Sixers push listless Celtics until elimination

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BOSTON – Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said, “It’s not much different than the regular season,” and his team played therefore.

As was the case in Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Boston lacked the necessary energy from the jump, and the snowball deficit went into double digits by halftime. Only, this time the defending conference champions never met their rival’s competitiveness or made it interesting, falling 115-103 to elimination.

“That was the first game of the playoffs that we didn’t play well, in my opinion,” said Mazzulla, who sat out Game 1 and most of Game 4 of this series. and Game 5 of their first round win over the Atlanta Hawks. .

The Sixers take a 3-2 lead back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Thursday at 7:30 PM ET.

Rarely has TD Garden been so lifeless in the playoffs. Boos started in the second quarter, and by the end of the third, when the Celtics looked at Tyrese Maxey’s undisputed position, the crowd’s contempt reached a fever pitch. In the rare moments they played motivated enough to capture the attention of the fans – forcing a 24-second break down 14 late in the third and reducing the deficit to 11 on Jayson Tatum and – one early in the fourth – they turned the ball over. into a layup and allowed another wide-open 3-pointer.

“The energy wasn’t right,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “It could have been better, much better. We know that. We understand that. Tonight talking books. It just goes to show, if you’re not prepared … this can happen.”

“We’ve been yelled at before,” said Tatum, who scored 36 points, “so it’s nothing new. We’ve been in that situation before, and we didn’t play well today. The fans were seeing it. You saw his guys. it. and we know that.”

It was a listless loss in a growing number for a team that has led the NBA in net rating over the past two seasons, and there is no shortage of blame. The list will surely start on local sports radio with Mazzulla, the 34-year-old thrust into the starting job after Ime Udoka was suspended before training camp for an alleged affair. fit with assistant and top assistant Will Hardy gone for the Utah Jazz.

There are valid criticisms, to be sure. The Celtics have stuck to a drop pick-and-roll coverage that has not only allowed James Harden breathing room to shoot from distance but has given Joel Embiid the freedom to feast on his bread and butter jumpers. Worst of both worlds. After not calling time on a broken last play that cost them Game 4, Mazzulla said, “I’ll definitely learn from that.” He expressed a similar sentiment after losing to the Embiid- less Sixers in Game 1. Not what you want to hear from a contender’s coach.

Then, there is the question of a team that made the finals with a defense because their calling card now indicates that it is a suit first for itself. Their 117.3 points per 100 possessions topped the East in the regular season.

“Our strength is our offensive management,” Mazzulla told reporters during a practice session between Games 1 and 2. “This team has been built on defense for a long, long time. It’s in their DNA of that, and they’re always going to play hard, but we manage the best game with our offensive decisions.”

They might want to rethink that after Games 4 and 5. When the Celtics’ 3-pointers aren’t falling like they weren’t on Tuesday (27.3% on 33 attempts before garbage time) and when the matchup hunt is stagnating ‘ replacing ball movement, the defense could keep them within striking distance, but it is nowhere to be found. They allowed 121 points per 100 possessions in just 11 games in the regular season and won seven of them. They have now given that up in six of their 11 playoff games, including all five of their losses.

“We gave up everything they wanted us to give up,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said.

Boston Celtics Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum look on during the first quarter of their Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.  (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Boston Celtics Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum look on during the first quarter of their Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

This is a fundamental problem, but not the only one in Boston. The players are not without fault, either. Late lapses like in Game 4 of this series and lulls like in Game 5, when they played as if their own talent advantage paid off, have been common for three years in a row under coaches Brad Stevens, Udoka and Mazzulla. Stevens’ in-game changes reduced the margins of error, as did Udoka’s unstoppable force, but ultimately it’s up to the players to learn from their vast experience.

Tatum and Brown are just entering their primes, but they have played 84 playoff games together. If the Celtics still aren’t willing to admit that the partnership has a sub-competitive ceiling – and it’s reasonable to think they can still go up – Stevens, now head coach, will have questions basketball operations in Boston, to be answered beyond Brown’s next contract if his contract. a team losing to a team he had before.

Should Smart have the third highest usage rate in a very important game for a team that also boasts Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt? Al Horford turns 37 next month, and Robert Williams III hasn’t played with the same kick since knee surgery last year. And where did Grant Williams go?

As the final minutes ticked down on their fourth Game 5 loss in five tries, the Celtics starters watched from the bench. Horford put his arms around Tatum and Brown and told them something he’d rather keep in the locker room, but surely they can all see what’s in front of them: The promise that an eight seed could play there the conference finals for the right to. face one of the West’s flawed teams for a title.

“It’s the past,” said Brown. “We could talk about a lot of stuff that has happened in this series that could have gone the other way and didn’t. We have a great opportunity ahead of us, and by mourning in the past we would take that opportunity away. We’ve got to be ready to play basketball. That’s it.”

Like Mazzulla, Boston’s young stars must learn from the past, and that is not so easy in two days. It takes years, and they are six seasons into their championship quest. If they can’t fix it for a win-or-go-home Game 6 in Philadelphia, the Celtics at least have to start wondering if they ever will.

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