8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -7.5, Over/Under: 216
Just when you think you have the NBA Playoffs figured out, something happens to question your logic, as the Boston Celtics look to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole against the resilient Philadelphia 76ers, who are looking to press their advantage in Game Two of this Eastern Conference Semifinal from TD Garden with the return of one VERY big piece of their arsenal. For all intents and purposes, Monday’s opener was a game that the 76ers (54-28, 3rd in Eastern Conference) were supposed to lose, particularly when the news broke that (two-time reigning scoring champion) Joel Embiid would be sidelined with a sprained LCL in his right knee suffered in Game Three of their sweep of the Nets in the first round. However, rather than playing to the script, Philadelphia came out and attacked the Celtics throughout an affair that turned into a bonafide track meet, with both teams shooting over 50.0% from the field. After falling behind early, the visitors gradually clawed their way back into the contest largely on the strength of (ten-time All-Star Guard) James Harden, who took a massive step towards shedding his playoff bust label in tying a postseason-high with FORTY-FIVE points, including the go-ahead three-pointer with eight seconds remaining. Simply put, THIS was the kind of performance that the bearded one needed to change the narrative as he torched the reigning Eastern Conference Champions in their own building without his prolific teammate. The 2017-2018 MVP-winner may have led the league in assists this year (10.7) but exhibited that he still knows how to fill up the basket, netting a stellar 17-of-30 attempts from the field (56.7%), including a torrid 7-of-14 from beyond the arc (50.0%), along with six assists and a pair of steals. The only player in NBA history to win multiple scoring and assists titles over the course of his career, Harden (pictured above) looked like a man on mission in Game One, which bodes well for the Sixers moving forward as Embiid’s health status continues to linger like a black cloud. There may not be a single player in the Association under more pressure in these playoffs, for at 33-years old, he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, with a wealth of rumors abound regarding his future with the organization. Will Philadelphia re-sign him to a max deal? Will he seriously return to Houston? Again, performances such as this allow the prolific yet mercurial Guard to continue controlling the narrative. However, Harden was hardly the only member of the rotation to put in a strong showing in Boston, as (emerging Point Guard) Tyrese Maxey totaled twenty-six points on 10-of-24 shooting (41.7%), two assists, and four steals, while (veteran Swingman) Tobias Harris stepped up with eighteen points on an efficient 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 2-of-5 from three (40.0%), with five boards, three dimes, a steal and a block. Furthermore, (backup Guard) De’Anthoy Melton enjoyed a strong showing off the bench with seventeen points of his own, netting 5-of-6 triples (83.3%). The money ball was certainly a key to victory for Rivers & Co, as they outscored the hosts by TWENTY-ONE points in that regard, draining 17-of-38 attempts overall (44.7%). This helped make up for their significant disadvantage in the paint (-24), which is understandable without the presence of the big fella. Another key to victory was their pressure on the defensive end. Granted, you may laugh at that notion when your opponent shoots nearly 60.0% from the field, but the 76ers definitely disrupted the Celtics rhythm at times, forcing the home side into sixteen turnovers, which they managed to manufacture into twenty points. From a betting perspective, the 76ers have covered seven of their last ten games regardless of the venue, including each of their last five outings. They’ve matched those marks on the road, while posting a 4-1 record in their last five games when receiving points from the oddsmakers. Game One’s triumph aside, Boston has proven to be a tough nut to crack for the Sixers, who have failed to cover all but one of the last five meetings, while splitting their last ten trips to TD Garden. Furthermore, they’re 6-0-1 against the spread over their last seven games overall and matching that record against their last seven opponents with a straight-up winning record, which is obviously the case tonight. On the injury front, news broke early this morning that Embiid will indeed make his return to the hardwood tonight. The newly awarded MVP was listed as doubtful on Monday night and given the outcome of that affair, there was a credible train of thought that Rivers could hold him out of action in effort to make sure he is healthier when the series shifts to Philadelphia this weekend. This is a sign that the Sixers are deadly serious of leaving Boston with a commanding 2-0 lead as the series shifts back to the City of Brotherly Love. Embiid becomes the fourth player in franchise history to receive the award, and the first since Allen Iverson back in 2001, averaging 33.1 points per game on 54.8% shooting, including 33.0% from three, along with 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.7 blocks.
