With 3-ball not falling, Celtics beat up on 76ers by dominating the paint

BOSTON — The Celtics won their ninth straight game on Tuesday night, earning a 117-99 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden. They did so despite hitting just five 3-pointers on the evening.

Yes, the Celtics won a game when their 3-ball wasn’t falling. Scary.

Like it or not, the Celtics are a 3-point team in a 3-point league. They lead the NBA at 42.6 shots from downtown per game, and Joe Mazzulla would probably like them to shoot even more. (So long as they’re open looks, that is.) And Boston is nearly unstoppable when its long-range attack is on, touting a 41-3 record entering Tuesday’s game when shooting 32 percent or better from beyond the arc.

While they have several other ways to beat teams, the Celtics tend to struggle when the threes aren’t dropping. So when they shot just 2-for-11 from downtown on Tuesday night, it felt like they were lucky to own a two-point edge at halftime.

The Celtics hit only three triples in the second half and finished 5-for-22 overall, but that didn’t stop them from blowing the game open against Philadelphia. With the 76ers going switch-happy and taking away the perimeter, Boston set it’s sights on dominating the paint. And with Joel Embiid sidelined, Philadelphia had little in the way of resistance for Boston’s slashers.

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both put their heads down and attacked the hoop relentlessly Tuesday, while Kristaps Porzingis continued his domination in the post. All three scored over 20 points for Boston and combined for 42 in the paint. The Celtics finished with a 64-42 edge over the 76ers in the paint.

It was Boston’s first win when making five or less threes since 2018, and the 22 3-point attempts were the fewest in three years, according to Celtics stats guru Dick Lipe

“This game was probably one of our best games of the year, from the standpoint of we were able to win a different way,” Mazzulla said after the win. “And this game showed a template of how teams are going to guard us, and it gives us another thing to practice. I thought our guys did a great job.”

The bottom line was the Celtics were extremely efficient and got some excellent shots on Tuesday, with a true shooting percentage of 64.8. That’s what happens when a team owns the paint and perpetually attacks the hoop, even if they aren’t hitting from downtown.

“I don’t love threes, I love great shots,” Mazzulla said. “This team has really grown into taking what the defense gives you every single night.”

Brown was in attack mode all night long, scoring 28 of his game-high 31 points from the paint or the free-throw line. He was 10-for-11 in the restricted area, and knocked down eight of his 10 freebies. He eclipsed 30 points despite taking just 14 shots from the field.

Brown took just two threes on the night, and said he passed up open looks on the perimeter in order to get the Philly defense to collapse throughout the game.

“Sometimes I’ll pass up threes in order to try to get a paint touch because we need a little bit more of those to help our 3-point shooting even more. A lot of times I take it upon myself just to try to get to the paint, even if I do have a wide-open shot because I know if the defense collapses, then we’ll be able to get some open threes down the line,” Brown said after the win.  

“He’s just always in attack mode,” Mazzulla said of Brown. “I love what Jaylen’s doing. I love the work he’s putting in, I love the poise he’s playing with on the offensive end, I love the way he’s getting different baskets.”

Brown had a hot start and kept the Celtics afloat as the team struggled in the first half. Then Tatum took over in the fourth, scoring 15 of his 29 points in the final frame to stamp out any comeback attempt by Philadelphia. Six of those points came in the paint as Tatum set his sights on the rim and the free-throw line. He scored seven points from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter, and was 10-for-11 overall. 

While he was just 1-for-7 from 3-point range, Tatum got his 27 points off 20 shots Tuesday night. He also added 11 rebounds and a team-high eight assists in the victory. 

And for good measure, Porzingis added 23 points and 12 rebounds, with eight of his points coming in the paint and a dozen at the free-throw line. No team is going to beat the Celtics if all three of their top players top 20 points despite subpar shooting nights from downtown.

As Mazzulla said, the Celtics winning despite hitting just five threes is enlightening. It shows the players that they have the talent to win other ways than just letting it fly, and that Tatum and Brown can usually score from wherever they want.

It was a nice reminder of what attacking the basket can do for a team, even if that team happens to be the best one in the NBA. There are going to be nights int he playoffs when Boston’s threes are not falling, and if the Celtics can remember back to Tuesday night’s win, they should be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that hurt them in past playoff runs. 

First appeared on www.cbsnews.com

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