The Celtics entered this conference semifinal series against the 76ers as massive favorites. 76ers center Joel Embiid’s sprained knee, Boston’s extensive history of dominance against Philadelphia, and the Celtics’ home-court advantage made them the obvious choice.
But now, the series improbably returns to Philadelphia for Thursday’s Game 6 with the Celtics facing a 3-2 deficit, one game from elimination. It’s not great, but it’s not a certain end either. Last year, the Celtics were in the same predicament in the same round, and they won at Milwaukee in Game 6 before coming home and throttling the Bucks in Game 7.
With that in mind, here are six things the Celtics should do to keep their season alive.
1. Give double bigs a shot again.
Last season, the Celtics’ elite starting lineup consisted of Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams. They intended to stick with that group this year, but Derrick White thrived while Williams was sidelined by offseason knee surgery. Williams briefly reentered the starting group but then suffered a hamstring strain, and White has been the man ever since.
Coach Joe Mazzulla is unlikely to shift from that approach at this point, but he should at least consider having Williams and Horford share the floor more often in an attempt to slow down Embiid at both ends. The swap would help keep the 76ers off the offensive glass, keep Embiid from punishing switches against smaller players such as Brown in the post, and force Embiid to defend plays such as lobs to Williams rather than floaters that he swats away with little trouble.
During this series, Williams and Horford have shared the court for just seven minutes. They played 332 minutes together during the regular season, and the Celtics outscored opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions with them on the court.
2. Get Tatum going earlier.
Going simply by a stat sheet, Tatum’s numbers over these last two losses don’t look bad. He’s averaging 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. But they hardly tell the whole story, because his starts have been horrendous.
Tatum went 0 for 10 from the field in the first quarters of those two games. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics were outscored by 8 and 7 points during those stretches. His confidence appears rattled.
He’s been pretty good getting to the rim after the slow starts, but it needs to happen earlier, before the Celtics find themselves in a hole. Maybe he can get his swagger back with some early layups. Maybe he can get Embiid in foul trouble. Maybe some free throws will help him find his 3-point rhythm. But aside from rediscovering his 3-point form, some early rim attacks figure to be his best route.
3. Don’t try to win two games at once.
Although the Celtics are now underdogs in the series because they have to win twice, they actually are favored to win Game 6 in Philadelphia, and if they win that, they will be huge favorites to win Game 7 at home. This season, they’ve done a good job of keeping minor ruts from swelling: They did not have a losing streak longer than three games.
And one of the keys has been realizing that each game is its own entity. It’s probably a bit harder to do that when facing elimination, of course. But it’s worth remembering that if not for a pair of last-minute 3-pointers by James Harden, this series very easily could have been a sweep.
The Celtics have been the better team for most of the series, even if 3-2 doesn’t really show that.
4. Play tighter drop coverage.
Harden and Embiid are incredibly difficult to stop in pick-and-roll situations. Harden has lost a step but is an elite passer and remains a crafty finisher, and he consistently gets the ball to Embiid exactly where he wants it, when he wants it.
The Celtics’ drop defense, in which a big man sags back into the paint, is meant to thwart opportunities at the rim by either player. But Embiid and Harden are both dangerous in mid-range, and in Game 5 Harden constantly fed Embiid for open jumpers from the foul line. Those are essentially layups for him.
The Celtics need to do more to get into his airspace and count on help defenders to be ready in the paint when needed.
5. Keep Brown involved, and on the court.
Brown has been the Celtics’ best offensive player during the playoffs. And he has been absolutely elite during the first quarters, shooting 69 percent from the field, 67 percent from the 3-point line, and 100 percent from the foul line.
The problem is that he has not remained a central part of the offense throughout the games. Too often he ends up standing in a corner while Tatum tries to manufacture something. And he has hurt his cause by dealing with some foul trouble.
Brown averaged 20.6 shots per game during the regular season but is attempting just 15.4 against the 76ers. For stars, the numbers are supposed to go up during the playoffs, not down.
6. Keep firing and trust that a hot hand emerges.
Like it or not, this Celtics offense was built to live and die by the 3-pointer. During the regular season, they ranked second in the NBA in attempts and sixth in shooting percentage. And they are 34-2 when shooting 40 percent or better from beyond the arc.
But they have yet to hit that mark during this series. The 76ers did have the NBA’s fifth-best 3-point defense during the regular season, so this isn’t a fluke. But at the same time, the Celtics have generated plenty of wide-open looks. Just ask Horford.
If the others remain cold, maybe Payton Pritchard or Sam Hauser need an extended chance to heat up from beyond the arc and put some pressure on Philadelphia.
Embiid has four or more blocks in three of his four games this series, and several Celtics have appeared reluctant to challenge in other moments. They need to keep spraying.