June 3, 2023

PHILADELPHIA – At the end of one of the weirder games of his career, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics slammed the ball into the field as the final seconds passed. The sound of those loud dribbles—each a percussive thud—seemed to fill Wells Fargo Center as thousands of 76ers fans tried to make sense of what had just happened in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

How was it all possible? How had the 76ers squandered the chance to secure their first trip to the conference finals since 2001? How had the Celtics taken advantage of such a simple change—putting Robert Williams into their starting lineup—to bolster their defense? And after spending most of his night throwing wayward jump shots, how did Tatum end up keeping his team’s season?

“For 43 minutes I had to hear them tell me how bad I was,” Tatum said of the fans. “So it felt good to see everyone get out of their seats and leave early.”

A strange series full of strange games will go all the way – because why not? — after the Celtics put the clamps on the 76ers in a 95-86 victory on Thursday, forcing a Game 7 on Sunday in Boston.

Both teams are now built to win. These are not young, over-achieving franchises. The 76ers are desperate to deliver on the long-awaited promise of their team-building blueprint known as the Process, with Joel Embiid, who recently accepted his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award, as their centerpiece. Meanwhile, the Celtics use the slogan “unfinished business,” a nod to how close they came to victory last season when they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

An early exit for the 76ers or the Celtics — and a playoff bounce into the conference semifinals would qualify — could lead to a summer of change. However, a win would be seismic.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t want to go to Game 7 in Boston with any other group,” said 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “I know we’re going to rally. We have been on the road all year round.”

On Thursday, Tatum recovered from his own battle. He missed 13 of his first 14 field goal attempts, a period of futility that extended into the fourth quarter. His teammates, he said, kept giving him positive reinforcement. Keep bouncing. Keep defending. Keep passing. Keep shooting.

Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics’ freshman coach, took it one step further.

“I love you,” Mazzulla recalled telling him. “That’s a pretty strong statement.”

Tatum’s first 3-pointer of the game gave the Celtics an 84–83 lead. He sank another 39 seconds later. He made four 3-pointers in the final 4:14 of the game, turning the arena into a mausoleum. He finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.

“We rely on him,” said Malcolm Brogdon of the Celtics. ‘He’s our man. And he has proven himself to be reliable in those moments. I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind. It doesn’t matter how many shots he missed in the first three quarters. He’s going to finish the game for us.”

A first-team All-NBA selection for the second season in a row, Tatum is not lacking in confidence. In a walk-off interview with ESPN after Thursday’s game, he called himself “humble, one of the best basketball players in the world.” It was quite a statement after he shot 5 of 21 from the field.

“I think that character shows you telling yourself that if you’ve only shot once,” he later said, “and things don’t go your way, and you have to be the same person with the same morals.” , the same character whether you are up or down. And I kept telling myself that. I believe in myself.”

Accordingly, Tatum gave Mazzulla a reprieve – for at least a few days. Mazzulla, who was an assistant under Ime Udoka the previous season, took over as the team’s interim coach a few days before the start of training camp when the Celtics suspended Udoka for unspecified “violations of team policy”. The Celtics stripped Mazzulla’s interim title in February and signed him to a contract extension.

But the pressure on 34-year-old Mazzulla has only increased in the playoffs – and especially during this series. There was Game 1, which the Celtics lost, even though Embiid was sidelined with a sprained knee. There was Game 4, which the Celtics lost in overtime after forcing a bad shot in the final seconds. (Mazzulla later apologized to his players for not using one of his remaining timeouts.) And there was Game 5, which the Celtics lost thanks to a listless display of basketball booed by their home fans.

For Game 6, Mazzulla made a long overdue change by starting Williams, a defensive center, in place of Derrick White – a move endorsed by Marcus Smart, the team’s starting point guard. In addition to blocking two shots and impacting countless others, Williams had 10 points and 9 rebounds.

“Joe is learning, just like all of us,” said Smart, who finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. “I know he’s been killed many times, and rightly so. He had to make some adjustments, and he did, and that’s all you can ask for – that he just stay the best he can be.

Tatum described how he and Mazzulla had leaned on each other throughout the season.

“I know there are a lot of questions and doubts,” Tatum said, “and I’ve said many times, ‘I got you, I’m with you. We’re in the same boat.'”