Sixers stun Celtics in crucial Game 5, take 3-2 series lead

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Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is pressured by Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Philadelphia 76ers went into game five knowing what was at stake. Coming off an impressive overtime win in game four, Philly had to bring their A-game. With one of the top road records this season (25-16), the Sixers proved why this statistic was an important badge to wear, even in a hostile playoff atmosphere.

Early success for the Sixers

Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey (0) gestures after making a 3-point shot during the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, April 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

If there was concern about Joel Embiid playing poorly without his brace for the first time since he sustained a knee sprain, his first-half performance showed otherwise. He was looking to score early and often, and he did it from all over the floor. He knocked down 3-pointers, hit midrange jumpers, and visited the free-throw line frequently.

The other Sixers’ starters also contributed to the fast start and solid first half. Tobias Harris, who received fair criticism for his lack of production in this series, came alive in this game. He scored in transition, knocked down baskets beyond the arc, and dominated the glass. Harris finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

James Harden and Tyrese Maxey got into a rhythm as well, using pick-and-roll switches with Embiid to erode Boston’s perimeter defense and get open shots. Boston, who had success diminishing Maxey’s impact all series, had trouble tracking him in switch situations. 

Meanwhile, the first half saw Jayson Tatum struggle once again, as Al Horford could not find his shot. Horford did have several nice interior passes, but other than that, he picked up his second foul in the second quarter and had to sit while Embiid kept attacking the Celtics’ smaller defenders.

Jaylen Brown had a quiet 24 points, as Marcus Smart contributed 14 points on poor shooting, going 2-for-7 from the field.

Rather than bring in Jalen McDaniels, Doc Rivers gave spot minutes to Danuel House, Jr., who made the most of his time, scoring in transition and playing solid defense. House made a significant impact for the Sixers, finishing with 10 points in 15 minutes off the bench.

Second half spurts

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In the second half, the Sixers kept their foot on the gas, while Boston sputtered. Horford stayed cold, and everyone else wearing green except Tatum was invisible. 

The Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll was almost unguardable, as the two picked apart the Celtics’ defense. Embiid scored several mid-range jumpers and was just as effective on defense, blocking Tatum multiple times and altering other shots from Boston players. 

The Sixers controlled the pace as they played in sync. Harden orchestrated several fast breaks, finding House on one of them to halt a Celtics’ early run in the fourth. The Celtics deliberately kept attacking the paint to draw fouls, and they were successful at slowing the clock but missed several free throws. 

Joe Mazzulla became so desperate that he brought Payton Pritchett off the bench as a spark. It didn’t matter. 

Then, Boston cut the lead to 11. Just as Celtics fans saw a glimmer of hope, Maxey drained a three, and Embiid knocked down one a few plays later, causing Boston to call timeout. 

Maxey was rolling at this point, putting pressure on the rim, and scoring from various spots on the floor. Whatever worked to limit Maxey in the previous four games was ineffective in game five. He ended up with 30 points, knocking down 6-of-12 from three. 

As the game came to a close, the Sixers responded with points anytime Boston scored. A P.J. Tucker corner three and a Maxey long-distance dagger sent Boston fans up the aisle and to their cars. 

Doc Rivers made adjustments offensively, applied zone defense to keep Boston guessing, and even tinkered with his rotation. All three were major factors in the outcome of the game.

The Sixers have a chance to close out the series on Thursday night in Philadelphia.