Doc Rivers spent eight years working alongside Celtics VP of media relations Heather Walker, who died at the age of 52 last Wednesday.
Before Game 1 of the Celtics-76ers series on Monday night, the Sixers coach paid tribute to Walker after she died following a lengthy battle against glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer.
“Hey guys, obviously Heather Walker meant a lot to me,” Rivers said before becoming emotional. “You know, 17 years or whatever, and leaving two kids, a husband, and it happened so quick.
This week, their attention is focused on the NBA playoffs as the No. 2 seed Celtics and No. 3 seed 76ers play in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting on Monday night in Boston.
During the regular season, the Celtics won three of the four games against the 76ers, including 126-117 at home in the season opener on Oct. 18. The 76ers lone victory came the last time the teams played when they won, 103-101, as center Joel Embiid had 52 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Embiid, who sprained his right knee in the first round series against the Atlanta Hawks, is listed as doubtful for Monday’s Game 1.
This is the 22nd time the 76ers and Celtics have faced each other in the playoffs, dating all the way back to 1953. The teams have been rivals since then and played in high-profile series, most notably when they met in the Eastern Conference finals four times in the 1950s, five times in the 1960s and four times in the 1980s.
1980 Conference Finals – 76ers win 4-1
The Celtics had one of the best turnarounds in NBA history, going from 29-53 in the 1978-79 season to 61-21 in the 1979-80 season, which was the league’s best record. Rookie Larry Bird led the team with 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
That’s because Boston wasn’t too far from playing a flawless quarter offensively. Over the first 12 minutes, the Celtics shot 17 for 20 from the floor. They punished practically every single Sixers miscue and there were quite a few. Replacement starter Paul Reed forced a shot up inside against Al Horford and got rejected, leading to a fast-break Tatum dunk. Several Celtics leaked free in the half court for slams stemming from overzealous, unfocused or confused Sixers defense.
Jaylen Brown, Tatum and Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon all had plenty of opportunities to attack in transition and were fantastic in seizing those chances. The Sixers were surely grateful that De Anthony Melton matched Brogdon’s early scoring. Melton caught fire in the second quarter, made all five of his long-distance jumpers in the first half, and scored 17 points before intermission. He also flashed his versatility late in the second quarter by accepting a Harden pass on the short roll and then dishing to Tobias Harris for a catch-and-shoot wing three.
By the middle of the second quarter, Reed appeared to grow frustrated with how the night was unfolding. His teammates expressed annoyance and displeasure on a few occasions as well; Harden was not infrequently exasperated by when and how Reed set screens. Reed and the Sixers stuck with it, though. After an extended timeout conversation with Harden, Reed scored his first two hoops of the night late in the second period.
He ultimately set a new career high in minutes for a second straight game, going 37 and posting 10 points and 13 rebounds. Though the Sixers played a bit of small ball, Reed took on an Embiid-like load. The team used a three-man bench of Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Georges Niang. With the idea of adding an athletic, veteran wing defender familiar with playing alongside Harden, it would make sense if Danuel House Jr. became part of the Sixers’ rotation in Game 2.
When asked what it will take for Embiid to get back on the court, Rivers said it’ll just be a matter of the doctors telling him that he’ll be available to play. Paul Reed started in Embiid’s place at center and had 10 points and 13 rebounds and hit big free throws down the stretch to help seal the win.
Embiid suffered his knee injury when he landed awkwardly after contesting a drive by Brooklyn Nets forward Cam Johnson in Game 3 of Philadelphia’s first-round sweep on April 20.
Philadelphia went on to win Game 4 to close the Nets out two days later, with Rivers saying after that game it was “probably less than 50 percent” Embiid would be ready to go for the start of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The 76ers were given an additional couple of days of rest when the Atlanta Hawks pushed their first-round series with the Celtics to six games, moving the beginning of the series to Monday rather than Saturday.
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough time for Embiid to get on the court. But the Sixers continued their trend of success in Embiid’s absence, improving to 13-5 without their superstar this season.
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