The Celtics and 76ers have one of the NBA’s great rivalries, and Sunday’s big game in Boston marks the eighth Game 7 between the two teams — the most all time. But the stakes seem particularly enormous this time around. One team will survive and advance in triumph; the other will face serious questions about its future. Let’s dive into three key factors that will determine who wins the biggest game of the playoffs so far.
If the Sixers lose this series, the end of Game 6 might haunt their dreams for years to come. Jayson Tatum outscored Philadelphia by himself in the fourth quarter, and Embiid, who has won two consecutive scoring titles, did not even touch the basketball in the game’s final 3 minutes and 55 seconds. That’s unacceptable. But it should inspire Embiid, his teammates and coaches to ensure that the MVP gets a lot of shots in Game 7.
Embiid is the single biggest factor here. Duh — he’s the MVP. He has the potential to swing the outcome of any game. The Sixers have won the two games when Embiid has shot at least 20 times; they’ve lost all three when he has not. But how does he get all those shots? He creates most of them himself — 63% of the scoring champ’s shots have been unassisted this postseason, and those unassisted midrange jumpers and driving layups are the shots to look for in this game.
Embiid’s self-created 2-point attempts are vital for his scoring and this Sixers offense, which ranked third in efficiency in the regular season, but he has struggled with these shots in their losses against Boston’s No. 2-ranked defense. If Embiid can create and convert his own looks, Philly can steal Game 7. If he’s passive and not getting touches like he was at the end of Game 6, his season will end in frustration against his rivals.
From Boston’s perspective, Horford has the biggest defensive assignment of the season. He has served as Embiid’s primary defender — and has been great in that role. Horford deserves more shine for his defensive excellence in this series, so let’s look at some numbers. Embiid has converted 20 of his 47 shots and only 6 of his 14 layup attempts when Horford has been the closest defender; those aren’t MVP numbers.
Boston’s 36-year-old big man was particularly marvelous down the stretch in Game 4, when he blocked three of Embiid’s attempts in the fourth quarter alone.
How rare is that? Horford was the first player to block Embiid three times in a single quarter in his career.
Defense isn’t glamorous, and it rarely makes the headlines, but make no mistake: Boston is a defensive juggernaut, and if Horford can contain Embiid in Game 7, he might go down as the real MVP of this series for his work on the scoring champ.
2. The double-big lineup
After the Celtics’ disappointing Game 5 loss at home, Joe Mazzulla changed their starting lineup, inserting Robert Williams III in place of Derrick White. It worked. Williams turned lobs into fiery dunks on offense and protected the paint on defense. In his 28 minutes, the Celtics outscored the Sixers by 18 points. In his 20 minutes on the bench, Philly outscored Boston by 9.
The lineup tweak was a blast from the past, a callback to last season’s rotations under Ime Udoka, when Boston routinely started both Williams and Horford in the frontcourt, along with Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. This five-man group was by far the team’s most common lineup last season, and its elite effectiveness (net rating 24.6) was a huge reason Boston went from mediocre early last season to dominant down the stretch.
This double-big lineup logged 443 minutes together last season, a figure that dropped drastically under Mazzulla to just 81 minutes, in large part because Williams was hurt. Regardless, if Game 6 was any indication, this quintet is back to its old tricks — it won its 15 minutes 36-24 Thursday. If Philly wants to win Game 7, it will have to do better against this “old-school” Celts starting group. Easier said than done.
More Williams means less White, which puts more of an offensive burden on Tatum and Brown. For the first 40ish minutes of Game 6, it didn’t look as if Tatum was ready to shoulder that increased load. But then he flipped the script, and his crunch-time jumpers put his team over the hump — with Tatum scoring 11 of his team’s 13 points late in the fourth quarter — in that game’s most important stretch. Brown has been Boston’s steadiest option this series, making over 55% of his shots through six games, and, like the other All-Stars in this series, he too could single-handedly be a difference-maker as a scorer in Game 7.
Ultimately, Boston’s depth is a luxury because it allows Mazzulla to tinker with personnel and rotations until he finds a winning combination. The return of the double-big starting lineup in this series might go down as the most important example of that.
3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Beard
James Harden‘s playoff reputation is … let’s say, enigmatic, and his up-and-down series against Boston isn’t exactly clearing that up. He has logged two masterpiece performances in Games 1 and 4, leading his team to huge wins with throwback performances that reminded us of how great he can be.
Two of Philly’s wins have come on late go-ahead Harden 3s. … Game 1: GW 3-pointer with 8.4 seconds left and Game 4: GW 3-pointer with 19.0 seconds left.
Harden is the third player in the past 25 seasons with multiple go-ahead 3-point field goals in the final 20 seconds in a single playoff, which is awesome, but that only makes some of his dud performances even more head-scratching.
This Game 7 gives the former MVP a huge platform to either prove his doubters wrong or reinforce the notion that he can’t win these exact types of games. Harden has shot under 30% when facing elimination five times in his career.
That is tied with Rasheed Wallace for the most such games in the shot clock era (min. 10 FGA).
After making 17 shots in Game 4, Harden has made only four in each of the past two contests. That’s not enough, and the outcome of Game 7 hinges on whether we get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Beard in Boston (no, I don’t know which one is which).
Harden’s scoring output has everything to do with his ability to convert two specific shot types: layups and 3-point shots. The splits are dramatic across both of them.
Harden’s big games always include successful drives that end in made layups or free throws and good 3-point shooting. His worst games feature missed paint shots and bricks from downtown. Those signature shots will be a key indicator in this tense Game 7.
As Harden’s skills have waned in recent years, so has his ability to convert inside. If there’s one stat that summarizes his decline, it might be this: Among the 38 players who have attempted at least 50 paint shots this postseason, Harden ranks last in efficiency, converting a lowly 38.2% of his attempts in the lane in these playoffs. If Philly wants to win this game, and this series, it’s going to need Harden to turn back time, hit a few 3s and be better than that average in the paint.