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May 09, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Celtics on road, take 3-2 lead in series

With a barrage of three-pointers and an incredible defensive effort from Joel Embiid, the Sixers have taken a 3-2 series lead over the Celtics with an emphatic win in Boston.

The Sixers beat the Celtics decisively in a pivotal Game 5 on the road, earning a 3-2 lead in the series with a 115-103 victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• We have seen the Sixers in this spot in the past, and it has never flattered them — the Heat and Raptors handed them beatdowns in their last two Game 5s on the road, and it is a mighty tough spot to be in within a 2-2 series. But the Sixers flashed a cold, single-minded demeanor in the opening minutes of this one, and that allowed them to keep the Boston crowd quiet as they found their footing.

The defensive discipline the Sixers showed in this game is what they've lacked in so many meetings with this opponent. Boston had to score by winning constant one-on-one battles, something the Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum combo is capable of but is hard to sustain over 48 minutes. Philadelphia did a good job of making life hard on the other guys in the opening period, hugging shooters tight or funneling shots to guys they were okay with letting fire. The Celtics would probably feel they could have taken better advantage of the open shots they got, but the Sixers deserve credit for their part in slowing them down.

A huge part of what was Joel Embiid, who continues to dominate the paint on defense and spook the Celtics when they go at him in the painted area. He has had success turning drivers of all sizes away in this series, and though Boston isn't scared of trying to beat you from the three-point line exclusively, there were stretches of this game where they lived in fear of Embiid at the rim.

• While we're on the subject of Embiid, this game was the perfect example of how the stakes and stats change in the playoffs. He did not shoot the ball at that well for stretches during this game, leaning a bit too much on the three-point shot at times in Game 5. But his approach was relentless, and the Celtics felt his size at all times on Tuesday night, whether that was because he was killing them on the glass or forcing them to take fouls around the basket.

You do not get an extra win in the series because your victories are pretty or because you played particularly efficient basketball. Embiid played like a man who understood that. Shrugging off missed jumpers and the occasional turnover, Embiid kept sticking his ass into smaller defenders, bullying and baiting as the Celtics swiped at the basketball and missed. He earned nine free throws in the first half, and forced old foe Al Horford to take a couple of silly fouls in an effort to contain him.

Most importantly, Embiid and James Harden put on an absolute clinic in the pick-and-roll. The Celtics have done some things to disrupt the Sixers' staple play in the middle of the floor, preventing Embiid from getting the ball in the first place. Harden and Embiid blew that to smithereens on Tuesday night — the big man was walking into practice shots for half of this game, and though he didn't connect on all of them, the sheer volume of easy looks was going to tilt in Philadelphia's favor eventually.

The big man was clearly feeling good in this game, good enough to make plays like this with Tyrese Maxey along the sideline:

In a sense, this was all P.J. Tucker was asking for when he screamed at Embiid during a pivotal moment in Game 4. The Sixers don't care if Embiid misses shots, but they will care if he allows himself to be taken out of a game because of momentary struggles. That has often been the difference in battles between Embiid's Sixers and elite teams, and he has shown a different level of resolve in these spots this season.

• Saying Tyrese Maxey was due for a good game against Boston is one of the understatements of the season — we were waiting for precisely one good game against the Celtics this year. Maxey sure picked a good time to get going, in a gigantic game that could very well tilt the series.

A big part of Maxey's success comes down to the weakness Philadelphia has discovered within Boston's defense — Al Horford is not up to the task as a pick-and-roll defender in space. The Sixers' wins in this series have been all about punishing Horford for his weaknesses on that end, a trend that continued on Tuesday. To get Maxey rolling, all they needed to do was use Embiid on a ball screen to get Horford in the action, and Maxey had his pick of good options to choose from.

That said, good options haven't been enough for Maxey in this series. Seeing him hit some open looks early in the game had to give the Sixers' sideline a feeling of relief and the idea that their guy might finally break through. He gave them a  first-quarter flurry that helped the Sixers go up by double digits, and he continued to look more comfortable as the game went on — after sputtering through meetings with Boston all season, Maxey offered a big shush to the Celtics' crowd after hitting a huge three early in the fourth quarter:

When Maxey has his swagger, the Sixers are tough to beat. Even with Harden sort of floating through this game, the Sixers never felt in danger because of Maxey's terrific outing. Great to see him back in his groove. 

• Joining Maxey in the resurgent performance category was Tobias Harris, who looked even more lost than Maxey had through the first four games. Notably, the Sixers made an effort to use Harris' gifts as an isolation scorer, giving him an early touch in the mid-post to punish Boston for putting Malcolm Brogdon on the floor. That seemed to give Harris a bit of wind in his sails, and he did an excellent job of balancing floor-spacing duties with rim attacks. Seeing Harris go hard at Robert Williams III at the rim was a welcome sight after so many moments of passivity earlier in this series. 

The only downside for Harris was foul trouble, and he struggled to stay on the floor for most of the second half as a result. But I liked what we saw from him regardless. 

• Paul Reed did very little that showed up in the box score, but he gave the Sixers a ton of good defense on switches in limited minutes, and the Sixers played Boston to a standstill with Embiid on the bench. Huge game for him.

• Doc Rivers deciding to play Danuel House Jr. real minutes in a pivotal Game 5 was a massive heat check, one that could have fired spectacularly if House had looked like a guy who had been out of the rotation for a while. Instead, House looked right at home in the middle of a tooth-and-nail series, emerging from mothballs to play his part.

Speaking of heat checks — how about House calling his own number on a fast break, flanked by several Sixers teammates, and stepping right past the lone Celtics defender for two points? It's that sort of confidence that can get him into trouble, but that same self-belief is what allowed him to jump into the series without blinking. He scored several buckets on step-through moves on Tuesday night, and now the biggest question is how many minutes he plays in Game 6, not whether he plays at all.

• P.J. Tucker doesn't make a ton of individual plays but you can remember almost every single one because of how soul-crushing it is for the opponent. An offensive rebound here, a strip of a driving Celtics player there, and it seems that he exists as a basketball player to disrupt the other team's momentum. He has earned his $10 million and then some just in this playoff run, and his tone-setting every day is a big part of why this team has looked like a different group this season.

• This is the best win of the Joel Embiid era and I don't believe there is a close second.

Everything we have said to flatter the Sixers this year – talking up their MVP, highlighting their depth, crediting them for improved resilience — showed up in the biggest game of their season. They took the fight to a team with homecourt advantage, the better regular season record, and all of the previous demons to lord over Philadelphia, throwing the Celtics in a trash compactor for the better part of 2.5 hours. They broke their spirit and sent the Celtics' home crowd to the exits with four minutes left in a playoff game.

The job is not yet finished, but this is what a contender looks like. They find ways to win, regardless of location and circumstance, and they march toward that shining goal off in the distance. 

The Bad

• If the Sixers could close out first halves with real urgency, they might have ended this series already. Oh well, I guess.

The Ugly

• The Sixers handing out this type of beatdown on the road.

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