Friday night kicked off the weekend, and Game 3 of the conference semifinals are also underway. However, not all Game 3 games are created equal.
In Philadelphia, Game 3 began as a celebration of new 2023 NBA Most Valuable Player recipient Joel Embiid. Wells Fargo Center saw Embiid become the first 76er in 22 years to accept his award. But then the game started and the Boston Celtics clawed back home-court advantage to win 114-102 and take a 2-1 series lead.
In Phoenix, the Suns couldn’t afford a loss at home after being the only team in the semifinals to lose Games 1 and 2. The stakes were much higher for the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns than for the Philadelphia 76ers. The Denver Nuggets had already beaten the Suns with 125 points in Game 1, then held the Suns to just 87 points in Game 2 to take a 2-0 series lead. But despite missing out on Chris Paul due to a groin injury sustained in the third quarter of Game 2, the Suns salvaged their season with a 121-114 home win in Game 3.
And now for more on Day 21 of the playoffs:
No. 2 Celtics 114, No. 3 76ers 102 (Boston leads 2-1)
How the game was won: Joel Embiid was ready to play and he set the tone in the first and third quarters of Game 3 scoring 12 points apiece. But the final lead change of the game came in a second quarter that saw Jaylen Brown take his first four shots. Philadelphia dragged the rest of the game after Embiid returned from his first stint on the bench. Brown made four more shots in the third quarter to keep the Celtics ahead by double digits despite Embiid’s turnover, and the Celtics offered the plays needed to maintain their lead in the fourth quarter streak.
The Celtics had a 25:12 assist turnover ratio in Game 3, while Philadelphia only had a 21:14 assist turnover ratio. The ball moved for the Celtics, and they made Philadelphia’s offense clumsy for the second game in a row. James Harden finished the game with just 16 points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field in 41 minutes.
Great performances: It was a balanced effort for the Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum (27 points) and Brown (23 points) combining for 50 points. Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon didn’t have a good first quarter as the Celtics blew a 10-point lead once they started making substitutions, but he caught up with the rest of the game by leading the Celtics with a 6:1 assist ratio to go with 15 points and 3 of 6 from 3. Brogdon made some of the biggest plays of the game in the fourth quarter.
Brogdon, Brown, Tatum and starting point guard Marcus Smart each had at least four assists in Game 3. The only 76er with more than three assists in Game 3 was Harden, who had a record 11 assists, but also had match-high five turnovers as well.
X factor: You have to make shots for those assists to count, and it was a relatively even game when you look at most shooting areas. Philadelphia had a 24-22 advantage at the free throw line, the Celtics had a 32-28 advantage in the paint and both teams went 16-3.
But the Celtics scored 6 of 12 from half range, while Philadelphia only scored 1 of 9 from the same range. That’s a significant margin, especially for a Celtics team that was last in midrange field goals made per game after the All-Star break (2.2). Embiid scored more midrange field goals per game on his own (2.8) after the All-Star break, but the MVP went just 1 of 6 without paint 2 in Game 3.
Grant Williams, Celtics hold 76ers late on Joel Embiid’s MVP night
Key comps: Should the 76ers give Jalen McDaniels a longer look? Philadelphia’s mid-season trade acquisition was seen as a better fit over the late Matisse Thybulle. In Game 3, the Celtics shot just 7 of 23 (2 of 12 3) in McDaniels’ 11:26 from the field, and none of it was foul time. Philadelphia only allowed 30.4 percent field goals and 16.7 percent from 3 when McDaniels was on the floor, but they allowed 49.2 percent from field goals and 42.4 percent from 3 when McDaniels was not on the ground.
It’s a small sample, but they’re all small samples in a playoff series, and the 76ers were outscored by 22 points when McDaniels was off the floor in Game 3. Related: McDaniels Never Shared the Floor with Tobias Harris, who was invisible (seven points, four rebounds, 1:2 assist-turnover ratio, five personal fouls in 25:20). McDaniels has the length to give Brown and Tatum more problems.
James Harden, Tyrese Maxey struggle as Sixers lose home court advantage
Look forward: Game 4 is a quick turnaround on Sunday afternoons, and those kinds of games aren’t usually ideal for jump shooters. Philadelphia therefore needs starting guards Harden and Tyrese Maxey to be better in the paint. These two combined for just 29 points on 7 of 30 shooting in Game 3. Although neither was very good from 3 (Maxey made 3 of 9, Harden made 2 of 7) , they had identical difficulties in painting. , each missing 5 out of 6 inside attempts.
