BOSTON — Before tipoff, the Jumbotron played the clip from 76ers center Joel Embiid’s press conference after Game 1, when he said, “Our fans are louder than that,” and the still-settling Garden crowd let him know how they felt. But that was nothing compared to what was coming.
Embiid may have been trying to convince himself the Boston faithful had no impact on the game, but the building shook the 76ers at the end of the first half, when the Celtics rolled to a 21-5 run that gained steam like an express train leaving North Station for wherever the hell it wants.
The Sixers staked themselves to a massive lead midway through the second quarter of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens signaled for a timeout. “Whoever brings the fight and whoever is the tougher team is going to win,” he told his charges.
“Our fans and us believing,” thought C’s guard Terry Rozier, that’s all it takes.
Each play snowballed into the next, and the roar of the crowd rolled down the mountain. By the time Jaylen Brown threw down an alley-oop in the final seconds of the second quarter, trimming what was a 22-point deficit to four, the Sixers were spent. Didn’t matter that they’d shot the lights out for the first 18 minutes, that they clung to a narrow lead, that they were still favored to win the game and the series. Momentum is a hell of a drug, and the Celtics were on a bender.
“That was a win that was largely attributed to the unbelievable effort of our players and the other 18,000 people in here,” Stevens said after the C’s 108-103 win gave them a 2-0 series lead.
The Boston crowd injected the final two minutes of the opening half straight into their veins.
1:42: Rozier follows a missed 3-pointer with a made one, thanks to an Al Horford offensive rebound, cutting the lead to 54-43, and the Garden can sense it coming now. It’s kicking in.
0:53: Marcus Smart makes his third straight 3. 56-46. The light is calling.
0:34: With a clear path in transition, Rozier instead stops at the 3-point line and lets it ride. 56-49. The Garden bursts into a state of euphoria. They’ve witnessed the lord, and thy name is Terry.
0:08: Again in transition, this time Marcus Morris throws an alley-oop to Jaylen Brown, who flushed it like the five-0 was pounding on the bathroom stall. 56-51. Ecstasy in the Garden of Eden.
The Celtics came in waves, and the crowd crashed over top of the 76ers. Then, the undertow took Philadelphia out to sea in the second half.
“When we made that run,” said Morris, “I think that’s the loudest I’ve ever heard it.”
Everything was rolling so well, you damn well figured Smart’s 75-foot heave at the buzzer would go in and the arena might open to reveal we were in orbit. That deafening sound billowing to the banners and reverberating off the rafters could have been the thrust of a rocket engine.
“Man, I’ve never seen TD Garden like it was tonight,” said Brown, who scored 13 points in 25 minutes off the bench. “I think I’ll remember that game forever. The way the crowd got behind us, before the half — that last five minutes, man, the energy was insane. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. That was a moment to definitely remember. Game 2. Philadelphia. 2018. For sure.”
Jaylen Brown’s return almost got lost in the rapture. The dude played with a strained hamstring, telling doctors who were on the fence about it, “Hey, I’m playing.” His night was a mix of explosive dunks and awkward landings, balancing what he called a “pretty sizable risk” of reinjury with an insatiable desire to be part of this scene. “The risk was all on me,” said Brown.
On the other side, Joel Embiid needed 22 shots to get his 20 points, and the Celtics made him flinch on every fake, forcing him into five fouls and effectively neutering him defensively — to the point Al Horford waltzed by him on his way to the nail-in-the-coffin bucket of Thursday’s victory.
“Obviously, the matchup with Al is a tough one for us and for most of the league,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, identifying one of the many mano-a-mano battles going against them.
If Embiid’s double-double was a low hum, then Ben Simmons was sitting silently in the corner, rocking back and forth, wondering what was happening. Why is it so loud in here? Why can’t I get around this wall they’ve built in front of me? He scored all of one point. He was sketched.
“Mental,” said Simmons, when asked where it all went wrong, why he refused to shoot.
Just like the crowd didn’t impact Embiid, the C’s grit didn’t wear on Simmons. “The way the Heat played is nothing compared to the Celtics,” he said. “Physically, the Heat were on another level.”
Denial is the first step to recovery.
“There’s an element of physicality that they have applied to all of us,” countered Brown, who somehow refused to call timeout when the sky fell before halftime, “and tonight Ben struggled as we see.”
J.J. Redick and Robert Covington were the comedown for the C’s. The Sixers wings couldn’t miss, combining for 45 points on 9-of-16 shooting from deep. It was they who helped Philadelphia withstand the 50-21 run that sprinted into the third quarter. A Covington triple gave the 76ers a three-point lead midway through the fourth, and a Redick steal pushed it to five.
But after the buzz of that run, the Garden crowd was fiending for more, and the Celtics gave them their fix. A pair of 3’s from Rozier sandwiched around one from Morris turned that five-point deficit into a four-point lead, and another alley-oop with two minutes to play — this one from Rozier to Tatum — put Boston on a bus back to never-ever-land, with the C’s at the wheel.
“You only see these types of comebacks in movies,” said Smart.
Asked afterwards who made the difference for Boston, Philly forward Dario Saric found some clarity. “Everybody,” he said. “Everybody.” The C’s put six players in double figures, led by Tatum’s 21, Rozier’s 20 and Smart’s 19. Horford, Brown and Morris were the others.
And the Garden should get an assist on every bucket.
“C’mon, man,” Smart said of Embiid’s comments about the crowd. “That’s all for show. Everybody in this world know about Boston Celtics fans — if not the best, one of the best in this league. What’s understood don’t really need to be said. Let the crowd speak for itself, and they did that.”
Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo ran into a friend who stopped him in the hallway after the game to see how he was doing. “We’re not doing good,” he said, “not after that. That’s the second time they’ve come back from 22 against us.” The other time was in London in January.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for these Celtics, facing adversity from the opening game of the season and overcoming it at every turn. There are only so many columns I can write about these plucky, undermanned C’s. As wild as last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals was, this one is borderline insane. I don’t know how they do it, and I’m not sure they do, either.
“We’ve been getting the same question since the first game of the year, and we’re here in May, still getting the same question,” Brown said through a smile. “We just play basketball, man.”
The magical mystery tour continues on Saturday in Philadelphia, and the Celtics are flying high.