BOSTON – The Sixers couldn’t break through Sunday afternoon. They weren’t particularly close either.
The Celtics edged past the Sixers in Game 7 of the second-round playoff, and cruised to a 112-88 win at TD Garden. They will play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row.
Once again, the Sixers failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. They haven’t done that since 2001.
Jason Tatum ignited the Sixers with 51 points, the most ever in an NBA Game 7. Jaylen Brown added 25 points.
Tobias Harris scored 19 points and Therese Maxi had 17 points.
Joel Embiid scored 15 points on 5-for-18 shooting. James Harden scored nine points on 3-for-11 shooting, seven assists and five turnovers.
Here are notes on the Sixers’ defeating Game 7 blowout:
Tucker’s perfect start
Both teams stuck to the same starters as in Game 6.
At first, it looks like Boston’s big double double lineup will repeat its success from Thursday right away. The Sixers started 1-for-6 from the ground, missed the open jump, and paid for a few early defensive breakdowns. Tatum threw a punt on his first field goal attempt, avoiding a fourth straight nightmare starting offensively, and Robert Williams’ third slam put the Celtics up 8-2.
Thanks in large part to PJ Tucker, the Sixers called in a solid response. Tucker scored eight points during a 13-2 Sixers run with three corner kicks and a layup pass created by a clever, snapping cut late in the shot clock. In Game 6, the Celtics made it clear that they appreciated Williams’ presence in the paint and weren’t too concerned about Tucker taking threes. The 38-year-old striker needs to be decisive, confident and productive early on against this approach. He got the job done.
Tucker finished the first quarter with 11 points, the second-most he has ever scored in a complete game during the regular season.
Tatum shines brightest
The Sixers edged the Celtics by three points in their first stint without Embiid.
De’Anthony Melton was excellent late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter. He hit two shots, scored a layup and drive, and helped the Sixers transition on either end of the field. The Sixers scored the first seven fast-break points of the afternoon.
However, once the Sixers took a 35-26 lead, Boston answered with a 9-0 lead. None of the Sixers’ superstars did well through that stretch; Harden opened 1-for-6 from the floor, Embiid 3-for-11. Harden also picked up a Flagrant 1 foul for hitting Brown in the face with his right arm as the Sixers point guard got up to try and stop the drive. After this play, the game generally seemed to turn a touch meaner and more intense. Tatum and Brown were also effective aggressors. Tatum mixed things up very well on his drive, including a turnover motion and left tackle that lifted Boston to a 42-39 edge.
To close out the first half, the Sixers were determined to get mainly Embiid touchdowns on every possession. While the MVP increased his fitness and hit five foul shots late in the second quarter, his decisions when the double teamed weren’t always sharp and Al Horford played sound buffer defense.
After Embiid’s spin, Tatum took a step back three times. He had 25 points going into the break and led the Celtics by three points. At that point, Boston’s four-time All-Star winger was the most impressive player of the day. By the last bell, the landslide was even bigger.
Stuck at 58 forever
Embiid caught his second assist on the Sixers’ opener in the third quarter, kicking the ball to Harris for a three-goal lead.
The next few minutes of the Sixers’ offense was much worse. Playing his sixth straight game on a sprained right knee, Mbid was more often than not intentional on his touches from the post and elbow, trying to read the Boston defense and waiting for assistants to fully commit. It didn’t result in great shots very often, and the Sixers’ collective pace dropped midway through the game.
Tatum continued to nail both relieved and touchdown snaps, including a tricky three over Embiid and a pull three against the District Sixers. He deserves credit for dumping a bunch of jumpers that no defense could stop.
However, the Sixers’ efforts to salvage the situation and counter Boston’s surge in the third quarter were grim. Not many decent looks fell behind, but the team also lost its offensive structure and composure during a season-killing scoreless stretch that stretched from the 8:02 to 1:39 mark of the third. Harden committed a few turnovers and was unable to regain any offensive tempo. After a possession that ended in a shot clock violation because Embiid only hit the backboard on a desperate three, he looked up at Harden and shrugged.
As was the case last year when the Sixers played an ugly Game 6 and lost at home to the Heat, the final game of the team’s season reflects poorly on nearly everyone involved. Any defeat in Game 7 would be painful, but the fourth quarter on Sunday was utterly uncompetitive.
It’s hard to know yet exactly how the game will play out, but none of the major questions that lie ahead are fun ones for the Sixers to consider. Head coach Doc Rivers was again unable to guide the team beyond the second round. Harden has a 0.6 million player option. Harris is now going through four seasons of a five-year, $0 million contract. Embiid is 29 years old, MVP, and already a great Sixers player, but he has yet to play in the Conference Finals.
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