After winning 16 straight to close the regular season and finishing off the Miami Heat in five games in the first round, the 76ers now head back to face Boston at the Wells Fargo Center for their 5 p.m. matchup on Saturday with their first two-game losing streak since late February.
Boston clipped the once-surging 76ers in Game 2 with a huge surge of their own, coming back from a 22-point deficit to win on Boston on Thursday, 108-103. 76ers head coach Brett Brown drew criticism for his handling of Boston’s big run. Down 48-26 early in the second quarter, Boston eventually cut the lead to five at the half and took control with a 28-19 third quarter, and Brown chose not to call timeouts with his team bleeding.
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“We have the league’s No. 1-rated starting five, is a fact,” he said. “Those five guys have shown great maturity, they have shown they can sustain different types of runs and still hold the fort. There were a few times (when he thought about calling a timeout). I mentioned there was one with (Terry) Rozier with his Euro-step that as I watched in the light of day, that was a moment you could have done it.”
As much criticism as Brown is facing, rookie point guard Ben Simmons might be facing the steepest uphill battle heading into Saturday’s matchup.
Simmons had arguably his worst game as a pro, scoring one point on 0-for-4 shooting with five rebounds and seven assists. What’s worse: His negative-23 plus/minus ratio.
Rozier and backcourt mate Marcus Smart, meanwhile, combined for 39 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds, and Boston got a big 13 points out of Jaylen Brown off the bench.
“I think the Celtics defensive intensity went to a higher level,” Brown said. “I think somewhere at the five-minute mark and we brought Joel (Embiid) and JJ (Redick) back into the game in the second period. We give them credit. They went on a little run and then they went on another run I think at two minutes left.”
Unlike the 76ers, who closed out the regular season with a bang, the Celtics were written off for much of the latter part of the schedule, after losing Kyrie Irving for the season and dropping four of six to close out the year. The Celtics’ seven-game series with Milwaukee in the first round did little to ease the chirping outside of Boston, especially with Philadelphia so hot.
But Brad Stevens’ strategy of resting his starters down the stretch might be paying dividends, as Al Horford and Rozier are averaging 35 or more minutes this series.
“Everyone feels good enough to play high minutes, which is why the last four games of the regular season were done the way we did,” said Stevens. “I think we had a plan of attack throughout the regular season based on each individual. Obviously we chose some times to rest guys, but not that many, but more so manage it throughout the games. We felt like we were a deep team.”
For both teams, Saturday’s matchup will be a study in short memories.
For the Celtics, they must erase in their minds the 22-point deficit they dug themselves into on Thursday.
For Philadelphia, the bad taste of a squandered double-digit lead must be forgotten. But not, Brown hopes, the lessons they learned.