There weren’t many quiet moments on this night, but as Jayson Tatum was struggling through one of the worst offensive games of his career at the worst possible time, his teammates took every spare second they could find to help galvanize him.
They told him to keep shooting. They told him he would look like the superstar that he is before long. They told him there was still time.
But Tatum started to get worried about that last part. He kept looking up at the clock, which was at once a reminder of possibility and looming finality, and he kept assuring himself that he was not done just yet. Not on this stage. Not now.
Then, mired in a 1-for-14 start, his team trailing Game 6 of this conference semifinal series by 2 points with a little more than four minutes left, a sudden and stunning end of a promising season becoming more visible by the moment, he arrived.
Joel Embiid, who just won the MVP award Tatum once had his eyes on, softly closed-out on Tatum in the left corner, perhaps not believing his slump would end now. But Tatum hit that 3-pointer to put the Celtics in front, then added another 39 seconds later.
The Celtics never trailed again, and Tatum added two more 3-pointers for good measure, helping Boston keep its season and championship dreams alive with a 95-86 victory.
“I just kept telling myself that I believe in myself,” Tatum said, “until it turned around.”
Now the Celtics will return home for Game 7 on Sunday, with the winner advancing to the conference finals. It certainly seems as if this win should embolden them, and that the 76ers will be swimming against a now impossible current. But the road team has won four of six games in this series, so there will be no space for the Celtics to ease up.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “But we are the more experienced team in these situations, and we’ve got to go out there and show it.”
Tatum scored 16 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and if Boston goes on to win the championship, his ability to spring to life just as the season was on the brink will be the indelible memory from this night.
But the truth is that in many cases the Celtics would not be able to overcome such an off night from their star who tends to be on. And the others saved the Celtics by keeping them afloat while Tatum appeared lost.
It all started with a lineup adjustment by coach Joe Mazzulla, who reinserted center Robert Williams into the starting five in place of Derrick White to give Boston another player help slow down Embiid, gobble up rebounds, and make life difficult for Philadelphia’s guards who previously hunted for gaps in the paint.
Williams had 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and the Celtics outscored the 76ers by 18 points during his time on the court. Whenever his teammates were asked about his presence after the game, they smiled before saying anything, and that mostly said it all.
“I was ecstatic about it,” Smart said.
Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic who symbolizes so much of what this team has become, was also at his best for most of this night. He had 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, and he served as the calming conductor whenever things started to go awry.
The Celtics led by as many as 16 points in the first half, but fans watching at home probably did not feel very comfortable about that given this team’s propensity to wobble before good times can become great.
The 76ers charged back and took a 5-point lead late in a third quarter that saw the Celtics go 1 for 7 from the 3-point line with five turnovers.
But unlike the 76ers, who are trying to reach the conference finals for the first time in 21 years, these Celtics have been in so many of these high-pressure, high-velocity moments. And that became apparent down the stretch.
The 76ers were clinging to a small lead early in the fourth when they started looking for knockout punches from long range. They missed, and the game pressure started to become visible on their faces.
The 76ers were 0 for 8 from the 3-point line during their 13-point final quarter. The same fans who were on the verge of turning the night into a citywide party were suddenly quietly shuffling to the exits, perhaps realizing that their best chance had been wiped away.
“I don’t think we trusted very well,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “They were 15-35 from the three, we were 8-34 . . . I didn’t like how we played overall offensively. Down the stretch, got to play the big guy [Embiid] more. Didn’t think the ball went there.”
The Celtics, meanwhile, continued to trust Tatum even on a night when he hadn’t done a great deal to deserve it. And Tatum said it was uplifting to see that the rest of the team was able to pick him up.
“I mean, I don’t want to do this [expletive] again,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s a one-time thing. Hopefully, I start off better. But if this is what it takes for us to win, I’ll go 0-for-whatever.”
Read more about Celtics-76ers Game 6:
Celtics Notebook: Celtics shake up starting lineup for Game 6