Win Game One
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Ah man. That was a fun few days of thinking the Celtics might've turned out to be total frauds a round earlier than we'd even hoped for. There was a stretch in Game Six where Boston was showing a lot of the primary indicators of an imminent chokejob -- rickety jumpers, miscommunication turnovers, inexplicably left-open Hawks shooters -- and you had to wonder: Have these Celtics really just been the 2020 Clippers all along? Maybe even the 2015 Clippers? Well, perhaps we should've sent Doc to State Farm Arena last night to finish the job, because the C's rediscovered their mojo just as Trae Young ran bone dry on his, and they scored 15 points in the final four minutes of Game Six to finish off Atlanta in the series. Now, just as we've expected for the last two months, it's officially Sixers-Celtics in the second round.
Maybe you're not scared of Boston. Maybe the two games they lost to the 41-41 Hawks and the sporadic queasiness they showed in Games Four and Six in that series is enough to convince you that they're no great shakes, primed to be exposed by a Real Playoff Team -- like, presumably, our Philadelphia 76ers. If so, bless you; your next 72 hours are bound to be a lot more pleasant than mine. I, for one, still find Boston absolutely terrifying: a roster of long, athletic, versatile shot-making machines (and also Horf). It's a team full of NOT THIS FUCKING GUYs, a team where anyone in their rotation can kill us (and 4-5 more guys on the bench are itching to get their chance). It's a team we'd be playing uphill against even at full strength and karmic stasis; with a compromised (and possibly absent) Joel Embiid and a who-even-knows-what James Harden, it's gonna be a constant struggle just to maintain our footing.
I don't know what the plan is going to have to be to beat the Celtics. But I know one crucial step: We have to win Game One.
Simple, I know: basically one of those three-step plans where Step 2 is "????" and Step 3 is "Profit." Winning in Boston is something they couldn't do this season even when the C's were down three and a half starters -- now it's something we have to do when they're back at full strength and we'll likely have a hurting Joel Embiid, if we even get him at all. You may recall that Embiid was somewhat key in Philly's lone win this season over Boston; you may also recall that any number of other Sixers from Tyrese Maxey to Tobias Harris to even our beloved BBall Paul lightly underperformed against Boston this season. Asking the Sixers to steal a Game One in Boston with Joel Embiid at a percentage that is not 100% should go about as well as the Matt Damon-led heist attempt in Ocean's Twelve.
And if all of that's not bad enough -- if you're wondering why your attempts to remember other Great Moments in Game One History with the second-round Sixers are pulling a big 404 Page Not Found, there's a reason for that: The Sixers have not won the first game of their second-round series since 1986. In 37 years and a stupefying 11 second-round series since, the Sixers have yet to go into Game Two hoping for anything better than a split. Of course, they were the road team for nine of those 11 games -- and went onto lose in 10 of those series, all but the '01 finals run -- but the fact that they haven't even gotten one friggin' Game One in the second round since Prince's "Kiss" was the No. 1 song in the country is just a little bit discouraging.
Or... maybe it means we’re due? What we need in this series more than any matchup advantage or variance luck is a simple twist of fate -- something to knock all the history of the Celtics-Sixers rivalry (or at least our five straight series losses over the past 40 years) off its equilibrium. Actually winning a Game One, any game one, without the Big Man at his biggest would certainly qualify; that would be enough to change our (and Boston's) entire outlook for the series, it would buy us some time to get Embiid right, and it would (hopefully, finally) jolt the long-hibernating not-Wells Fargo Center crowd to life for Games Three and Four. Most importantly, it would give us reason to believe that things are different this year, which we desperately need while the rest of this postseason arc is starting to feel distressingly familiar.
How do we actually do that, though? Well, I don't have a great blueprint beyond fully activating Sixers Sleeper Agent Mike Muscala -- maybe he can spike the pre-game Dunkin coffee order or something -- but I think Tyrese Maxey and Paul Reed are going to have to be at the heart of it. Winning this game is going to require blitzing a Boston team who thinks they can mostly coast against us at home without Embiid dragging their bigs all over the court; it'll involve Maxey attacking with the ferocity he usually reserves for undermanned games against the Denver Nuggets, and BBall Paul controlled-chaosing like he's gonna get yanked for Dewayne Dedmon at the first play he doesn't make (possibly true). James Harden will probably have to hit some threes, Tobias Harris will probably have to sink some of those 50/50 back-down turn-arounds, Georges Niang will probably have to STAY ON THAT GODDAMN BENCH GEORGES. But if Doc can shorten rotations, try to swarm with our best/youngest/springiest/Springeriest? athletes at any given opportunity, and just get everyone going all-out like it's Game Seven -- save Montrezl Harrell and Furkan Korkmaz to play 40 minutes each in Game Two if we must -- maybe we can get the C's on their heels and in their heads for long enough to steal one.
Easier said than done, of course -- if it was easily done, chances are we would've done it at least once already during my lifetime -- but doing it is the kind of leap it's going to take to actually win this series. Lose Game One and it's business as usual; win Game One and suddenly nothing is anything anymore. And from the comeback wins to the games we managed to not blow catastrophically to Embiid seemingly finally securing that damn MVP award, there's plenty of reason to believe shit really was different this year. Hell, the Sixers hadn't swept a four-game series since 1985 before 4-0-ing the Nets in the first round, either; maybe this is just the year the Sixers bring back everything mid-'80s. So break out your hoverboard, pour yourself a New Coke and let's get this fucking W. We'll worry about getting another three just like it in due time.