BOSTON — If you were looking for a reason to be optimistic about the Sixers’ chances heading into Game 5, you might start with the fact that they’ve actually outscored the Celtics by three points since the end of Game 1. Further, they’ve done so despite a string of dismal shooting performances that have been well out of line with the marks on the season.
Overshadowed by The T.J. McConnell Show in Game 4 was the fact that the Sixers once again looked like they were playing with a ball that was too big for the basket. They shot just .404 from the field on the night, a mark that was actually lower than the ones that they posted in Games 1 and 2. Boston has outshot them in all four games and owns a .376 to .296 advantage on the series from three-point range.
That might not sound like the stuff of optimistic dreams until you take it in conjunction with all of the things they’ve improved. For starters, Al Horford hasn’t made a three-point shot since going 2-for-3 in Game 1. That’s a little misleading since his real impact in that department lies less in the buckets he makes than his ability to do so. And his presence continues to create a matchup headache. But with each game, the Sixers seem to have improved their ability to rotate and recover on the Celtics’ perimeter shooters, culminating with a defensive performance in Game 4 that was much more emblematic of the team they were this season.
Their improvement in that area is significant because in a lot of other aspects of the game they seem to hold a clear advantage. It starts with their size, which has increasingly given the Celtics problems. You saw it in Dario Saric’s 25 points in Game 4, as well as Joel Embiid’s ability to get himself looks at the rim. On the series, the Sixers have outscored the Celtics 188-152 on points in the paint, according to NBA.com. Meanwhile, they are outrebounding Boston on the offensive glass by an average margin of 7.7 boards per game. In Game 4, they finished with a 34-12 edge in points off of turnovers and second-chance points.
If the Sixers can maintain their advantage in those departments, then it leaves them in a pretty good position if their shots start to fall.
Therein lies the biggest basis for hope. Consider the fact that the Sixers are shooting just .513 on shots less than 8 feet from the rim this series a dismal mark that is the lowest of any team still alive. The Celtics, by comparison, are shooting .595 — that’s the equivalent of the Sixers hitting 11 fewer buckets, which is significant when you consider that they have been outscored by a total of 24 points in their three losses combined.
The problem has been pretty universal: Embiid is 23 of 43 (.535) within 8 feet, Ben Simmons is 18 of 37 (.487), and Saric is 11 of 20 (.550). During the regular season, those three players shot .614, .634, and .588, respectively.
Granted, playoff basketball is a different brand of hoop from the regular season, so their struggles at close range probably aren’t purely a matter of luck.
At the same time, it isn’t absurd to think that this series could see a correction. In fact, it is already in the midst of one on Boston’s end of things. After hitting 32 of 71 of their three-pointers in Games 1 and 2, a .451 conversion rate, the Celtics have connected on just 21 of 69 (.300) in Games 3 and 4.
That’s notable because Boston’s style of play has been pretty extreme. A staggering 42.3 percent of their field goal attempts have come from three-point range, the highest mark of any team in the playoffs, including the notoriously freewheeling Rockets. What’s interesting about that number is that it represents a significant deviation from Boston’s style of play during the regular season, when it attempted just 32.4 percent of its shots from beyond.
The Sixers, conversely, have attempted just 31.4 percent from deep, a marked drop from their regular-season average of 36.2 percent. Four games is a small sample size, but so is seven, and that’s the size of the sample the NBA uses to determine who advances to the next round of the playoffs.
Point is, if a couple of those layups and putbacks had been makes instead of misses, and a few of those three-pointers had rattled in instead of out, this could easily be a 2-2 series. That’s not to say that the Sixers’ odds aren’t dire, but there is plenty of reason to believe that the margin between these two teams is a lot slimmer than 3-1 suggests.