First of all, let's just take a collective sigh of relief. I previously talked about how Celtics' Nation as a whole should not be worried after the Philadelphia 76ers tied up the series at 2-2 and I almost had to eat my words.
Thanks to head coach Joe Mazzulla and All-Star Jayson Tatum, my reassurance that the Celtics would be fine looks pretty intelligent right now (let me have this one, c'mon). The Boston Celtics completely dominated the Sixers in the second half of Game 7 and are now going back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth time in seven years.
The C's overcame a 3-2 series deficit and were able to beat the Sixers on the road in Game 6 before carrying that momentum over in Game 7 yesterday, where they blew Philly off the court, 112-88. Tatum deserves all the headlines in the last two games of this series; 16 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 after starting the game 1-14 and then 51 points in Game 7 in front of an electric Boston crowd.
As his Boston legacy continues to grow however, another one just began and in all honesty it began in Game 6. The adjustment that Mazzulla made to insert Robert Williams III into the starting lineup over Derrick White was the biggest adjustment in the series and swung the momentum in Boston's favor.
Immediately in Game 6, Rob was a problem for Philly. Mazzulla assigned him to guard P.J. Tucker, but this allowed Big Rob to roam around the paint, just waiting to help Al Horford with Joel Embiid or on a James Harden drive into the lane. This bothered the MVP as he constantly saw Williams looming over Al, waiting to contest anything close at the rim and daring him to shoot contested jumpers. Al and Rob played a total of 19 minutes together on the floor in Game 6, which resulted in an 86 offensive rating for the Sixers in those possessions. In the 20 minutes that Rob sat on the bench, Boston was outscored by nine points.
Another area that Mazzulla placed Williams in the perfect spot was in the Harden/Embiid pick and roll. Harden is extremely crafty in this area and found success in the first give games, hitting Embiid at his spot for a free throw line jumper or using the screen to just drive it himself to the rim. To adjust to this, Rob began to sit in the lane, helping on a potential Harden drive which allowed Al to stick with Embiid on the role, taking away that potential pass. If Harden kicked it out to now a wide open Tucker (Rob's man that he is "guarding"), the athletic Williams can easily recover and contest that shot. With this new look, the Celtics were basically asking Harden if he wanted to drive into Williams or if he wanted to kick it out for a contested shot coming from Sixers' role players, who looked like they weren't even aware that they were on the floor at times.
These adjustments continued in Game 7 and completely discombobulated the Sixers' pick and roll game. Embiid and Harden were held to a combined 24 points, 38% true shooting, and nine total turnovers. It was amazing to see the Celtics go back to their "Time Lord" defensive roots after playing multiple small ball lineups. Mazzulla got a lot of heat throughout this series, but this adjustment proved to be vital and this will be known as his first great playoff coaching moment.
Coaching in sports can only go so far however. Any team needs players that can carry out a coach's game plans. Jayson Tatum was that player yesterday in front of his mom on Mother's Day.
Tatum dropped 51 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists on 17 for 28 total shooting. He ended up going six for ten from beyond the arc, good for 60%, and absolutely cooked anyone on the Sixers that tried to guard him. His 51 was the most all time in a Game 7 in NBA history. The most impressive thing for me about his performance yesterday was the fact that he only attempted three three-balls in the first half. He did not settle for long contested jumpers and showed off his finishing ability with both hands. There has been some chatter throughout this series about Tatum's efficiency and his "clutch gene." He put that to bed. He showed up and the Celtics are moving on.
This was two legacy games for Mazzulla and Tatum. Let's not forget what both of them did for the city of Boston in this series. I understand, job's not finished and they still have to now beat the Miami Heat to get back to the Finals. But, let's just recognize the greatness that these two men showed.
Be sure to check out fansonlysportz.com for more sports content updated daily!
Stay tuned as the Celtics continue their playoff run and will now face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals!
- W. Monast