Sixers’ Balanced Performance Leads to Game 5 Win Over Celtics, Golden Opportunity to Close Out Series

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) lays the ball in the basket past Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) in the first half during game five of the 2023 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In a season full of good performances, the Philadelphia 76ers had perhaps their best one yet in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Boston Celtics. With the series knotted at two games apiece, the Sixers came into TD Garden and laid a thorough beatdown on the Celtics. It was so bad that Boston fans were heading for the exits with four minutes still remaining in the game.

Heading into this game, the Sixers in franchise history had never won a Game 5 on the road when the series was tied 2-2. The Sixers ended that in a dramatic way on Tuesday when they beat the Celtics 115-103. They now have the opportunity to potentially close out the series at Philadelphia in Game 6.

How did the Sixers triumph over the Celtics in Game 5? They received good showings from all throughout the roster. At the top was Joel Embiid. He reminded everyone of why he was named the MVP this season. The big fella put together a scintillating two-way performance, impacting the game on both ends of the floor. He helped set the tone for the Sixers early on, scoring five of the team’s first seven points.

Embiid at times relied too much on the 3-pointer, but when he played inside of the arc he was nearly unstoppable. A large portion of his buckets came in the mid-range area. The Sixers were able to go to their bread-and-butter action, the pick-and-roll with Embiid and Harden. Boston’s bigs elected to play drop coverage, allowing Harden to easily hit Embiid with a pocket pass. Embiid got the ball around the free-throw line and knocked down the open jumper. Rinse. Repeat.

The Celtics prefer to use drop coverage to defend the pick-and-roll. The Sixers throughout this series have punished their drop coverage. In Game 5, Embiid took advantage of the plethora of wide open mid-range jumpers the Celtics afforded him. Earlier in the series, it was Harden feasting on either open 3-pointers or pulling up for mid-range jumpers. The Celtics’ inability, or unwillingness, to adjust consistently away from using drop coverage is confounding.

Embiid also was a menace defensively. He gobbled up blocks like most people do Thanksgiving turkey. After the first few blocks, it was clearly evident his presence around the paint made Boston’s perimeter players hesitant to drive towards the basket. His defensive impact can easily be summed up by both the eye test and the numbers.

The two-way performance Embiid put together was impressive, but the rest of the Sixers roster also showed up in force. James Harden quietly kept the Sixers offense humming throughout Game 5. He might not have scored much, but he found the perfect balance of when to attack and when to get others involved. Head coach Doc Rivers called Harden a “magician” after the game while also comparing him to a catcher.

“He called a perfect game. He was aggressive early on when he needed to be aggressive,” Rivers said. “And then he kind of sat back and played and got everybody else involved.”

Harden carried the Sixers’ offense in both Game 1 and Game 4. He was afforded the ability to be more reserved as a scorer in Game 5 because of the contributions of Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

After laboring throughout the series, Maxey finally had a breakthrough performance in Game 5 and it could not have come at a better time. He scored 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the field. Most of his damage came from long distance, he shot 6-of-12 from 3-point range. Those looks came from a mixture of Maxey’s good off-ball movement and using ball screens to get wide open pull-up 3-pointers against Boston’s drop coverage. Any time Maxey is able to get up 12 shots from beyond the arc is likely going to be a good night for the Sixers offense. Rivers spoke after the game about the importance of ball movement in getting Maxey going.

“Ball movement,” Rivers said. “Honestly. The ball went from side to side. You think about it, he had three or four just point-blank 3s because of his rotations. With him and Tobias [Harris], it’s a barometer for us. If Tobias and Maxey are involved, that mean’s the ball’s moving. If Tobias and Maxey are not involved, that means the ball’s not moving, and the ball moved today. With seven minutes left, we put it in his hand because we thought with his quickness, he can handle their pressure.”

Maxey bookended the Sixers strong night. He scored 11 points in the first quarter and closed out the game with 12 points in the fourth quarter. His biggest shot of the night came a few minutes into the fourth quarter. With the Celtics on a 9-4 run while attempting to get back into the game, Maxey ended their hopes and quieted the Boston crowd with a gigantic catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.

Maxey’s poise in that moment was incredible, especially when considering he is just 22 years old. It was great to see Maxey break out of his funk against Boston. It will be interesting to see how he builds off this big performance moving forward in this series.

In addition to all of their star players excelling in Game 5, the Sixers also received some excellent bench production from an unexpected source. Rivers, in what he described as a “gut decision,” chose to play with a nine-man rotation in Game 5 by bringing Danuel House Jr. off the bench. In his first meaningful minutes of the series, House Jr. finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.

House Jr. credited both player development coach Reggie Redding and not wanting to let his teammates down for helping him stay prepared despite not having consistent playing time.

“I want to win and I can’t let my brothers down to the left and right,” House Jr. said. “My name was called, so I had to step up. And guys have been doing a good job of showcasing ‘We season.’ So I wanted to get up in there and just contribute to the ‘We season’ that we’ve been carrying on this whole season.”

House Jr. was effective pushing the pace either off a Boston turnover or missed shot. Four of his five made field goals came in transition. His thought process: “If a guy is backpedaling, he can’t stop me.”

Another area House Jr. impacted the game was through his length and defensive ability. He did a good job defending Boston’s perimeter players one-on-one, a welcome sign for a team that struggled to stop dribble penetration throughout this series. House Jr. mentioned after the game the importance he puts on coming in and playing solid defense.

“Going up in there and focusing on getting stops was No. 1,” House Jr. said. “Doc called me to guard, so I just want to make sure that I’m in my coverages, in the spots that I need to be for my teammates so that we can keep executing, keep pushing the ball, and keep winning games.”

The Sixers’ win in Game 5, considering what the stakes were, was their biggest of the season. They played a complete game, getting solid production from all throughout the rotation. Winning Game 5 and taking a 3-2 lead in the series is massive. However, the series is not over yet and they still have work left to do.

Recent seasons have all ended in disappointment for the Sixers. They have not made it past the second round since the 2000-2001 season. Game 6, in front of what will surely be a packed house at the Wells Fargo Center, is a golden opportunity for them to change that.

“We still got to get one more win, that’s all I’m thinking about right now,” Embiid said.

Game 6 is on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.