The Boston Celtics spent much of Thursday’s Game 6 waiting for Tatum to find his game, otherwise they would have been staring down the offseason, well short of their intended championship goals. Tatum’s teammates kept telling him to keep shooting, that his next shot would go down, only to watch the next shot miss the mark. Midway through the fourth quarter, Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla called a timeout to calm his team and the four-time all-star amid one of the worst postseason performances of his career. Mazzulla had a simple message for Tatum: “I love you.”
That was all Tatum needed to hear. He scored 12 points, connecting on four three-pointers in the final 4:14, to flip a two-point deficit into a 95-86 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers that forced a Game 7 on Sunday at TD Garden. After going scoreless in the first half and missing his first 11 shots, Tatum made 5 of his next 10 and finished with 19 points.
“That … was frustrating,” Tatum said of his early struggles. “You want to win so bad, you want to play so well. You want it so bad. But you try to stay present, you try to stay in the moment. … I just kept looking at the time, I just kept telling myself, ‘I’ve got time to make a difference.’ ”
The 76ers were unable to take advantage of Tatum’s errant shooting, and were unable to finish after rallying from a 16-point hole to take the lead in the second half. Embiid and Tyrese Maxey led Philadelphia with 26 points apiece and James Harden added 13 points (on 16 shots) but also committed five turnovers. The franchise remains one win from its first trip to the conference finals since Allen Iverson was cupping his hand behind his ear during his MVP season in 2001.
Embiid’s hopes of advancing beyond the second round have been especially torturous. Tatum and the Celtics knocked out Embiid in five games the first time he got there in 2018, then he let out an ugly cry after losing to Kawhi Leonard in Game 7 the following season. In their first season with Doc Rivers as coach in 2020-21, the 76ers had a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t overcome an overly passive Ben Simmons. Then last season, Jimmy Butler had the 76ers second-guessing letting him leave for Miami in free agency.
Rivers won his only championship with the Celtics in 2008, and made a return trip to Finals in 2010, but hasn’t advanced beyond the second round with either the Los Angeles Clippers or 76ers. He has lost nine straight closeout opportunities in the conference semifinals and is 7-9 all-time in Game 7s.
The Celtics have been to the conference finals four times in the past six seasons, and were viewed as title favorites entering this season. They have arguably the deepest roster remaining among Eastern Conference playoff teams and two all-NBA performers in Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But they also have a rookie coach in Mazzulla, who took over after the team suspended, and then dismissed, Ime Udoka, and there have been some growing pains in this series. He apologized for not using a timeout near the end of overtime in Game 4, when the Celtics were unable to get off a final shot in time. His team was listless at home and got booed off the court in Game 5.
But before Game 6, Mazzulla decided to start center Robert Williams for the first time this postseason, a move that gave the Celtics more size and physicality to contend with Embiid. The move couldn’t be considered an act of desperation because it simply was a return to the same big lineup that reached the NBA Finals last season, but it did change the dynamic. Williams produced — scoring 10 points and collecting nine rebounds in 28 minutes. And Mazzulla’s expression of affection as things grew tight?
“He’s told me that before,” Tatum said. “Me and Joe, we talk. There’s moments throughout this season. Things going great, things not going great. Sometimes we just pull each other aside. In his first year, he’s done an unbelievable job. I know there’s a lot of questions and doubts. I’ve told him a couple of times, ‘I got you. I got your back.’ ”
This is hardly new territory for the Celtics, who overcame a 3-2 deficit in the second round last season to knock out the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. But they refused to harp on what they had done. Last year was the past, they said. Unfortunately for the Celtics, so was the Tatum who scored 46 points on the road in Game 6 in Milwaukee. In this series, each missed shot appeared to whittle away at Tatum’s confidence. He never appeared comfortable, no matter which 76ers player was matched up with him.
Tatum suffered through his third straight slow start Thursday. He connected on his first field goal on a driving scoop shot in the third period and he spent the rest of his time driving with the hope of drawing a foul. Four times, he turned it over. In his walk-off interview with ESPN, Tatum said he had to remind himself, that even if he wasn’t playing well, “I’m, humbly, one of the best players in the world.”
“I truly believe that and I know that,” Tatum said. “It’s easy to tell yourself that when you’ve got 40 or 35, but I think that shows character when you can tell yourself that when you only hit one shot. Things not going your way and you have to be the same person, have the same morals, the same character when things go up and down. I just kept telling myself that I believe in myself ’til it turned around.”
The 76ers have won more games in Boston than the Celtics have this series, but they will be smarting over letting Game 6 slip from their grasp. They were up 83-81, when Tatum squared up from the left side of the free throw line extended and knocked his first three-pointer of the game. He hit another step back three-pointer that proved to be all that his team needed. “All it took was one, to get that off my back,” Tatum said.
Rivers called a timeout after Tatum’s last three-pointer and Celtics reserves Grant Williams and Blake Griffin ran up to chest-bump him. He had saved their season. The 76ers went away from Embiid during Tatum’s late barrage, and the frustration showed on Embiid’s face as the home crowd, energized early with the hope of ousting a longtime rival, sat quietly in disbelief.
“For 43 minutes, I had to hear them tell me how bad I was,” Tatum said. “It felt good to see everybody getting out they seat and leaving early in that moment.”