First the confetti fell, erroneously.
Five minutes later the Philadelphia 76ers fell, too, into a 3-0 hole against the Boston Celtics, thanks to a plethora of late-game errors the hosts will wish they could have back.
Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 24 points and Al Horford, after not scoring a single point in the first half, delivered the game-winning bucket and game-sealing steal to give the Celtics a thrilling 101-98 win that puts them one game away of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The game started out slowly on the offensive end. After missing their first seven threes, the Sixers hit back-to-back deep balls from Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick and took a 20-19 lead into the first-quarter break.
The 76ers also finished the second quarter strong. After Boston stretched its lead to double digits — first at 35-25 with 6:34 to go and then again at 38-28 with 6:01 to go — the hosts came roaring back, playing the brand of basketball that made them so successful this season and then a winner in just five games over the Heat in the first round. The Sixers finished the final six minutes of the opening half on a 23-10 run, an extended streak that included everything that “The Process” could have hoped to become. Ben Simmons flew down the lane and threw down a violent flush, and one possession later he found Redick for a three in transition to cut the deficit one, 43-42.
Then came the moment that brought the Wells Fargo Center to pandemonium: Simmons and Embiid running the floor together, the former finding the latter for a thunderous slam that will put Aron Baynes on the wrong end of a poster that will soon hang in bedrooms all over Philadelphia.
But the Celtics, who ended the first half of Game 2 on a massive run themselves, responded impressivey, winning the third quarter 21-17. Horford knotted things up at 55 with a tough finish in the lane. Shortly thereafter, Terry Rozier hit a corner three after his initial attempt was blocked to give Boston a 58-57 advantage with 9:01 left in the third, the visitors’ first lead since 2:42 in the second quarter. The teams matched points for the remainder of the quarter, and the Celtics ended the quarter up one, 69-68.
The fourth quarter brought all the intensity you would expect out of two gritty teams — one hoping, despite a bevy of injury, to take a commanding 3-0 lead, the other needing a win to, for all intents and purposes, keep its season alive — in what had been a physical contest the entire afternoon. Embiid took exception to a post-whistle shove from Baynes, and the two exchanged words. On the subsequent possession, Embiid got his adversary to jump on a pump fake and scored on a beautiful step-through, yelling at Baynes all the way back down the floor.
But for all the final quarter had in intensity, it lacked in quality offensive basketball. Ben Simmons blew a wide open dunk and a lay-up on back-to-back possessions. The Celtics missed their last nine straight threes. After Ersan Ilyasova hit two free-throws, the teams combined for just four points — a lovely drive and finish through contact from Rozier answered by another poster from Embiid off the dribble — over the next 2:43.
The teams then exchanged tough buckets — an off-balance deep two from Redick and a contested mid-range bucket from Tatum — before two Belinelli free throws gave Philadelphia a two-point lead. But Brad Stevens drew up a beautiful play out of a timeout to tie things up with a Jaylen Brown lay-up, and things were knotted at 87 with 24 seconds remaining.
Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown elected not to call a timeout with a chance to set up a final shot, and Redick turned it over when Simmons and Embiid collided. Jaylen Brown finished at the rim at the other end, the Celtics had taken the lead. Wells Fargo Arena was in shock. But the 76ers weren’t quite done: Out of a timeout, Belinelli wriggled free in the corner and nailed a fadeaway jumper inches inside the three-point arc, miraculously tying things at 91. The operations crew, thinking that the shot was a three, released celebratory confetti, and the game was delayed about seven minutes between the fourth quarter and overtime as workers valiantly tried to sweep up the premature celebration.
In overtime, Belinelli opened the scoring and a Redick three widened the gap to five, but Tatum refused to allow the Celtics to go quietly. The rookie scored on a couple of beautiful drives, finishing at the rim despite Embiid’s massive frame hounding him in the paint. A few possessions later, with a chance to extend their 98-97 lead, Embiid and Simmons both missed — Simmons missing an open shot from just a few feet away. Stevens again drew up a beautiful play, getting Horford one-on-one in the post with Robert Covington. Marcus Morris delivered a wonderful pass, and Horford’s finish through contact with 5.5 seconds left gave Boston a 99-98 lead, the team’s first in the extra period. Horford then stole the inbounds pass and hit a couple of free throws at the other end. Belinelli’s desperation three at the buzzer went clanging off the back iron.
It’s a brutal loss for the 76ers. The Sixers haven’t advanced past the second round since 2001, and now they’ll have to do what no NBA team has done before — overcome a 3-0 series deficit — to end that drought. The hosts turned it over 15 times, and at least a handful of those were off of careless passes and miscommunications far from the basket. This isn’t a new issue, though: Philadelphia ranked dead last in the league with 16.4 turnovers per game during the regular season, and that trend is haunting them. Robert Covington, one of the team’s most consistent players during the regular season, has sandwiched a 22-point Game 2 around a three-point Game 1 and a one-point Game 3. He’s a combined 0 for 14 in those two games. Joel Embiid made the biggest highlight plays of the contest, but he was just 10 for 26 from the field.
Meanwhile, Stevens and the Celtics continue to be simply magnificent, even with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis out. Jaylen Brown, who was supposed to be on a 25-minute restriction due to a hamstring injury, had to power through 29 minutes after Marcus Smart fouled out and scored 16 big points off the bench and chipped in nine boards. Tatum, as he has done all year, scored on all three levels, showcasing his well-rounded offensive game. Terry Rozier couldn’t get it going from deep (just two for eight) but was fearless going to the basket, making five of his seven two-point attempts. He also gathered in seven rebounds, dished out three assists and recorded no turnovers. Horford and Baynes hounded Embiid all game long, and Horford even had two emphatic rejections on the Philadelphia All-Star big man. Stevens very much looks like a coach who has been there already, and he has, but more impressively, his team full of youngsters looks like it has been there already, too.
The Sixers will try to keep their season alive on Monday night at 6:00 p.m. ET.