The Boston Celtics blew an opportunity to seize control of their Eastern Conference semifinals showdown against the Philadelphia 76ers, falling 119-115 in Game 1 on Monday night in Boston despite MVP candidate Joel Embiid's damaged right knee.
The Celtics shot 58.7% from the floor and were led by Jayson Tatum's 39 points, but Boston couldn't match the same energy on defence, allowing Philadelphia to shoot 50.6%. The Sixers were also led by James Harden, who scored 45 points and nailed the game-winning 3-pointer with 8.1 seconds left.
"I felt like we started off well offensively, but I don't think there was a sense of urgency on the defensive end," said Celtics centre Al Horford after the game.
"As much as you want to say Embiid's absence tonight wasn't a factor, I believe it was." We have to improve. We must recognise that we must be able to experiment with whatever happens and whatever variables exist. I've just seen it happen with our team for whatever reason."
While Tatum did not believe the Celtics underestimated the Sixers without Embiid, he did agree that Boston's defensive intensity was lacking.
"I think we allow guys to be a little bit too comfortable at times," Tatum admitted. "We can surely do better. We sometimes give up too many offensive rebounds, which hurts us on second and third chances. It's all about increasing our pressure and making folks uncomfortable. Everyone has talent, and they feel a little more liberated out there."
The Celtics and Sixers have met in the playoffs three times in the last six seasons, and Boston entered this series with an 8-1 record versus Philadelphia in those meetings. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, on the other hand, noticed how this year's Sixers had formed an identity without Embiid on the court, playing faster and spacing the floor with Harden directing the attack. This season, Philadelphia went 12-5 in games where Embiid did not play.
Despite this, Boston entered Game 1 as a double-digit favourite and took advantage of Embiid's absence by attacking the basket and scoring freely in the paint (Boston outscored Philadelphia 66-42 inside).
However, it was Harden who made the difference in the fourth quarter, outscoring Tatum and Jaylen Brown 15-10. Tatum made his final basket with 11:06 left in the fourth quarter. Brown's time was 6:11.
"Give the other guys credit," Tatum stated during his postgame news conference, staring at the stat sheet. "Harden had 45 points. Melton made five three-pointers. Those other guys stepped up, played big, and made shots.
"Regardless of the circumstance, you want to win, and we didn't do enough to win." "Every game you lose is a missed chance to win."
With the shot clock winding down, the Celtics lost the lead due to a turnover by Malcolm Brogdon on a pass tossed directly to Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey. Tatum said the Celtics assumed the play had a shot clock violation, so they didn't chase Maxey down the court in transition when he scored with 28.2 seconds left in the fourth to put the Sixers up.
Despite Tatum's free shots on the other end, it only set the scenario for Harden and the Sixers to steal Game 1 in Boston and stun the Celtics, who blew an opportunity.
"I'm not concerned, but I am aware," Brogdon added. "We must be prepared. We have to be prepared. Next game, we have to come out and deliver a message."