Marcus Smart struggles with pain as angry Celtics crush 76ers in MVP Joel Embiid’s return

BOSTON — The Celtics knew they had a chance to take advantage of the MVP’s absence, but they squandered it. The Philadelphia 76ers knew they were starting this series with their backs to the wall and pounced.

“There’s frustration, there’s anger,” Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon said Wednesday morning. “We felt like we were meant to win this game. We feel like we’re meant to win every game. That’s the reality of the type of basketball we’ve played this season.

That’s exactly how Joe Mazzulla wants them to feel.

As Mazzulla rose from the podium after a 121-87 masterclass of a win, he had one more thing to say. The Celtics coach’s press conferences are often practice sessions that end with a final parting gift to half-jokely berate the gathered watching masses.

“Nobody wants to ask about all the adjustments we made from Game 1 to Game 2?” Mazzulla sarcastically chided as she walked away.

This game was full of strategic detail and execution, but it was defined by its fury. The Celtics were pissed, just as their coach wanted. He mentioned how his team’s frustration fills him with joy, as evidenced by the corners of his mouth turning slightly upward when he admits it.

The anger finally died down with less than a minute left in the first half, when Al Horford knew Joel Embiid had the angle on him for once and just conceded the huge dunk. It could have been a moment for Embiid to finally find a rhythm and set the tone for the second half, but Marcus Smart said, “Hell no.”

Smart immediately picked up the pace, but then he felt something. De’Anthony Melton picked it up, an ideal matchup for the Sixers. But Smart didn’t care. He wanted his pound of flesh.

So he raised his hand and told everyone to give him some space. He dribbled over to Jaylen Brown’s corner and told him to get the fuck off. Even with Grant Williams wide open in the weak corner, he didn’t care. He was going to get his bucket and flex.

“I’m an emotional guy,” Smart said. “I’m one of the emotional leaders here, so being able to control my emotions is going to allow my team to calm down and settle down and be right. If I’m out of my space, out of my head, if I’m out of control, the team is going to be out of control.

As he munched on a box of his Wicked Smarts cereal, he thought back to the bittersweet moment at the end of the first game, when he flew to the hoop with the game in play and, instead of taking the lay- up, tried to drop the ball to Jayson Tatum for an even easier layup. But Tatum wasn’t ready, the ball went out of bounds, and the Celtics ended up losing the game.

Brown and Tatum may be the stars, but Smart is the heartbeat of this team. He is the highest ideal of who they want to be, a completely unpredictable playmaker on both sides who seeks to create defining moments throughout the game.

“Me being the best I can be, locked up, it forces everyone to be. And it’s one of those things: learning, watching the movie and I’ve adapted,” Smart said. “I tried to dump a pass to JT, I probably should have taken (the shot). I tried to get my ball. This time I took the hit, I did it.

There was a possession midway through the second quarter where Smart actually kept James Harden getting the ball in the backcourt just to score a point, ran downfield to double Tyrese Maxey, shaded to double Embiid, then forced a Harden miss as the shot clock ran out. Even on the rebound, Grant Williams boxed Embiid out of bounds.

The Celtics defense wanted to make it clear that they owned the field.

“I’m sore as hell, but I’ll be fine,” Smart said, noting that the anti-inflammatories are at least helping. “You see my lip is broken, my shoulder, my chest. But I’m proud to be a warrior.

For some reason, Smart plays better injured. This team seems to thrive when injured. This blood in the water boosts their competitiveness when they realize it is theirs.

It was the achievement of the first game and even the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. Those playoff teams they should beat on paper don’t play on ink. In the real world, the team that works the hardest and has the most focus usually comes out on top.

That’s what pissed Brogdon off so much. The Celtics keep reminding themselves that they are human, then forget when the results appear otherwise. But after a new day, we have to turn the page.

“After midnight, we have to let it all go,” Smart said. “You can be frustrated. We were very frustrated with the game. But at midnight we had to give up. We had to put our minds back together. »

Mazzulla shot the movie, they saw how many ways they had to go out and run, then they went out and ran.

It started with their pickup points, as Jaylen Brown started the game by pressing Harden in the backcourt. Harden kept Philadelphia’s offense going by entering the offense early in transition, so Mazzulla clearly wanted to cut that right away and disrupt the timing of going into pick-and-rolls with Embiid. Also, the more Embiid had to come back to screen Harden for free, the more he had to go back and establish his position.

