NBA Playoffs: Celtics forget to come early and late at the hands of the Sixers in Game 4

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The Boston Celtics swept the Eastern Conference Semifinals looking the easiest route back to the NBA Finals, and for some reason they seem intent on taking the path of most resistance.

He opened Game 4 with a 2-1 lead and all the urgency of a hungry sloth. The Celtics found enough energy to erase a 16-point, third-quarter deficit and force overtime against a Philadelphia 76ers team that was trying equally hard to give them the series, but Boston won their final possession so much that stopped that Marcus Smart's potential game-winning 3-pointer by failing to beat the game clock by a fraction of a second in a 116–115 loss.

It's hard to say which is the bigger failure—the Celtics' lackluster performance through three quarters or their absence in each team's final game. Either way, he missed a golden opportunity to push the Sixers over the edge. The series tied at 2-2. Game 5 in Boston is set for Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

“We had a game in hand,” said Boston's Jaylen Brown, who scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting.

It would be a mistake not to give credit to Philadelphia's James Harden, who brushed off consecutive sub-par games to score 42 points, including a game-winning 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in overtime. Before his 45 points, the Celtics team was not ready to face the Sixers without MVP Joel Embiid.

Still, Sunday's game-winner was the result of a Boston brain fart. After 115–113 as time dwindled in the extra frame, Embiid backed up Jayson Tatum in the paint, where Brown opted to double that tie Opportunity, leaving the corner wide open for Harden – “hotter than fish oil“- to win it from afar.

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Brown said, “James Harden's big shot, but it's my fault.” “I take full responsibility. It was a bad read.”

“We were up two and 20-something seconds left, so we didn't want to miss a 3 and get fouled,” Tatum said. “If they score 2, we will be fine, but such things happen during the game.”

The Celtics had nearly a full shot clock to respond, and they didn't have to. First-year head coach Joe Mazzulla opted not to call a timeout, even though Smart still had the ball at halfcourt with nine seconds remaining and no play developed. Smart passed to Tatum, who waited until he had under five seconds to drive the lane. He drew a double team, fired crosscourt again to Smart, and the clock ran out before he could release his winner.

“I waited a second late,” said Tatum, who scored 22 of his 24 points after halftime.

“We had to play with a little more pace there,” Mazzulla said, “but that was the play.”

Boston Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 47 points in Game 4, but it still wasn't enough to defeat Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. (Tim Wachukwu/)

It was more evidence of Boston's inability to seize the moment that can break an opponent. The Celtics got there just five minutes before Majulla didn't call timeout on the last possession of a tied game in regulation. He ran a similar play – Tatum drew a second defender, dishing up Smart at the arc – and this time with the worst shooting option on the floor for Boston, attempted to win the game.

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“We know what we're supposed to do,” Harden said. “It's Game 4. They know our plays. We know their plays. It's about who wants it more, who wants to win, and we did a good job of that tonight.”

It is abundantly clear that the Celtics have the most talented rotation of any left tackle in the playoffs. At their , they are the NBA's most formidable force on both ends of the court, a relentless eight-man collection of versatile two-way performers. The Celtics have the fewest flaws, only their most frustrating: They play themselves.

“We let them be comfortable,” Smart said.

“Tough teams set the rules,” Brown said, “and tonight he was.”

Last year's blowout sweeps in Game 5 of the Conference Semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Game 6 of the East Finals against the Miami Heat and Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors would have set up an easy road for the Celtics. His long no-shows of Games 1 and 4 of this series, as well as Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks in the final round, are self-imposed roadblocks.

Embiid's and the elimination of the top-seeded Bucks put E-ZPass Lane in a second Finals appearance. Whether it's Embiid's sprained knee or not, it's clear he's not conditioned for four quarters of high-level playoff basketball despite back-to-back 30-point outings. He has gone 5 for 19 in three quarters with two assists and one overtime since returning from the sprain. (That second assist came to Harden on Sunday.)

“Honestly we're tired,” said veteran Sixers coach Doc Rivers, “and it's hard to make a play when everybody's tired.” Collected myself, took back my air. … We kicked our butt off in overtime. It was good to see. ,

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The Miami Heat or the New York Knicks await in the conference finals, and there are more people than ever picking on both teams to lose in the early rounds. A chance to play for a championship – “unfinished business” being their playoff slogan – is at arm's length for the Celtics, only they have to flex on Philadelphia first.

Harden has put together a pair of All-World outings, and yet Boston had every chance to win both if not for poor execution (and strategy) on both ends when the pressure cooked. Mess up more, and Harden is bound to the Celtics' lunch. They are really hungry if Harden is feasting more than them in the clutch.

The Celtics came so close to taking a 3-1 lead in last year's NBA Finals that they could taste a title. They entered these playoffs knowing they couldn't afford to play with their , only that they weren't hungry yet.