Joel Embiid made his on-court debut as NBA MVP on Monday after missing two straight playoff games with a knee injury.
The Boston Celtics spoiled the party. Embiid returned with some limitations, and he was typically ferocious on defense. But while he made life difficult for Boston near the basket, the Celtics hit a barrage of 3-pointers to spark a 121-87 victory to tie the Eastern Conference semifinal series at 1-1.
With Embiid on the court, there was an immediate change in tone from Game 1, when the Celtics shot 85% from the field in the first quarter. Baskets were hard to come by on both ends of the court Wednesday. On initial trips, at least.
Embiid made his presence felt early with an athletic first-quarter block of Marcus Smart.
In the second quarter, he blocked a Jaylen Brown dunk attempt.
With life on the edge more difficult than Monday, Boston looked out. Despite shooting just 42.2% from the field, they hit enough 3-pointers (8 of 22) in the first half to build a 57-49 halftime advantage. They matched Philadelphia’s defensive intensity while holding the 76ers to 37.7% at the half.
Then came the lid off the edge for Boston. The Celtics opened the game with separate runs of 12-1 and 13-0 in the third quarter. They did their offensive damage from long range while hitting 7 of 15 3-pointers in the stretch. Malcolm Brockton ignited the run as he connected on 6 3-pointers. His pull-up 3 with 51.7 left in the quarter extended Boston’s lead to 92-63 and all but indicated the game was over.
While Boston got hot, Philadelphia continued to struggle from the field. After reversing his former MVP form with 45 points in Game 1, James Harden came back down to earth with 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting on Wednesday. Celtics defenders repeatedly jumped on him and he found openings to shoot. Embiid had some impact on offense while attempting just nine field goals (making four) en route to 15 points, 3 rebounds and 5 blocks, all of which came in the first half.
There was no fourth quarter answer from Philadelphia, and the 76ers waved the white flag with just over 8 minutes remaining. Both teams emptied their benches.
When it did, the Celtics hit 20 of 51 (39.2%) 3-point attempts. They averaged 42.6 3s per game during the regular season, second-most in the NBA. Brockton shot 6 of 10 from deep off the bench en route to 23 points and 6 rebounds. Grant Williams was 4 for 8 off the field, where he scored all 12 of his points. Derrick White (15 points) and Jaylen Brown (game-high 25 points) went 3 for 6 each. Jayson Tatum struggled mightily in a 7-point, 7-rebound effort, but it didn’t matter. Boston rolled.
The Celtics caught fire from the 3 and shot 6 of 30 (20%) from deep, the league’s best shooting team (38.7%) during the regular season. Harden missed all six of his attempts. Only Tobias Harris (2 of 5) scored more than 16 points for Philadelphia.
The 76ers can take solace in leaving Boston tied 1-1 with the series returning to Philadelphia. But they were no match for either side of the court Wednesday.