May 09, 2023
Tuesday night's Game 5 is arguably the biggest Sixers game in over two decades, a fact that has been true about the last two games of their matchup with the Celtics. That's how big the stakes are, when you consider their ability to potentially win a title this year and the consequences if it all falls apart in round two again.
The Sixers are heavy underdogs in Boston for the pivotal meeting, and we're all ultra-familiar with the matchup by now. Here are a couple of key factors that could swing Game 5 in Philly's favor.
Game 4 had so many twists and turns that you could spin it in multiple directions. Was it a gutsy win that forced Philadelphia to dig deep, a choke job they were saved from by James Harden, or some combination in between?
On Monday morning before leaving for Boston, head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that their fade in the second half was at least partially about their energy.
"Some of it was clear fatigue," Rivers said, "it is what it is. It was our first time playing that many minutes that hard, it's a difference in playing 40 minutes in the regular season and 40 minutes in the playoffs."
The one piece of that Rivers was heartened by is that the Sixers have been planning for this part of the season. Simon Rice, Philadelphia's VP of Athlete Care, advised Rivers and his players to hit the gas late in the season rather than prescribing additional rest. Rivers mentioned the need to prepare for playoff minutes at the end of the regular season, and they have fought this battle on multiple fronts — the Sixers have run their players more in late-season shootarounds, for example, to try to keep that base high.
There's no player for whom this is more important than Joel Embiid, who essentially missed two weeks of reps and got thrown back into the fire against the Celtics. One could argue fatigue has been the biggest hurdle for Embiid to clear, as he has looked far better than expected from an explosiveness and fluidity perspective. But Embiid has worn down as the last two games have moved toward crunch time, with Al Horford bringing back old playoff demons during Sunday afternoon's fourth quarter. He told reporters he had "no lift" for a crucial stretch of the game.
"I struggled a little bit in that fourth quarter," Embiid said. "I just had no lift in the fourth quarter. The other day was my first time really going up and down, tonight I played a lot of minutes. Kind of got to me toward the end, but got it back in overtime and started being aggressive again...I was terrible tonight, I got to be better, I will be better."
With the Celtics' core comprised of younger stars, the bounceback factor is viewed as a bigger challenge for the Sixers, even though James Harden dispelled that notion with a rip-roaring outing on Sunday. It's the wrong time of year to try to play yourself back into playoff-caliber shape, and the Sixers can only hope that a series of heavy-minute games will strengthen Embiid, preparing him for this final three-game stretch.
If not, then the team's hopes will rest on a cast of role players that dwindles as the series moves along. The Sixers effectively played seven guys in Game 4, bumping Jalen McDaniels from the rotation while only playing Paul Reed for six minutes and 16 seconds. Rivers made no apologies for the move, nor did he try to dress it up as more complicated than it is.
"I just shortened the rotation," Rivers said on Monday.
So in a series this tight, physical fitness could be a decisive factor.
After a first-round series that featured some big Maxey moments, the young guard looked poised for a breakthrough against a team that has beat him up his entire career. Four games into the matchup, Maxey has looked as helpless as ever, struggling to find a consistent source of offense despite having plenty of opportunities to impact the series.
His "best" outing of the second round was the opening game in Boston, with Maxey scoring 26 points on 24 shot attempts. The struggles have been multi-faceted — Maxey is 8/28 from beyond the three-point line and 18/41 on two-point shots, unable to find the range and without the ability to make up for it elsewhere.
Maxey careening into the paint at full speed only to get turned away by a Celtics shot-blocker has become a common sight in this series, leaving the Sixers without a reliable source of offense outside of Harden and Embiid. Doc Rivers views at least some of these struggles as a young player problem, with Maxey putting his head down and just trying to make something happen by any means necessary.
"He has some tough attacks, and we want to show him that just because you're driving in the paint doesn't mean you can't kick it out," Rivers said Monday. "They blocked it a couple of times, and I thought that ball should have come out. But he's young, and we know that, and we're just trying to teach him."
Combatting length as a smaller guard can take many forms, from initiating contact as a driver to leaning on your floater to (as Rivers points out) using your speed advantage to draw in help and create an open shot elsewhere. Maxey can do all of those things at his best, but has struggled to manage even one of those things in this series.
Presumably, James Harden is not going to have another 40+ point explosion against the Celtics on Tuesday night. Banking on Joel Embiid to carry the Sixers home is also dicier than it would have seemed coming into the playoffs, given the aforementioned fatigue factor. So Maxey's trajectory has huge implications for this game and the series.
One thing Philadelphia has been encouraged by with Maxey – his buy-in on defense. The Sixers have switched him freely and asked him to cover guys like Jayson Tatum at times. Maxey vs. a wing player is still a dicey proposition, but with the Sixers stressing to No. 0 that he has to fight and win these matchups early, he has done a better job of slowing down Boston's bigger wings as the series has worn on.
"He has really held his own," Rivers said Monday. "What we're really teaching him is against small fours and guys like that, you attack the dribble...when a guard gets on them and you attack the dribble, they turn their back. And that's what Tyrese has been doing, you see a lot of times where they're turning their back. That takes away what they want to do."
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