Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid's miss gives Celtics early start on East dynasty

#Al Horford

BOSTON - Joel Embiid was on the floor on the baseline, lying prone. His face was bare, the mask he had been wearing to protect his injured eye socket left back on the Sixers bench, because, as he put it, the possession he'd just commandeered would be so important, "I needed to be at my best." Now, he was absorbing what had just happened.

Embiid had taken a pass on the left wing and gone at Celtics center Aron Baynes. Embiid lowered his shoulder and plowed into Baynes once, then again. Baynes kept his arms vertical until Embiid went up, which is when Baynes brought his arms down. There was contact, but no whistle. Embiid missed the layup, tried a tip-in that missed and, when he came back down with the rebound, was stripped by Celtics guard Terry Rozier and lost the ball out of bounds.

The score was 111-109, with Boston leading. There had been 18.8 seconds remaining in Game 5 when the possession began, the Sixers' postseason lives on the line as they trailed, 3-1, in the series. When it was over, with Embiid having given the ball back to the Celtics without scoring in the post, there were just 10.2 seconds left.

That was it. After a tense thriller at TD Garden on Wednesday night, one with a 114-112 final tally, one with 21 lead changes and 11 ties, one that would punch the Celtics' ticket into the conference finals for the second straight year, the entire game came down to Baynes and Embiid going body-to-body on a critical possession and Baynes - whether he hacked Embiid hardly matters now - winning the matchup.

"I felt like there was something on that last play, but you can't really do anything about it," Embiid said. "But (the refs) did a great job the whole night."

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Sure Not Now

Fitting, in a way, that the most important handful of seconds in the Celtics' postseason run, which will move next to a conference final series against Cleveland, came down to Baynes, the bearded 31-year-old journeyman Australian who managed, over the course of this series, to keep Embiid relatively under wraps.

Eventually, the Celtics are going to be a juggernaut, a team easily despised across NBA fandom for the way they pulled together a "superteam" anchored by Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both of whom were acquired last summer. They'll be steeped in talent, they'll mix developing youngsters with established veterans and they'll have Brad Stevens - infallible already, for some Boston fans - at the head of it all.

But for now, the Celtics will trot out one last version of lovable overachievers, guys who have fought through the injuries to Irving and Hayward to give Boston a berth in the conference finals that hardly seemed possible just a couple of weeks ago.

Sure, there's talent. This is not all heart-and-hustle with these Celtics. Nor is the team's success a result of some weird Stevens' voodoo. The players are in different roles than they'd been in for much of the season. But they're good.

Rookie Jayson Tatum was stellar in the closeout game against the Sixers, scoring 25 points on 8-for-15 shooting, making nine of his 11 free throws. Jaylen Brown, coping with a hamstring issue, was back in the starting five and responded with 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Al Horford, ever the steady veteran, had 15 points and eight rebounds, adding five steals.

Marcus Smart was there, having a typical Smart kind of game. He was just 3-for-8 from the field, but worked to get to the free-throw line (8-for-13) and finished with 14 points and a team-high plus-10 in the box score.

And then there was Baynes, the former Spur and Piston - and, also, a veteran of teams in Greece, Lithuania and Germany - who was signed to a one-year, $4.3 million deal last summer. He knocked down one of the two 3-pointers he shot, running his total in the series to seven makes in 16 attempts, from a guy who made three all season.

"Amazing," Horford said after the game. "Aron, the way he prepares, the challenge he has taken because he really has changed his game all year, his range. He is shooting 3s now, he's taking the challenge defensively, he is our rim protector every night. We're just so happy to see him have success at this level."

Embiid may not agree. Thousands of Sixers fans might not agree, either. But Baynes is emblematic of a group that has exceeded expectations, a group that is down two of its best players and probably has no business still playing at this point in the season. The Celtics could be a hated dynasty in the very near future. For now, though, they've been an easy bunch to root for.

Thanks to the performance on Wednesday, that will continue, at least for one more round.

"Everyone is still hungry," Baynes said. "No one is satisfied, that's for sure. This is what it's about. At the start of the season, you want to get to this point."

They're here. Not the path they'd have preferred. But the Celtics are back in the conference finals.

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