T.J. McConnell scored 19 points in a rare start, as the 76ers defeated the Boston Celtics 103-92 Monday night to stave off elimination and force a Game Five.
McConnell was a last-minute insertion into the lineup after Head Coach Brett Brown discussed not making any changes in the 48 hours leading up to Game Four. The gutsy decision to start McConnell at shooting guard paid off for the 76ers, as the gritty guard provided 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. McConnell scored just 12 points in the first three games of the series combined. He started in place of Robert Covington, who, outside of Game Two, has struggled from the floor. Covington came off the bench for the first time this season, as the veteran had started all 80 regular season games he appeared in and the first eight playoffs games.
Despite the lineup change, the 76ers didn’t fare much better to open the first quarter, connecting on just one of their first five shots from the field. For the initial troubles the 76ers faced, the Celtics were statistically worse, as Boston missed each of its first five attempts. Despite scoring just one bucket over a four minute stretch, the Celtics maintained an early 5-4 lead. Soon after, however, the 76ers would find their range and connect on eight of the game’s next ten points to double up the Celtics, 14-7. During that stretch, Joel Embiid scored form beyond the arc, as he scored five of his 15 points in the first quarter.
Immediately after the 76ers’ 8-2 run, the Celtics connected on back-to-back threes on consecutive trips to pull within one, 14-13. One of those threes were hit by Jayson Tatum, who continues to impress in his rookie campaign. He finished the night with 20 points on 7-16 shooting.
After the matching six point swings, the two defenses bogged down and entrenched themselves in a physical battle. While the two did not line, each team was marred by a two and a half minute drought that slowed the quarter’s scoring down.
As the quarter drew to a close, J.J. Redick scored five consecutive points to give the 76ers a two point advantage, 21-19. Redick scored all seven of his points in the first quarter, including three off a Joel Embiid offensive rebound, as the 76ers outscored the Celtics 8-0 in the first quarter on second chance points.
Marcus Morris connected on a floating bucket as time expired in the quarter, and the Celtics clung to a one point lead, 22-19, after 12 minutes.
Boston extended that advantage to a far greater number as the second quarter began, taking a 7-2 run to open the frame, jumping out to a six point lead, 29-23. That’s when Dario Saric began to find his game. Saric scored the first four points of the second quarter for the 76ers on his way to a game-high 25 points. The 76ers used the significant size advantage that Saric owned over his defensive pairing, Marcus Smart, to feed the low block early in the second quarter. Saric finished the night 9-17 shooting while collecting eight rebounds and four assists. He was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.
Over a two minute period, Philadelphia missed five consecutive shots, a drought that provided the Celtics with time to extend their lead back to six, 33-27. After the two plus minute scoreless spell, the 76ers grabbed five consecutive points to crawl within one, 33-32. Not to be outdone, the Celtics then claimed five in a row to recapture a six point lead, 38-32. The battle of five point swings continued, as the 76ers scored five straight to close the gap to one, once more, 38-37. They used this particular five point spurt as part of a larger 11-0 run that saw them capture the lead, 43-38.
The 11-0 swing was somewhat extraneous as the second quarter bled on after Joel Embiid and Terry Rozier were called for double technicals with 2:30 remaining. After Rozier was called for a foul he objected to, Embiid tried to swipe the basketball from Rozier’s hands. Rozier did not take kindly to this move, pulling away from Embiid until the two were at arms length. A scuffle ensued, and the two were given technical fouls.
These adjacent fouls must have lit a fire under the two competitors, as Joel Embiid knocked down a three immediately following the call, and Rozier followed up with a counter strike three of his own on the ensuing possession.
Despite the tussle, and as the first half ticked away, the 76ers found themselves leading by four, 47-43.
During the regular season, Philadelphia had been outstanding coming out of the halftime break in limiting opposing offenses en route to productive third quarters. That hasn’t been the case in this series, but in Game Four, the 76ers reverted back to midseason form. They jumped out to their largest lead of the game to that point, 53-45, after a quick 6-2 run to open up the frame. This became the true start to the T.J. McConnell experience, as the guard scored seven of his 19 points in the third quarter. Including McConnell, the starting five scored 49 of the 76ers’ first 57 points. At that point, Marco Bellinelli had seven off the bench, and the rest of the reserves had one combined point.
The 76ers grabbed their first double digit lead of the evening by using a 5-0 run, benefited by a Celtics’ two and half minute dry spell, at 64-54 midway through the third quarter.The 76ers were aided by their protection of the basketball as the game progressed. Whereas Philadelphia was turnover prone late in Game Three, the 76ers found themselves extremely careful with the basketball Monday night, turning the ball over once in a 55 possession window over the course of 18 minutes.
Marcus Morris ended the drought to close within seven, as the Celtics used his triple to take an 8-2 run to close the gap to four, 66-62. That run was short lived, as the Celtics would find themselves in trouble with the referees once more in the third. After Jaylen Brown drew a foul to his disliking, he took exception and fired back at the officials. He was given plenty of time to cool down before he was eventually handed a technical foul. Head Coach Brad Stevens was displeased with the call, and he himself was given a technical foul. The 76ers used this momentum in their favor, knocking down both free throws as part of a 10-0 run that saw their lead stretch to 14, 76-62. The Celtics scored the final three points of the quarter, but the 76ers won the third quarter by seven, and led going into the fourth, 76-65.
For the first time in the series, Philadelphia had a lead going into the final frame, and they intended to hold onto it. Much like the third quarter, the 76ers jumped out early and grabbed a 6-1 run to open the game to a 16 point lead, 82-66. At that point, the 76ers’ main goal was to hold serve. They withstood a Celtics’ 12-2 run that closed the gap to ten, 90-80 and a second, smaller 6-2 streak that cut the deficit under ten, 101-92, but Philadelphia never wavered. The 76ers held off the Boston Celtics, winning at home, 103-92, to force a Game Five.
With the victory, the 76ers inch closer to their chase of history. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and only three have forced a Game Seven, but the 76ers are viewing this series as individual one game series from here on out. In league history, teams leading 3-1 still win the series 95.4 percent of the time, a number that comes down from 3-0 series leader’s 100 percent success rate. While it’s still an uphill battle for the 76ers, they’ll have a chance to battle for a Game Six and one final home game in this series. Game Five will be in Boston Wednesday night, but the time is not yet determined. The outcome of the Raptors-Cavaliers series will impact tip time, as the 76ers and Celtics will likely be a 6 p.m. tip should the Raptors stave off elimination, and 8 p.m. if the Cavaliers complete the sweep. Either way, you can catch all the action on 97.5 The Fanatic!
– By Tyler Zulli, producer and www.975thefanatic.com contributor