BOSTON — Terry Rozier arrived in a Drew Bledsoe jersey. It was both a reminder of an adversary already vanquished — Eric “Don’t Call Me Drew” Bledsoe, who pretended not to know the Celtics guard’s name before learning it the hard way — and a warning to the next challenger …
Don’t underestimate these C’s.
“It’s amazing what confidence will do for you, man,” former Celtic turned 76ers forward Amir Johnson told Parquet Post after Rozier dropped a team-high 29 points on blistering 7-of-9 shooting from 3-point range to deliver a 117-101 Game 1 victory. “He’s been great all season, and when players went down, he stepped up to the plate. And he’s shining right now.”
The Sixers came in confident, too. Riding high after a five-game first-round win over the Heat, superstar-in-the-making Ben Simmons strolled into the Garden wearing a chain with a giant gold boxing kangaroo on it, an ode to the Australian fighter within. Burgeoning behemoth Joel Embiid was casually launching shots from 35 feet during a playful pregame warmup routine.
The Sixers entered this second-round series as considerable favorites, and they played like the C’s were supposed to show them to their table at the Eastern Conference finals. Simmons and Embiid carried themselves like they’d been here before, on a stage as grand as the Garden in the playoffs, and then Aron Baynes formed a wall of Celtics to kangaroo kick them in the teeth.
“Personally, I felt like we were just a step slow,” added Johnson, suggesting rust from a week off factored into their failure to show up in Boston. “It’s a learning lesson. We got hit in the mouth.”
There was more to it than rust. The Celtics exposed matchups that Philadelphia will have to fix if they hope to make it a series. Sixers coach Brett Brown assigned J.J. Redick to Jayson Tatum from the jump, so Brad Stevens called Tatum’s name to the tune of a career-high 28 points. Nobody could guard Rozier. And whenever Marco Belinelli was on the floor for Philly, the C’s abused him. They blew by him, shot over him, and constantly switched bigs onto him in the post, where they scored so much the 76ers had to bring another defender over to help. That left somebody wide open, and the Celtics took advantage on a night they shot 17-of-35 from deep.
There was more. Horford’s sharpshooting (and Baynes’, too, on occasion) forced Embiid to choose between giving one of the league’s best 3-point shooters this season free looks on the perimeter or leaving the lane to overmatched defenders, and neither option was a viable one.
“We weren’t ready tonight,” Embiid said afterwards. That much was clear from the start.
Even when the Celtics started sloppy, Simmons was sloppier, earning a few “not a rookie” chants from the Boston crowd — a reference to his lost 2016-17 season — that he tried brushing off after a less-than-stellar performance. But for one night, at least, he looked more joeythan full-grown roo. Baynes helped build a wall behind a rotating cast of defenders to stop the momentum that makes the 6-foot-10 Simmons so dangerous, and it frustrated him to no end. Outside of a few lost-in-transition dunks, he put up the quietest 18-7-6 line you’ll ever see.
Meanwhile, Rozier was cooking early. He scored 10 first-quarter points, including the swaggiest of pull-up 3’s in transition, forcing an early Philadelphia timeout, and a Kyrie-level maneuver through traffic that ended with a Marcus Morris alley-oop, curbing the first of Philly’s rallies.
Much like the Milwaukee series, the C’s reserves struggled to start the second quarter, and the Sixers took the last of their leads. Horford returned to team up with Shane Larkin for a few pick-and-rolls that ran Belinelli through the ringer, and the C’s smartly stuck with what worked. Rozier found the seams, Tatum schooled Redick, and they took a double-digit lead to the break.
The Sixers made another run midway through the third quarter, pounding the ball inside to Embiid, whose layup line cut the lead to six. But the Celtics were content letting Embiid work for 2’s so long as Philly was giving away free 3’s on the other end. The knockout blow came when Marcus Smart ripped a rebound from Embiid for a wild and-one that pushed the lead back to 17.
The Celtics waged a war at the 3-point line, and they won this battle, chasing Redick and Belinelli around every screen and scaring everyone else off the arc, with help from the crowd.
“Our fans are louder than that,” said Embiid, sounding defensive after the yips from his team’s 5-for-26 effort from 3 silenced his 31 points. “I was fine. It didn’t bother me. But they were great. They supported the team tonight. It was good. I like that kind of emotion, because it elevates my game, knowing there are a lot of fans out there talking trash and saying some crazy stuff, too.”
Philadelphia’s last gasp to start the fourth was met with more of the same — wide-open 3’s from Rozier and Horford followed by a string of seven straight points from Tatum. Raucous chants of “he’s a rookie” rained down from the rafters when Tatum stepped to line for three free throws, reminding Simmons that the 20-year-old Celtics rookie, with one less year of NBA seasoning, was outplaying the cocky Australian in the first of many playoff meetings to come (all while the kid Philly traded Tatum for, Markelle Fultz, couldn’t find the floor). Boston threw the first punch.
“Well, I am a rookie,” said Tatum, who like Simmons played coy about the Garden faithful’s repeated jabs at the 76ers rookie from a past draft class. “I love our fans, so that’s appreciated.”
When the crowd was done with Simmons, Smart kept at him. He wrestled him in the post, got in his grill about an elbow thrown too high and let him know the Celtics are here, they’re not about to be pushed around, and they damn sure aren’t going silently into the still-cold Boston nights.
“I just told him I wasn’t accepting that,” said Smart.
The Celtics were so undermanned they couldn’t even properly field a garbage-time unit. They’ve lost their top two options, and they were without a third, Jaylen Brown, who sat with a hamstring injury. But the Sixers forgot about Horford, who knows a thing or two about playoff basketball.
“I feel like he’s really, just really locked in,” Stevens said of Horford (26 points on 12 shots).
The Sixers forgot about Rozier and Jayson Tatum, wise beyond their years.
“We hold each other accountable, and that’s the most important thing,” said Rozier. “That’s why we don’t ever feed into the negative things people say. We got each other, so no matter who’s out there we’re going to play hard, pay attention to details and take care of business.”
And they forgot about Marcuses Morris and Smart, who know only to bring the fight.
“No one did see this coming but us,” added Smart.
The swagger is strong with this bunch. On their way out of the Garden, Morris’ mom yelled to her son, “You want some ice cream?” Morris, as he does with his shot, didn’t hesitate. “Butter pecan,” he said. Yup, these Celtics know what they want, and the 76ers best not forget again.