BOSTON — Before Game 5 of the tied Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said, “It’s not much different than the regular season,” and his team is playing like it.
As was the case in Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Boston lacked the necessary momentum from the jump, and the deficit snowballed into double digits before halftime. However, this time the defending conference champions never met their opponent’s competition or made it interesting, falling 115-103 on the brink of elimination.
“That was the first game of the playoffs that we didn’t play well, in my opinion,” said Mazzulla, who did not play in Game 1 and most of Game 4 of this series and Game 5 of their first-round victory against of the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sixers take a 3-2 lead back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Thursday at 7:30 pm ET.
Rarely has TD Garden come alive in the playoffs. Boos started in the second quarter, and by the end of the third, when the Celtics watched Tyrese Maxey’s uncontested layup, the crowd’s contempt reached a fever pitch. In the rare moments they’ve played motivated enough to get their fans’ attention — forcing a 24-second offense at 14 late in the third and cutting the deficit to 11 on Jayson Tatum and one early in the fourth – they turn the ball over. into a layup and allowed another open 3-pointer.
“The energy wasn’t right,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “It could have been better, better. We know that. We understand that.
“We’ve been booed before,” added Tatum, who scored 36 points, “so it’s nothing new. We’ve been in that position before, and we didn’t play well today. fans. You see the guys. this. And we know that.”
It was a lackluster loss by a growing number of them for a team that has led the NBA in net rating the past two seasons, and there’s no shortage of blame to go around. The list on local sports radio will surely start with Mazzulla, the 34-year-old who was thrust into the top job when Ime Udoka was suspended before the training camp due to an alleged bad relationship with a subordinate and lead assistant. Will Hardy leaving the Utah Jazz.
There are legitimate criticisms, sure. The Celtics stuck to a drop pick-and-roll coverage that not only allowed James Harden breathing room from distance but gave Joel Embiid the freedom to feast on his bread-and-butter jumpers. The worst of both worlds. After not calling a timeout on a broken final play that cost them Game 4, Mazzulla said, “I’ll definitely learn from that.” He expressed similar sentiments after losing to the Embiid-less Sixers in Game 1. Not what you want to hear from a contender’s coach.
Then, there’s the matter of a team that made the Finals with defense as its calling card now branding itself as an offense-first outfit. Their 117.3 points per 100 possessions led the East during the regular season.
“Our strength is our offensive management,” Mazzulla told reporters during a practice session between Games 1 and 2. “This team has been built on defense for a very long time. They have that DNA , and they always play well, but we managed the game best with our offensive decision-making.”
Maybe rethink that after Games 4 and 5. If the Celtics’ 3-pointers don’t fall like they didn’t on Tuesday (27.3% of 33 attempts before garbage time) and if the stoppage hunt in matchup replaced the movement of the ball. , the defense could stop them at a long distance, but could not find it. They allowed 121 points per 100 possessions in just 11 regular season games and won seven of them. They have now dropped as many as six of their 11 playoff games, including all five of their losses.
“We gave up everything they wanted us to give up,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said.
It’s a fundamental problem, but it’s not unique to Boston. The players are not innocent either. Late-game mental breakdowns like Game 4 of this series and lulls like Game 5, when they played as if their talent advantage was the only thing that would bring victory, have been the norm in the three-year run under coach Brad Stevens, Udoka and Mazzulla. Stevens’ in-game adjustments narrowed the margins for error, as did Udoka’s blunt force, but ultimately it was down to the players to learn from their vast experience.
Tatum and Brown are just entering their prime, but they have already played 84 playoff games. If the Celtics aren’t ready to agree that the partnership has a sub-championship ceiling — and it’s reasonable to assume they could go higher — Stevens, now Boston’s head of basketball operations, has questions to answer beyond in Brown’s next contract the team will lose to a team it previously owned.
Should Smart have the third-highest usage rate in a key game for a team that also boasts Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt? Al Horford turns 37 next month, and Robert Williams III hasn’t played with the same bounce since knee surgery last year. And where is Grant Williams?
As the final minutes waned in their fourth Game 5 loss in five tries, the Celtics’ starters watched from the bench. Horford hugged Tatum and Brown and told them something he wanted to keep in the locker room, but was sure they could all see what was in front of them: The promise of potentially playing an eight seed in the conference finals for right to face one of the wrong teams in the West for a title.
“The past is the past,” Brown said. “We can talk about a lot of things that happened in this series that could have gone the other way and didn’t. from us. We’re just ready to play basketball. That’s it.”
Like Mazzulla, Boston’s young stars will have to learn from their past failures, and that won’t be easy in two days’ time. It took years, and they are six seasons into their championship pursuit. If they can’t straighten them out for a win-or-go-home Game 6 in Philadelphia, the Celtics will have to start wondering if they can.