The great question every team must answer for itself in a seven-game basketball series is whether it can win in the opponent’s home arena. This is an even more vital question, quite obviously, for a lesser seed that must win a game on the road in order to advance.
The good news that emerged Thursday night from the 76ers’ Game 2 loss in the TD Garden — “good” being a relative term after that game — is that they can indeed beat the Boston Celtics there. The fact that they didn’t actually win the game is particularly vexing since they were, in rapid succession, good enough to build a 22-point lead and bad enough to blow it.
Nevertheless, after getting housed in the series opener, a double-digits loss in which almost nothing went right, Thursday’s game was at least an affirmation that the Sixers are going to be in this series for the long haul and are capable of collecting the necessary road win.
That ability was never really in question during the first series against the Heat, but that is because playing in Miami isn’t so much a road game in a hostile atmosphere as it is a pleasant, but distracting stroll through a swank nightclub. There’s a lot of sensory bombardment, but you know you’ll get home safely.
Boston and its fans offer a visiting team no such guarantee. They do not arrive midway through the opening quarter and settle in to remind themselves which teams happen to be playing that evening. They are there from the time you get off the bus until the last walk to the locker room and it is not a warm welcome.
Certainly, there is history to this, and the same history that will be revived in South Philly on Saturday night as well. In Boston, it goes back to the days when all photos were black-and-white and every fan wore a dress hat and smoked; back in the dank, sweltering old Garden, which was built primarily as a boxing arena with upper balconies that leaned over the court like creaking parapets threatening to give way.
The newer place isn’t that ominous, but it’s no bargain for a visitor, so it wasn’t nothing that the Sixers hitched up their drawers and came out with fire and purpose at the start of Thursday’s game. They didn’t finish the job, but they will get one or two more chances, assuming their own home-court advantage means what it should.
By now, the nature of this series, and the nature of real NBA playoff basketball, should be clear to the Sixers. It is all about defense, and all about which team is able to maintain some semblance of a fluid offense in the face of it.
There was the predictable criticism of Ben Simmons after Thursday’s loss, which can be expected when one of your two superstars scores just one point in nearly 31 minutes of playing time. Boston’s philosophy on guarding Simmons is very simple: Don’t. That’s an overstatement, but the Celtics hardly bother getting in front of him until he is in the paint.
Al Horford drew the assignment most of the time, and the veteran, who was drafted when Simmons was 10 years old, placidly glided under all picks and screens like a dolphin skimming just below the surface of the Sixers’ offense. The solution to that is making jump shots, of course, but that’s a story for another day. (In seven postseason games, 70 of Simmons’ 81 shot attempts have come within 10 feet of the basket.)
More troubling in some ways, if you put stock in the plus-minus of what happens at both ends when you are on the court, is that the numbers for Simmons weren’t that different in Game 2 than the opener. He scored 18 points in the first game and was a minus-21, and then that one lonely point in the second game and was a minus-23. That means he was neither getting his teammates off — 13 total assists in the two games — nor keeping up with Boston’s quick ball movement to open players.
So, OK, Ben Simmons had a bad game. He was having the same bad game when the Sixers were up by 22 points, though. The failure of the whole team was fundamental. The Sixers went from shooting 35 free throws in the opener to shooting 14 in the second game. Three-point shooting went from 31 percent of their attempts to 37 percent, which is exactly the opposite of what should happen when you build a big early lead. Get the ball inside, get good shots, get to the foul line. Brett Brown was not blameless after this one.
Now, however, everything changes, or at least the Sixers hope so. In their own building, they should be expected to defend with more tenacity and put the Celtics on their heels. Boston is shooting well above its regular-season average, and that has to change in the Wells Fargo Center.
History tells us that it probably will, and that the Sixers will regain their footing and send the series back to Boston tied 2-2. That doesn’t have to happen, but with teams like these, that is usually how it goes.
Then, the great question will remain: Who can win one on the road? Unfortunately for the Sixers in this series, they are the only team that really has to come up with the right answer.