Celtics

3 takeaways from the Celtics’ nail-biting, series-clinching victory over the 76ers

Onward.

Al Horford
Al Horford starts the celebration after Boston's 114-112 victory. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The undermanned underdogs are moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics eliminated the 76ers Wednesday night in a hard fought battle that saw 21 lead changes and 11 ties. Boston trailed by four with 97 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but once again found a way to not only score buckets of their own but also force two Philadelphia turnovers.

With the 114-112 victory, Boston remains undefeated on its home parquet and advances to play Cleveland in the conference finals for the second straight season.

“We’ll just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we’re doing it,” rookie Jayson Tatum told reporters in his postgame press conference.

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Here’s what we learned from Game 5:

Marcus Smart is going to be Marcus Smart.

Perhaps the most “Marcus Smart” sequence of events happened in the final three seconds of the game.

Terry Rozier made two free throws to give the Celtics a 113-109 lead, but 76ers guard JJ Redick darted up the floor to sink a three and cut the lead to one. After coach Brad Stevens called a timeout, Smart inbounded the ball to Al Horford, who then immediately passed it back to Smart, who was fouled.

Given their respective performances at the free-throw line, it’s a bit perplexing why Horford didn’t hang on to the ball and wait to be fouled himself. But Celtics fans won’t have to rue his decision-making process, as Smart managed to close out the game in his characteristically frustrating but irreplaceable fashion.

With the score 113-112, Smart…

  1. Missed the first free throw — the one he wanted to make.
  2. Made the second free throw — the one he tried to miss (to run the remaining 2.4 seconds off the clock).
  3. Intercepted Ben Simmons’s Hail Mary pass (to prevent a Philly shot attempt and seal the win).

“That just describes him so well,” Jaylen Brown told reporters in his postgame press conference. “Tries to miss a free throw, makes it, and the first guy that gets back and gets the steal and put his body on the line. He didn’t care if he ran into somebody or if he hurt himself, he was coming up with that ball.”

Smart finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, and three steals in 33 minutes off the bench. His plus-minus was a team-high plus-10.

“He’s made for this,” Stevens said. “He’s made for these moments — and that’s the thing that we just keep talking about. We can go through a stat line all you want, but when your seasons are on the line and when you’re in the playoffs and when you’ve got to do really hard things, he can do really hard things.”

This team has poise.

No Kyrie Irving, no Gordon Hayward, no Daniel Theis, no Shane Larkin, no problem?

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Not exactly.

But the Celtics sure are making it work.

With the exception of Game 1, each of Boston’s wins has come down to plays down the stretch. No matter the situation — whether they’ve overcome a 22-point deficit or blown 10-point lead — this team doesn’t seem fazed by any of the circumstances they’ve found themselves in.

“I always hoped we would get to the point where if things don’t go our way, we’re still extremely competitive because we have a foundation in place,” Stevens said. “That’s not a given. Things haven’t always gone our way, but these guys are really talented, they’re really tough, and they fit Boston.”

The team’s season of injuries and improbable wins has seemingly primed them to expect the unexpected. With Larkin likely out for the majority, if not all, of the Eastern Conference Finals, the loss is just another item to add to the laundry list of reasons why the Celtics shouldn’t be still playing in the postseason.

“We had to get Game 1 without Jaylen Brown, so the story continues,” Rozier said. “That’s just the way it goes.”

‘It always starts on the defensive end for us.’

Giannis Antetokounmpo? Check. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? Check.

Bring on LeBron James.

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When asked how the team is going to contain the three-time NBA champion, center Aron Baynes said the game plan will be focused on the team’s defense. But good defense doesn’t necessarily mean James will be limited to a low number of points. After all, Embiid put up 31, 20, 22, and 27 in each of Philadelphia’s losses.

“It’s not about them taking shots, it’s about them taking the shots we want them to take,” Baynes explained. “If we do that, then we know the percentage is going to play out in our favor every single time. That’s what it’s about for us. We know what type of shots we want them taking.”

Baynes played 24 minutes in Game 5 and contributed not only on the defensive end, by making things tough for Embiid, but also on the offensive end, by grabbing five offensive rebounds and sinking another three-pointer. Baynes connected on seven shots behind the arc this series.

“He’s really had to change his game all year,” Horford said. “He’s extended his range, he’s shooting threes now, he’s taken the challenge defensively of being our rim protector every night. I’m just so happy for him to see him have success at this level and tonight he was great for us.”

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