When Tyrese Maxey squirted away from his defender and raced to the rim to beat the shot clock, Jayson Tatum had a decision: either contest the 6-foot-2-inch Maxey at the rim or just relent and let him score again.
Tatum chose option B.
In the most important game of the season, one that could impact not only this series but the organization’s future, the Celtics let go of the rope, playing pathetically most of the night, getting discouraged when shots didn’t fall, allowing Maxey and Joel Embiid to get anything they wanted.
A team that entered this season championship-or-bust intentions is now on the brink of elimination because they picked the worst possible night to play with substandard effort and energy. Philadelphia wanted Game 5 more and played like it in its 115-103 win at TD Garden on Tuesday.
The Celtics have been so proficient in responding from adversity this season, and they got another opportunity to retake control of the series after their disheartening Game 4 overtime loss.
Instead of punching first, the Celtics got pushed around, missed a slew of open shots, and were a step slow. No one in the locker room could really explain the lack of intensity, especially for such a crucial game.
First-year coach Joe Mazzulla didn’t seem the least bit concerned that his team played terribly most of the night. They shot under 40 percent, missed 26 3-pointers, and their defensive coverage against the 76ers was non-existent.
They went under screens on Maxey and the speedy point guard hit six 3-pointers. That drop coverage on Embiid just allowed him to play pop-a-shot from the midrange. The Celtics sent James Harden to the free throw line 10 times (he made eight).
It wasn’t as if the Celtics were playing with maximum effort and were just flat. They failed to get back on defense. They gave up offensive rebounds. They missed free throws. They put their heads down after missing open shots.
The fact is the Celtics may have the most talented team left in these playoffs but they haven’t improved much since January. The 76ers scored on free throws and layups and the Celtics countered with hero-ball threes. Al Horford did not score and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts in 25 minutes. Tatum finished with 36 points, but scored just 2 in the opening quarter when this game was essentially lost.
The Celtics got their butts kicked and that happens, even with such high stakes. But what was discouraging — and even absurd — was their lack of focus. It was the biggest game of the season and the Celtics responded with a summer league mentality.
“Our intentions were good,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we tried to play hard. I thought we tried to play the right way, especially on the offensive end. It’s the first time [in the playoffs] that we didn’t play well. And we’ve got to regroup and get ready for the next game.”
Said with a concerning casualness. The “we got another one tomorrow” mentality is useful in January, but not in May. The Celtics gave away two games in this series, which left them no margin for a clunker.
“I don’t think it was an effort thing, it was more detail and focus,” Mazzulla said. “I didn’t think we got off to a great start.”
When asked if his team played as hard as they could, he continued with: “I think we had the right intentions to play as hard as we could, absolutely. I think when you have the intentions of really, really wanting to win, it doesn’t work out for you well sometimes. Sometimes when that happens, it has a negative effect. We just have to play with a freer mind.”
There is something wrong with this team’s approach, and it hasn’t improved as the season has progressed. They have majored in making matters harder for themselves, unable to accept prosperity without a negative response. They should be embarrassed about Tuesday — not because they lost, but they didn’t play with enough heart.
Mazzulla inserted the backups late in the game and they played with a frantic pace, pressing, hitting threes, and competing which made these All-Stars and All-NBA starters look even worse. They missed a couple of open jumpers and then caved in, and the 76ers fully realize the Celtics may be more talented but aren’t as mentally focused.
The 76ers took advantage of the Celtics’ late-game mishaps in Games 1 and 4 and eked out wins. On Tuesday they sensed vulnerability and took control of the series.
“I’m not sure ‘wanting it more’ is the right thing to say,” Horford said of the 76ers. “I think that we wanted it as well. I just give them credit. They were making shots. We weren’t making shots. I put a lot of that stuff on me. I wasn’t where I needed to be offensively and I feel like I hurt our group. We had our best intentions. We just couldn’t get it done.”
There goes that word “intentions” again. The Celtics intended to play hard. They intended to make shots. They intended to play respectable defense against Embiid and Maxey. None of those things happened.
They don’t have any more chances in this series to be casual. They have to solve whatever connectivity or chemistry issues are in the locker room and play Game 6 as if their season is on the line, because it is.
Game 5 was disappointing and disheartening, and the failure to maintain focus and maximum effort for 48 minutes will be the fatal flaw of this team if they don’t win this series.