PHILADELPHIA — As Marcus Smart left the court after a triumphant season-saving victory, 76ers fans greeted him with a four-letter word in the tunnel back to the locker room.
After struggling for most of the game, the Celtics took over in crunchtime to beat the Sixers 95-86 to force Game 7. The arena went from ballistic to boos within minutes, as the Sixers failed to hit a layup. shot in the last six minutes of the game before a meaningless bucket in garbage time.
So when Smart heard the F-bombs from the Philadelphia crowd, he was happy to embrace the hate.
“This one guy kept yelling, ‘F—- you! F—- you!’ Well, yup, ‘F— me, maybe,'” Smart said The Athletic.
Before the game, Joe Mazzulla said he was “ready for war.” Smart said afterward that it was “do or die.” The F-bomb is the reward for a job well done.
“It’s gotta be a dogfight,” said Smart, repeating what he said after the loss in Game 5 48 hours ago. “You have to be willing to scrap, you have to bleed, you have to be willing to shoot yourself in the face to do whatever it takes to win.”
So Smart took over the offense. He dominated the defense. He still coaches a little. He has always proven that there is no limit to what he will do to win, and this is a prime example.
“My colleagues are looking for me for that. My coaching staff looked at me,” said Smart. “That’s one of the best things about me, is coming in and changing the game the way I play offensively and defensively.”
one more, boys ☘️ pic.twitter.com/iNOknqGfIv
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 12, 2023
He was the engineer of this season-saving victory, driving the offensive aggression in the first half and solving the defensive puzzle in the second half. He dictates the pace of play and organizes the offense. If the distance was not right, he would call the men to cut in different areas of the floor. If they need someone to put his head down and go to the rack while Jayson Tatum endures one of the worst colds of his career, Smart said the rock will be provided.
“Just (to) play with that level of stamina, it’s contagious,” Mazzulla said. “That’s why he’s one of our emotional leaders. He did that for us.”
As they tried to find a way to shut down the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll, Brown and Smart called an adjustment of their own. They will peel on the switch, where the ball defender will come out on the weak side and the next perimeter defender will block the driver. If you can’t stop Harden yourself, pass him to someone in position to stop and fix a shooter before Harden can make the read.
And before they peel off, they make sure to lower their hand to their side to catch the pocket pass back to Embiid on the roll. They were badly reminded in this series that stopping the league’s best pick-and-roll duo requires layers of detail to work.
“The playoffs are a game of chess,” Jaylen Brown said. “These are the adjustments, they watch the game and adjust. We take things away and they come back in the next game and make adjustments. It’s all part of a chess game and now it’s 3- 3. Game 7, we have to do it.”
It all traces back to Smart, who is the roaming quarterback on defense. He goes from guard to center to wing all in one game, sprinting in circles to make sure that when the Celtics send help to the ball, they are not exposed on the back end.
“His ability to guard different guys, and recognize where the help is coming from on the floor,” Mazzulla said. “It was him, but Jaylen, all of them. Like I said, there’s a level of intensity and a level of togetherness and connection that guys need where we’re able to communicate things throughout the game and change matchups, change in scopes. “
This is a group that knows each other very well. Brown, Smart, and Tatum played their entire careers. Malcolm Brogdon said this team has always won on defense, and to win a championship, it has to win with defense.
Brogdon knew this when he joined this Celtics core before the season. Once he came on midway through the third quarter, he really played all night. He understands if he wants to finish games, the defense is where he needs to lock down.
“Defense is the story for us,” Brown said. “I think in all of our wins, (we’ve) been 100 points or less, so we know how to get stops. They’re tough, their pick-and-roll is tough.”
This game was physical and uptempo, which played into Boston’s hands. It’s the least bit surprising to hear Brown bring up the officiating without prompting, since he’s successfully taken the line of expressing his frustration with calls without fines from the league. But on Thursday, he was enthusiastic in his praise.
“I thought the officials did a great job tonight by not letting some of those guys get down,” Brown said. “They’ve been known to do that, they don’t give some of the games away, and they think they can get it because they’re at home and the refs stay strong and that’s good because that’s not basketball. Let more strong team to play, continue to play, and we know how to stop at the line.”
They can’t get those stops without Robert Williams III.
completion The Athletic reported before the game that Williams would replace Derrick White in the starting lineup, there was much surprise among the viewing public. But not for Doc Rivers, who said the Sixers spent Thursday morning shooting around in preparation for Williams’ start.
But when the Celtics learned on Wednesday that the change had happened, the pillars of the team were happy.
“I’m excited,” Horford said.
“I’m very happy,” Smart said.
“It doesn’t take a professional to see the difference Rob makes,” Brown said. “You put him in a similar (to) that role that he played last year where he can trust his instincts, make plays, even when he’s tipping the ball on rebounds and stuff. I feel more Rob is comfortable there at double the size.”
It’s just that they’ve been playing this game for a long time. Derrick White has been one of the team’s best players all season. Is there anything that puts Williams in that group?
“But I’ll tell you what, I’m glad Joe made that change and we did it because it was a difference,” Horford said. “I’m not surprised. I’m glad it happened. We only know Rob’s impact. “
Horford talked about how much pressure Williams took off his shoulders, allowing Horford to get up off the ball in the pick-and-roll to limit Embiid and Harden’s attempts at the rim. It worked, as the Sixers took just 10 shots at the rim — and also drew three fouls — while going 3-for-17 from the midrange.
When asked Wednesday if he would give a pep talk to motivate the team, Mazzulla demurred, focusing on this team as a collaboration and that he didn’t want to create something that wasn’t true around that. they did.
But where is the urgency from Mazzulla? Why didn’t he try to inspire the confidence of the fans who have been asking him for months?
All season, this team lacked urgency until it was “do or die.” But as Smart said, for some reason, they thrive when they feel the wall behind them. So Mazzulla said he didn’t need to remind them of the stakes.
“Whether you’re a player, a coach, any time your back is against the wall, you just rely on your locker room, rely on the people around you, on each other,” Mazzulla said. “And so, I haven’t been in that position as a coach, but I’ve been there as a player, and I know what it feels like.”
When Mazzulla makes a mistake, he says it’s part of the learning process. He was given the job under unfortunate circumstances, told to lead a team with title hopes when he had never sat in front of an NBA bench. But Smart said that they will work hard for him like he works hard for them.
“That just shows you Joe is learning like we all are. I know that he has killed many people, that’s right,” said Smart. “He had to make some changes and he did that. And that’s all you can ask for. Just keep being the best he can be. And it takes everything. It was a total team effort. “
Last year was the Celtics’ chance to grow from their past shortcomings and learn what it takes to be a champion. Now they are trying to use that experience, showing that they can do their best and find their identity when it is most important.
Mazzulla talked about trying to improve as the playoffs begin, a relatively late season to find out who you are. The Game 6 win showed that while Mazzulla can set them up for success, it’s up to the players to make it happen on the court.
So Mazzulla made the line change, then Smart and Brown made the schematic adjustment.
“When you think about the grand scheme of things, we’re teaching him, we’re also teaching ourselves,” Smart said. “We can learn more about ourselves. It allowed Jayson, it allowed Jaylen, it allowed me to be more vocal on the court and figure things out. We will do this together.”
(Photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)