Not everyone had the injury-plagued Celtics making its second trip in a row to the Eastern Conference Finals, but that’s exactly what they did with a series-clinching 114-112 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Boston on Wednesday.
The team’s starting lineup for Game 5 of the semi-conference finals against the Sixers was drastically different from the one that began the season in October.
Despite season-ending injuries to Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis and having to cope with musical-chair injuries throughout the majority of their roster, the Celtics still thrived, taking to heart their “next man up” mentality.
“I respect very much this organization,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “I think Danny (Ainge) and Brad (Stevens) are fantastic. You’re always looking over your shoulder and watching how they’ve decided to grow their program. This was a hard fought series.”
Boston went into the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game clinging to a one-point, 83-82 lead after being up as many as 12. Jaylen Brown opened the final quarter with a jump shot, but Ersan Ilyasova quickly answered with a 3-pointer to tie the game at 85-85.
A Brown 3-pointer gave Boston back the lead, which was cut short again by a pair of Dario Saric free throws. A Robert Covington 3-pointer then gave Philadelphia its first lead since the third quarter, putting the Sixers up 90-88, but Jayson Tatum answered with a trip to the line to tie it again.
With the score tied 94-94 with 6:41 left to play, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called a timeout, and Boston went on a quick 6-0 run immediately after thanks to baskets by Al Horford and Terry Rozier.
Following a Sixers timeout, back-to-back foul calls on the Celtics put Boston in the bonus and sent Ben Simmons to the line, who made both.
The Sixers then went on a run of their own to take a 105-102 lead with 2:59 left to play before Marcus Smart cut the lead down to two at the line.
“They’re special because they keep coming,” Stevens said of the Sixers. “The Covington threes were huge, the Ilyasova’s, the one that he made, the Saric three in transition, like Embiid was a joke, how good he was tonight; guarding him in the post was really tough.”
With the Celtics down 109-105 with just over a minute to play, back-to-back baskets by Horford and Smart helped tie the game for the 11th time before a Tatum layup gave Boston the 111-109 lead with 22.5 seconds left.
An Embiid turnover gave Boston got the ball back with 10.8 seconds left. Rozier nailed a pair of free throws at the line to make it a one-possession game before a JJ Redick 3-pointer put the game back within one with 3.8 left to play.
Smart went 1-for-2 at the line but caught the Sixers in-bound pass to seal the victory for Boston.
“I said from the beginning, this is Game 7 and we treated it as such,” Jaylen Brown said. “We didn’t want to go back to Philly. We wanted to keep the momentum. It was good to get a closeout game here on our home court.”
Tatum and Brown led the way with 25 and 24 points, respectively, but Smart played a major role in the win, tacking on six rebounds, six assists and three steals, to go along with 14 points.
“When things weren’t going as smooth, (Smart) settled us down with his postups and his play around the rim,” Stevens said. “He made some great passes. He’s made for this. He’s made for these moments.”
Embiid and Saric led Philadelphia with 27 points each, followed by Simmons with 18 and Redick with 14.
Philadelphia shot 48.8 percent from the field while Boston shot 44.7. The Sixers also grabbed 48 rebounds to Boston’s 39, but it was second-chance points that helped will the Celtics to victory in a game that saw 21 lead changes, as Boston tallied 15 to Philadelphia’s seven. Boston also committed fewer turnovers, committing 10 to Philadelphia’s 16.
“I give them a lot of respect,” Embiid said of Boston following the game. “They play well together. They made some tough shots during the whole series, and they defended us pretty well. I have to give them a lot of credit.”
The Boston Celtics will now go on to face the Cleveland Cavaliers once again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 1 is 3:30 p.m. Sunday at TD Garden.