On Tuesday, for the first time in franchise history, the Philadelphia 76ers won a road Game 5 in a series tied 2-2. Philadelphia walked into TD Garden and dispatched the Boston Celtics, 115-103. They lead this Eastern Conference Semifinals 3-2 and are staring at a chance to close it out on Thursday inside Wells Fargo Center for Game 6. They took the lead with 7:24 remaining in the first quarter and never relinquished it. They took a double-digit lead with 10:23 to go in the third quarter; Boston never trimmed its deficit under 11 after that.
Joel Embiid led the way behind 33 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and three assists. Tyrese Maxey broke out of his funk for 30 points and six triples. Up and down the rotation, folks performed: James Harden, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, De’Anthony Melton and Paul Reed all helped amplify the efforts of Embiid and Maxey in divergent ways.
Here are three takeaways from the Sixers’ impressive Game 5 victory.
Joel Embiid, shutting off the paint
In Game 1, despite Philadelphia’s win, it was readily apparent that the Sixers missed the big fella defensively. Boston steamrolled to the rim with regularity. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics sported a rim frequency of 36 percent (79th percentile) and converted 22 of 26 (84.6 percent, 95th percentile) shots around the basket that night. Those marks significantly declined in Games 2 and 3, but sprouted back up on Sunday (33 percent frequency, 78.3 percent shooting, when I thought Embiid turned in his worst interior defensive showing of the series, often opting out of rotations altogether.
Embiid was back to his usual dominance in Game 5 to dig a massive thorn into the side of Boston’s offense. Only 20 percent of its shots came at the rim (7th percentile) and it made 64.3 percent of them (9 of 14, 39th percentile). The Celtics are a drive-and-kick attack, and while they were unusually cold from deep (12 of 38, 31.6 percent), Embiid’s presence prevented them from diversifying the offense when things grew so frigid beyond the arc. He gave Jayson Tatum issues on numerous forays inside, rejected four shots and is a substantial reason Boston generated a 94.1 offensive rating (38th percentile) in the half-court.
Perimeter stoppers like Tucker, Harris, Melton and House were aggressive in denying off-ball screens or running shooters off the arc because they knew Embiid was lurking in the paint to force the ball elsewhere. While Tatum does misfire on a relatively clean look initially, the ensuing play exemplifies some of the problems Embiid caused for the star wing and his peers.
His best play occurred about two minutes later, when, following his own turnover, he chased down Jaylen Brown on the break and authored a thunderous swat on the explosive forward. Yet the entire back-and-forth stands out. He commits a sloppy turnover, doesn’t take any time to mull it over, hustles back to cast away Brown’s layup, picks himself up from the hardwood, posts the undersized Brown and works before the help comes to draw a foul. This is a hell of a 25-second sequence and three-point swing against a great team.
Down the stretch of Game 4, Embiid faltered. Horford schooled him. He looked a step slow and unlike his MVP self. That wasn’t the case for any portion of Game 5. He was the superstar on Tuesday. This was the Joel Embiid Game that some folks were awaiting.
Tyrese Maxey, discovering his groove
For all the success Maxey had enjoyed throughout his first three playoff series as a starter, this current one had been about as jarring as possible. Through four outings, even including his 26-point Game 1, the smiley, speedy guard was averaging 16.5 points on 44.8 percent true shooting. Boston had bottled him up in transition and erased the gaps he relishes attacking off the catch.
What had worked, at least for generating some comfortable looks, was deploying him as an on-ball creator. Maxey entered Tuesday’s fourth quarter with 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting. It was easily his best showing in over a week, but also nothing to rival some of his other prolific playoff performances the past couple seasons. Then, he tallied 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting in the final period and notched another 30-point playoff game. Nine of his 12 points stemmed from his own creation. He also burned past his defender into a dash-and-splash for a Tucker triple. Of the Sixers’ 27 fourth-quarter points, his signature was on 15 of them.
For the majority of the fourth quarter, Boston, namely Brown, denied Harden off the ball. That left Maxey to orchestrate the offense and dribble up the floor. The Celtics also sold out to front or deny Embiid with a second defender shading help and playing off of Tucker (who was, by the way, superb. His defense against Brown helped limit his volume to 16 shots on another night he seemed in rhythm — a wide disparity from the 27 field goals Tatum hoisted).
Maxey was the hub of the offense and had space to operate, given how aggressively the Celtics elected to neutralize Harden and Embiid. At one point, Maxey even parlayed Brown’s denial of Harden into a screen and score — a savvy tactical move from all involved.
Whenever it appeared as though Boston’s brazen defensive approach might begin working in its favor to make this a tight game, Maxey conjured up something to keep Philadelphia’s lead comfortable. He shouldn’t be expected to replicate this effort moving forward, but with the way Brown’s bothered Harden for stretches, letting Maxey commandeer the offense — the role he’s seemed best in this series — at times could prove fruitful.
Danuel House Jr. staying ready
Aside from a couple brief cameos, House had not carved out a niche in the rotation through eight playoff games. Head coach Doc Rivers elected to roll with a nine-man group and House was outside that group. Then, in Game 4, Rivers shortened things to eight players, cutting Jalen McDaniels’ minutes. But afterward, Rivers told reporters he felt players were overly fatigued and that caused some of the fourth quarter defensive blunders, even if he felt the decision to only play eight was correct.
So, late in the first quarter of Game 4, House took the court and became the ninth man in the rotation. The veteran wing wasted scant time announcing himself and recorded 10 points, five rebounds and one assist in 15 minutes. His length, lateral mobility and 6-foot-7 frame bolstered Philadelphia’s flawed, struggling point-of-attack defense, particularly against Malcolm Brogdon, who averaged 19.3 points on 63.7 percent true shooting the first four games of the series. Brogdon notched seven points on 3-of-9 shooting Tuesday, encountering less ease than accustomed using his strength to create space on drives against House.
Not only did House invigorate the defense, his intrepid, zippy drives to the rim were a boon for an offense that, beyond Maxey, is pretty slow. He caught Boston off-guard a few times and contributed to the Sixers’ potent transition attack (153.8 points per 100 possessions, 79th percentile). When he screened and popped for Harden, the Celtics did not really guard him, so he burned them as a driver. They employ a similar strategy when Tucker screens for Harden above the break, but House can pressure the paint as a finisher unlike Tucker. That reared its head a couple times in the fourth quarter to spark points, notably on his lone assist of the night that quieted a swelling Celtics crowd after the advantage had trickled to 11.
Sprint to the lottery if you had a 74-second Danuel House Jr. Highlight Video on your Game 5 bingo card. Just remember his play warranted it.