soon as I saw JB help off the strong side corner, that was an easy play. The trust that we talked about all-season long . . . James just made a great shot.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla wouldn’t get into details about whether the call was to double Embiid, though comments from players indicated that Brown slid over to help by choice. Mazzulla said his message to the team in those types of situations is “make the right play.”
“Players are going to try to make plays at the end of the game,” he said. “That’s just how it went.”
Brown assumed responsibility for the defensive breakdown.
“Just a bad read,” he said. “That’s it. That’s a gamble at the wrong time. Big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault. I take full accountability. Just a bad read.”
Teammate Marcus Smart supported Brown’s move.
“It is complicated,” said Smart. “JB made a read. They made a better read. That’s how it is. I’m always living with JB making the read and what he feels comfortable with. He’s been doing great all series. This time, they made a better read and we paid for it.”
In this second-round series, which now heads back to Boston tied at two games apiece, the Sixers have won twice thanks to late go-ahead 3-pointers from Harden. In Game 1, the Celtics elected not to double Harden in the final minute, allowing him to swish a shot over Horford from the top of the arc.
In the first round, the Celtics also dropped Game 5 against Atlanta because of a deep 3-pointer from point guard Trae Young.
At this point, the Celtics should know there’s little margin for error in their late-game execution. But for the third time in 10 games this postseason, an opposing star player has had no problem getting off a crucial shot in the final minute.
Harden, who called Sunday “do or die” for Philadelphia, also scored the game-tying floater in the fourth quarter to force overtime. He finished with 42 points on 16-of-23 shooting, after going a combined 5 of 28 in Games 2 and 3.
“I’m always motivated and fired up,” Harden said. “It’s just things don’t work out how I would like them to. But it’s a part of it. But I’m a competitor. I always want to win. I always want to be aggressive. I always want to do things to contribute to winning. That’s just me.”
In Games 1 and 4, the Sixers got exactly what they wanted on their last offensive possessions.
With an LCL sprain sidelining Embiid in Game 1, the Celtics decided to rely on single coverage against Harden. Then, with both Embiid and Harden on the floor Sunday, the Sixers effectively leveraged their two-man game.
Had the Celtics doubled Harden at the end of Game 1 or had Brown stayed on Harden at the end of Game 4, perhaps this series is in a much different place.
Asking “what if?” doesn’t do the Celtics any good, though it’s hard not to, given their questionable decisions in crunch time. Philadelphia has certainly capitalized, turning this series into a best-of-three.
“The slightest details can cost you a game,” Brown said. “The slightest details can win you a game.”