Meanwhile, is it time for the faithful in Beantown to start worrying about their beloved Celtics (57-25, 2nd in Eastern Conference)? While that notion may be a bit premature at this stage of their series with the 76ers, there is no doubt a sense of angst following their surprising 119-115 defeat in Monday night’s opener. After advancing all the way to last summer’s NBA Finals where they fell just short of winning the franchise’s eighteenth championship, Boston looked like the best team in the East for long stretches of the campaign and were certainly on the shortlist of favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy despite parting ways with (former Head Coach) Ime Udoka in the offseason due to scandal. To his credit, (current Head Coach) Joe Mazzulla has done a tremendous job of not only keeping the ship afloat, but improving the team, particularly on the offensive end where his charges finished fourth in scoring (117.9) and second in offensive rating (118.0). However, the playoffs are proving to be a different matter altogether, with the 34-year-old now coming under scrutiny for how they’ve performed thus far. More so than anything, the playoffs are about individual matchups and adjustments, and through seven games thus far it has been a mixed bag for the Celtics, who after winning the first two games of their first-round affair with the Hawks with relative ease, were given fits over the final four chapters. The longer that that series, the less focused Boston appeared to be, particularly on the defensive end of the hardwood, which was their calling card under Udoka. Games Five and Six saw Atlanta shoot 46.8% from the field and a stunning 44.7% from three, while dishing out a healthy 27.0 assists and committing just 9.0 turnovers. There was initially a sense that they may be able to course correct themselves in the early stages of this current matchup with the 76ers, particularly with the aforementioned Embiid sidelined for Game One, but these playoffs proved once again to be nothing short of unpredictable. And so it went on Monday night, as Mazzulla’s unit shot a blistering 58.7% from the floor, outscored the visitors 66-42 in the paint, outrebounded them 38-28, and committed just ten fouls over the course of forty-eight minutes, yet STILL managed to find a way to lose the game and home court advantage. So, what gives in Beantown, you ask? Well, as we saw in last year’s playoffs, when this team loses it’s largely due to self-inflicted wounds and poor shooting. Sure, they had no problem getting to the rim and finishing without Embiid in the paint, but they weren’t nearly as sharp from beyond the arc, where despite netting a solid 10-of-26 treys, were outscored by TWENTY-ONE points. As far as struggling to take care of the basketball, the Celtics committed sixteen turnovers, twice as many as the Sixers, who turned that into twenty points going int the opposite direction. There is a growing train of thought that while Mazzulla has elevated this group offensively, it has come at the expense of their defensive prowess, which is hard to ignore after watching the aforementioned Harden light them up for forty-five points. (All-NBA Swingman) Jayson Tatum (pictured above) did his part with thirty-nine points on 14-of-25 shooting (56.0%), including 4-of-5 from three (80.0%) and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe (87.5%), along with eleven rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block, while (fellow wing) Jaylen Brown added twenty-three points on a stunning 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%), 3-of-4 from downtown (75.0%), six boards and four dimes, though in his case only three shot attempts came in the second half. (Newly minted Sixth Man of the Year) Malcolm Brogdon contributed off the bench with twenty points on 9-of-16 shooting (56.3%), three rebounds and assists apiece, while (2021-2022 Defensive Player of the Year) Marcus Smart finished with twelve points, three rebounds, and seven assists, but was also responsible for SIX turnovers. From a betting perspective, the Celtics had covered four of the last five meetings with the Sixers prior to Monday night’s opener and are 7-3 against the spread over the last ten games overall regardless of the opponent. They’ve also covered seven of their last ten outings at TD Garden, though are just 1-2 in that regard in their last three. Mazzulla’s troops are 5-5 against the spread in their last ten tilts when favored by the oddsmakers, though they have responded well after a spread loss, covering six straight such games, which is the case tonight. In the long, storied history of the NBA, this is certainly one of its greatest postseason rivalries with these teams having met on fifteen occasions dating back to 1965, with Boston holding a commanding 10-4 advantage, and winning five consecutive series since 1985.