By Tommy Matthews
Jayson Tatum scored 51 points – the most in a Game 7 in NBA history — and the Boston Celtics beat the Sixers 112-88 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year.
One game after missing 14 of his first 15 shots only to awaken in the fourth quarter, Tatum got off to the fast start the Celtics needed. He scored 25 in the back-and-forth first half and 17 more in Boston’s 33-10 third quarter that turned a three-point lead into a runaway.
The Celtics, who lost to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last year, will face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, which begin on Wednesday in Boston.
Tatum added 13 rebounds and Jaylen Brown scored 25 points for the Celtics, who rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series to keep alive their hopes for an unprecedented 18th NBA championship. Tatum was subbed out of the game with three minutes left to a standing ovation from the crowd, which soon broke out in a “Beat the Heat!” chant.
Newly crowned NBA MVP Joel Embiid scored 15 points on 5-for-18 shooting, and Tobias Harris scored 19 for Philadelphia. The Sixers lost in the conference semifinals for the third straight year, and the fifth time in six seasons; they have not gotten any farther since reaching the NBA Finals in 2001.
Tatum started 0 for 6 in a Game 5 loss and missed 14 of his first 15 shots overall from the floor in Game 6 before erupting for four 3-pointers in the final 4:14 to force the decisive seventh game.
He picked up where he left off, scoring Boston’s first basket and 11 points in the first quarter, 14 more in the second and outscoring the Sixers on his own, 17-10, in the third. The 33-10 edge in the third was the most lopsided quarter in a Game 7 since at least 1997.
Brown began the game with the black mask he has worn since breaking a bone in his face before the All-Star break. He took it off and soon absorbed an elbow to the face from James Harden, who was assessed a flagrant foul.
Brown continued without the mask but finished the half with cotton in his left nostril. He also played with an edge, making both foul shots and following it with a steal and layup as Boston went on a 9-0 run to erase a 35-26 deficit.
The Sixers tied the score at 55 with a Tobias Harris 3-pointer at the start of the third quarter, but that, for all intents and purposes, was where their day ended. A pair of Tatum 3-pointers quickly stretched the lead to 65-55, and Philadelphia’s body language was awful. The Celtics haven’t always done the best job of realizing that an opponent is on the edge of being finished off, but in this case, they certainly did. It was an avalanche.
Boston connected on 8 of 12 3-pointers, forced seven turnovers, and held the 76ers without a point for more than six minutes. It was thorough, precise and unrelenting, and in the end Boston outscored Philadelphia, 33-10, in the period. It was championship-level stuff.
After the third quarter buzzer sounded, with the Celtics ahead, 88-62, Mazzulla raced directly to Tatum and had a few words. Tatum, who typically sits to start the fourth, was back on the court. So it’s safe to assume he was checking on his availability for this situation. Even though Boston led by 26 points, Mazzulla didn’t want to take any chances. Tatum poured in nine more points over the first five minutes of the fourth.