Philadelphia has a putrid 98.2 offensive rating in the 53 minutes Embiid, Harden and Maxey shared the floor in Games 2 and 3 of this series. That number was 119.4 in the regular season and 121.5 in four regular season games against the Celtics. Doc Rivers needs to revive this trio or the 76ers will be done with home games after this weekend.
No. 4 Suns 121, No. 1 Nuggets 114 (Denver leads 2-1)
How the game was won: It looked like the Nuggets were ready to take that 3-0 lead, as they soaked up an 18-point first quarter from Devin Booker to take a 31-29 lead late in the first quarter. Phoenix took control of the game via an unlikely source: the free throw line. In Game 2, the Suns were just 5 of 5 from the line (Denver was 18 of 21 in a 10-point win). In the second quarter alone, Kevin Durant overcame a 1-of-7 performance in the first quarter on the court in a draw Seven fouls, resulting in 10 of 11 free throws. Phoenix led as far as 16 points in the first half.
The Nuggets responded in the third quarter, completing a 19-point turnover and erasing Phoenix’s lead by rendering Durant ineffective and keeping him off the free throw line. Nikola Jokic had a triple-double early in the fourth quarter and finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists for the game. But Phoenix started the final quarter on an 11-2 run to reestablish a double-digit lead, and the Nuggets were unable to make Booker or Durant uncomfortable enough to close out the game. The star duo from Phoenix have hit nine of their last 10 shots.
Great performances: Booker and Durant combined for 86 of Phoenix’s 121 points and 17 of Phoenix’s 24 assists. They were the only double-digit Suns in Game 3. Both had nights that should be enjoyed, but it’s easier to congratulate Booker since he tied his postseason career high with 47 points. Booker has scored at least 10 field goals in the Suns’ eight playoff games this spring, and he made 20 shots for the first time in his playoff career in Game 3. If it wasn’t for his throws franks on Phoenix’s last possession, that Booker would have become the first player in NBA playoff history to score 40 points without attempting a free throw.
While Booker was effective, shooting 80% from the field, Durant endured a night where he missed 19 of 31 shots. Durant missed 12 of his 17 attempts outside the paint, including 4 of 5 3s. But Durant did everything else. He made 14 of 16 free throws overall, while making 7 of 14 shots in the paint; those two areas accounted for 28 of Durant’s 39 points. Durant led the Suns with nine defensive rebounds, blocked two shots and tied his playoff career high for assists without turnovers with eight.
X factor: There were two areas where the Suns needed to survive and adjust their approach without Paul: ball control and pace. With Cam Payne starting at point guard, the Suns outscored the Nuggets 23-11 on the fast break. Phoenix’s 16 quick break points in the first half was their most in a first half in more than five months.
And while the Nuggets had a respectable 27:13 assist turnover ratio in Game 3, Phoenix compiled a 24:9 ratio. Booker was the only Sun to have multiple rotations, and he balanced that with a 9:3 assist-to-rotation ratio. It was a game in which the Nuggets made one more 3, two more free throws, had nine more offensive rebounds, and outscored Phoenix 52-48 in the paint. And the Nuggets have scored as many midrange field goals (7 of 17) as the non-Booker Suns (7 of 18). But Booker made all eight of his midrange attempts, and not giving the Nuggets even more extra possessions was important for Phoenix.
Key comps: TJ Warren had played just 25 minutes in a game twice since being traded to Phoenix from Brooklyn with Durant in February. Phoenix head coach Monty Williams had used Warren sparingly, especially in the quarterfinals against the Clippers. But Williams played Warren for the entire second quarter of Game 3, the quarter that saw the Suns beat the Nuggets 38-21. Then Williams played Warren for the entire fourth quarter. Overall, the Suns outscored the Nuggets by 20 points in Warren’s 25:45.
On the other hand, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone saw his starting lineup of Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope beat the Suns by 10 points. But every other Nuggets lineup was outscored by 17 points in 25 minutes.
Devin Booker went nuclear, and for the most part Denver did nothing to prevent it
Look forward: Game 4 is Sunday night at the Footprint Center, giving Murray time to figure out his jumper. Murray went 6 3-of-10 in Game 1 against the Suns, but has missed 14 3-of-15 since.
Phoenix center Deandre Ayton should also be looking forward to Sunday after being held to four career playoff points on 2-of-6 shooting. Ayton has one free throw attempt in all series, and he missed it. He wasn’t even Phoenix’s best center in Game 3 – substitute Jock Landale ended up closing the game instead. Booker and Durant are going to need help against a Denver defense that will be looking to get as much of the ball away as possible.
(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)