BOSTON (AP) — Having silenced the TD Garden crowd and put the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics on the brink of a second-round exit, 76ers players barely cracked a smile as they walked off the court.
“It’s not over. We have to get one more,” Joel Embiid said. “All of us. We have to show up.”
They’ll soon get that chance.
Embiid scored 33 points and Philadelphia easily took a 3-2 lead in the East semifinals, beating Boston 115-103 on Tuesday night.
The 76ers led by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter as home fans booed the Celtics, and can close out the series and advance to the conference finals when they host Game 6 on Thursday night. Philadelphia hasn’t reached that stage of the playoffs since 2001.
“What we did tonight, it’s easier said than done. But we have to do it again,” Embiid said.
It was the third straight 30-point game in the series for the reigning MVP, who used his full array offensive weapons to pick apart the Celtics defense. He also had seven rebounds, four blocks and three 3-pointers.
Tyrese Maxey added 30 points and six 3-pointers. James Harden finished with 17 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
Coach Doc Rivers likened Harden’s play to that of a catcher in baseball calling the perfect game, putting his teammates in optimal position while also scoring big buckets in key moments.
Rivers said it helped his team endure each of Boston’s attempts to get back into the game.
“You just have breathe through it and our guys did that,” Rivers said.
Jayson Tatum led Boston with 36 points but was just 11 of 27 from the field. Jaylen Brown finished with 24 points. The Celtics went 12 of 38 from the 3-point line.
“I think we just didn’t have it today,” Tatum said.
If there’s any solace for Boston, it’s that the Celtics survived this exact scenario last year in this round, overcoming a 3-2 deficit to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks.
“If you’re not willing to get dirty, if you’re not willing to pretty much bleed, if you’re not willing to break something...then you shouldn’t be on that court,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “Because that’s what it is. That’s what the playoffs are about.”
The previous two occasions the 76ers were in a second-round series that was tied 2-2, they were blown out in Game 5 — a 36-point loss to Toronto in 2019 and 35-point loss to Miami last season.
Not this time.
The 76ers led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter and took an 88-72 lead into the fourth.
A quick flurry by the Celtics cut the deficit to 11, but Philadelphia responded with a 10-2 run to push it back up to 102-83.
It was 105-89 when Brown got free on a fast break and attempted to drop in a layup. But Embiid, who stayed in pursuit, was there to swat it away.
Philadelphia made a concerted effort to get the ball to Embiid in the post from the outset. He was able to knock down midrange jumpers, helping to open the floor for his teammates as Boston’s big men were pulled out of the paint.
Meanwhile, the Celtics struggled to find their shot throughout.
The 76ers enjoyed an early rebounding advantage and had success with Embiid running pick-and-roll sets at Al Horford. It led to scoring opportunities for Embiid and contributed to Philadelphia building a 15-point lead in the first half.
Tatum missed his first six attempts before hitting a runner with 5:48 left in the second quarter. He finished the first half with 15 points but was just 3 of 11 from the field (1 of 6 from 3-point range).
Boston eventually cobbled together a 10-0 run to cut into the deficit, but Philadelphia settled down and went into halftime with a 58-49 lead.
Harden said the Sixers’ mindset heading back home with a chance to closeout the series is clear.
“Don’t think too much of it, just go out there and play our brand of basketball,” he said.
76ers: Embiid had 21 first-half points, going 9 for 9 from the free throw line.
Celtics: Their 103 points were their fewest of this postseason. … Boston shot 5 of 19 from beyond the arc in the opening 24 minutes.
Embiid’s three consecutive 30-point games is tied for his longest streak within a postseason in his career. The only other players in franchise history with longer streaks are Allen Iverson (five in 2001) and Wilt Chamberlain (four in 1965).