The first two minutes of play saw Brown funneling Harden straight into a trap to set up the Embiid 3 they wanted, then a minute later shading Harden so Jayson Tatum could step in and undress Harden. The Celtics were happy to just flip the switches off when Harden would drive and leave PJ Tucker wide open, a nice adjustment after Tucker didn’t fire a single shot in Game 1.

The main schematic adjustment was to protect to touch the screen level between Harden and Embiid, even though Harden made them pay when they did it with Paul Reed in game 1. They were willing to bet that Embiid was moving too slowly for that to happen. work and, well, they were right.

It was obvious that was the game plan when Rob Williams checked in and literally got his hands on Embiid during the screen, literally taking the cover “touch”. He actually backed off on that play and contained the ball until Harden hit a smart pull-up as Williams started to recover towards Embiid, but it showed a sense of purpose from their defensive game plan which was getting worse. is sometimes faded in the first game.

The Celtics were pissed they once again let a star beat them. They played conservatively on Trae Young and he torched them for most of the first round. Stephen Curry did the same in the NBA Finals. Harden did it in Game 1. This time they wanted to take all their anger out on Harden and Embiid, just make the Sixers MVPs look helpless and challenge someone else to beat the Celtics.

That’s where Grant Williams came in. He’s been on the sidelines for much of this season, waiting for his moment when the Celtics have to send their David to Goliath. So Williams came in, approached Embiid and let him know how the rest of his night was going to go.

“That’s what I basically told him: I’m here to frustrate you and keep making it hard for you every night,” Grant Williams said. “It’s my role and my way of playing.”

Once Williams entered the match, he and Embiid shot 4-for-7 for the remainder of the match. Williams was more boring than that damn TNT drone fly everywhere.

“I’m proud to keep the best players. He’s one of those,” Grant Williams said. “You have enormous respect for him but at the same time you are the ultimate competitor. Try to make everything difficult, even walking on the ground. I think we did a good job tonight. Me and Al did a good job hitting him and making him work for everything.

Imagine winning your first MVP and (almost) all of your dreams came true, then walking out the next day to play clearly too soon with a sprained lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and having to put up with it all night. It’s a real frustration.

After Brown set the tone by picking up Harden all over the court, Williams followed suit. Who recovers a full center? According to Williams, Brown would yell at anyone every time he came into the game and not do the same.

At the end of the day, shooting margin is the baseline from which Mazzulla rates the game, and the Celtics threw 21 3s more than the Sixers in Game 2. Their 51 3s were almost as much as the Sixers combined 53 3-pointers and free-throw attempts. The Celtics’ pace and space reflected the identity with which they dominated to open the season, while shrinking the ground so the Sixers couldn’t get high-value looks.

Philadelphia shot 2 for 20 on 3 over the break, as Harden went 6 for 13 on those shots in Game 1 alone. Harden shot 2-for-14 from the field and 0-for-6 from deep, matching his March 20 shooting numbers against Chicago for his worst game of the season. At least he had 12 cents that night, but he only had four in Game 2 and the 76ers had 13 as a team. After pouncing on the Celtics and catching them a little off guard, they were dismantled on Wednesday.

Despite all their adjustments to the game plan, the defense is simply pride. Do you really feel threatened? Do you realize how vulnerable you are in the playoffs when you forget their opponent is just waiting for you to pounce? Whether it’s intensity, technique or strategy, it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t see a difference, we just have to rise to the challenge,” Brown said. “It’s going to be tough to keep a guy who’s MVP caliber, it’s tough to keep a guy who’s motivated and wants to play in the playoffs as well. So you just have to be a man and do your job.

Tonight was a stark reminder of what this team looks like when everyone is doing their job. No wonder Mazzulla was talking trash as he drove away into the night. But Mazzulla wasn’t peppered with questions about the intricacies of pick-and-roll coverage or how he controlled substitution with Williamses based on Philadelphia’s front-court makeup because it was a night of emotion.

Their schematic decisions mattered, but they were catalyzed by their mindset. It was the best example of what the Celtics look like when their mentality matches their talent. But Mazzulla seems to thrive on being on edge, which is exactly where he wants his team to live.

“I’m not surprised he asked you that, but I’m proud of him,” Smart said. “We expect to be perfect sometimes and we forget that it’s his first year at this place with the reins and he’s doing a phenomenal job there. But we have to relax and let him learn too. He understands, he has his staff there, they’re talking and they’re going to make the right adjustments. And that’s what he did tonight, and it showed.

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(Photo by James Harden and Marcus Smart: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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