PHILADELPHIA — Across a fourth quarter of intensely wild basketball Thursday night, throughout a final period filled with heaping doses of passion, heroics, fear, and joy, the Celtics led a journey through the entirety of the sports fan’s emotional spectrum, barely allowing time to catch a breath.
From the depths of dread that the season would end in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Philadelphia, to the height of relief these cardiac Celtics would live to play Sunday at TD Garden. From the throes of frustration that the team’s star, Jayson Tatum, might never hit a shot again to the joyful return of Tatum’s trademark incandescence in the game’s most crucial moments, this was some roller coaster of a ride.
One from which the Celtics would emerge sweaty, exhausted, and drained, but ultimately, victorious. With a 95-86 win against the 76ers, secured on the strength of four Tatum 3-pointers in the final 4:14, the Celtics forced a winner-take-all Game 7 at home for the right to advance to the conference finals. They staved off what would have been a shocking elimination this early in the postseason, regaining the home-court advantage they fought throughout the regular season to earn.
“For us, it was do or die,” point guard Marcus Smart said. “It was an elimination game and there was no excuses. We had to leave it all on the floor.”
And so they did, once again emptying their tank just to keep their season alive. It’s been an ongoing theme of the postseason, and speaks to a no-quit attitude that stems from the top — first-year coach Joe Mazzulla described his mood just prior to the game as “I’m ready for war” — and permeates a roster deep with veterans who know how hard it is to win in the playoffs. Yet for all the positive reviews for finding enough in reserve to pull out another win, there is definite danger looming on the flip side.
Just how many of these great escapes can this team afford?
Every time they empty that tank, they have to fill the whole thing again. The risk of only playing your best when the circumstances are most dire is that you can eventually run out of fuel. For a team that fell two agonizing games short of a title ago, that lesson should be ingrained in their basketball DNA. The Celtics need to stop making it harder on themselves.
From needing six games to advance against overmatched Atlanta in the opening series, a self-inflicted wound that allowed Joel Embiid more precious time to recover from injury and be such a big factor in this series, to squandering the 2-1 advantage they had over the Sixers and losing two of their precious home games, the Celtics are playing a dangerous game with fire. Icarus getting too close to the sun.
It’s who they are — “for some reason we do play well with our backs against the wall,” Smart admitted — but it’s what could hurt them too.
Sure, it was great to see the urgency and energy that came to the floor Thursday, embodied most of all by Smart, whose pink high-tops and green hair were all over the court. He stood his ground to take a charge from James Harden, and pried the basketball straight out of the hands of league MVP Embiid. He conducted a beauty of a basketball game, leading his team in points (22), assists (7), and steals (2) while adding 7 rebounds to boot.
He kept the Celtics in it until everyone else caught up.
“I just let them know this could be our last opportunity. We don’t want to get off this court saying we could have done more, should have done more, and be pissed at ourselves,” Smart said. “This is a dogfight. We got to be ready to fight, scratch, and bleed.”
It’s exactly what the Celtics needed on a night when they led by as many as 16 in the first half, trailed by two entering the fourth quarter, and still trailed by a bucket as late as 4:15 on the clock. Mazzulla coached with the same urgency, keeping his rotation a super-tight seven in a circle-of-trust moment. After swapping out previous starter Derrick White and his relatively diminutive 6-foot-4 frame for the 6-foot-10 presence of center Robert Williams, White — along with fellow sub Malcolm Brogdon — did more than their share in getting the Celtics off to a strong start. They ended the night as the only players to get minutes along with Tatum, Williams, Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford.
But as much as playoff rotations shrink in the playoffs, seven players won’t get you to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Even if they might be enough to get you through Game 7 Sunday.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be rockin’,” Brown said. “Celtics fans love to call us out, I’m calling you guys out this time. The energy in the Garden has been OK at best all playoffs, so if you’re there, not there, home, at a bar, down the street at a friend’s house, I don’t care. I need you to be up. We need energy. No excuses, we need everybody.”
Even then, if the Celtics escape again, they might want to preserve some gas for what’s yet to come.
Read more about Celtics-76ers Game 6:
Celtics Notebook: Celtics shake up starting lineup for Game 6