After two postseason classics in Game 4s of this series—Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics, and Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns—it was the bench’s next batch of late laughs. Philadelphia and Denver embarked on a crucial game against their opponents that looked radically different but felt very similar. But while the other two league semifinal series provide compelling narratives, basketball’s most stellar performances on the court continue to occur in these two games. And while both winning teams seem poised for great odds to end this series victoriously in the upcoming matches on Thursday, is it too much of a stretch to ask us to get one more match for each of these stellar and exciting showdowns between the heavyweights?
Here’s what happened in the Game 5s on Tuesday, and what happens next.
Sixers 115, Celtics 103 | Philadelphia leads 3-2
Why the 76ers won: Because this is the team they can be. Too often, conversations about Philadelphia revolve around this team’s disappointments and failures to live up to expectations. On Tuesday, that team was 76: Joel Embiid, the continuing defensive terror who led both teams with 33 points. James Harden, who didn’t need to return to the championships while content with an efficient 17-point, 10-assist performance; Therese Maxi, whose lackluster chain has been replaced by an impressive 30-point show; Role-players actively appear when and where they are needed. No, we haven’t always seen this version of Philadelphia so late in the season – but this brings them one step closer and one win away from changing those conversations.
Why did the Celtics lose: Boston often lives by the three, which means this team will sometimes die by it, too. Before a period blurred by bench players, the Celtics were behind the arc just 9 of 32 despite finishing the regular season with the second most tries (42.6 per game) and goals (16.6). Al Horford’s ineffectiveness – 0 of 7 behind the arc – led the way, and the absence of his exemplary floor-scraping ability made it easy for Embiid to strike fear into the paint even as the 76ers continued to forcefully send assists to the Boston Stars. The Celtics do not generate shots on the rim (25 in regular season attempts per game) or reach the foul line (29). They don’t have a quick flick builder and defense breaker to jostle over opposing defenses. This is a crime based on shooting and making the shots, and this is what it looks like when that fails.
Match moment: It’s a great Embiid moment, of course.
A week ago, Embiid was barely able to run because he was struggling with a knee injury that kept him out of Game 1. The sequence began with Embiid’s choppy turnover, but his recovery speed to save two points at a crucial moment in the match was special.
Basic stats: While 10 of Embiid’s 33 points came at the free throw line, the rest came from jump shots – he didn’t score in the restricted area in this game, nor did he need to. Boston allowed him to walk free-throw line players more often, and Embiid fed the steady diet of them as if they were Shirley Temples.
The Sixers must feel… an opportunity for vindication. If that’s really what this team is about, go ahead and prove it by winning this series. If this is an old streak for Embiid and Harden, they should end the Celtics when they have that advantage. If that’s a statement that will calm whispers about the questions this off-season will bring, then so should they.
The Celtics should feel… like they could still be better. They haven’t looked like her for most of the series, and they let Embiid’s hero and historically harden performance beat them to pieces. But Boston went to the NBA Finals last year. If they still think they are that team, then show it to us.
What then: Game 6 will take place on Thursday, May 11th at 7:30 PM ET.
Nuggets 118, Suns 102 | Denver leads 3-2
Why Nuggets won: When Denver’s offense swings, its defense often follows. The Nuggets built to a 35-26 lead in the first quarter, only to watch it evaporate as their shots stopped falling and Phoenix relentlessly charged in rhythm against Nuggets defenders who didn’t have time to prepare. But when Denver’s offense bounced back from the moment the second half began, a commonplace story followed: Denver, flush with good defenders surrounding their star Nikola Jokic, looks really feisty and formidable. At home, with innings pitchers delivering slams and Joki’s subliminal tackles getting in the way, it was the defeat that put Denver back in command in the series.
Why lost the sun: Phoenix’s road to winning games is still fraught with perils. After Devin Booker and Kevin Durant combined for 72 and 88 points in Games 3 and 4, respectively, this ridiculously talented duo scored just 54 points between them on Tuesday. Denver got fully involved in stopping them in the previous two games of the series, of course, but the same plan worked better in Game 5 because Booker and Durant simply weren’t omnipotent. It also helped that Suns still didn’t know what their support team was. Josh Okogie started but only played eight minutes while Landry Shamet and TJ Warren both struggled off the bench. Especially with Chris Paul still sidelined, it’s still uncertain where the extra, non-stellar performances will come from – especially on the road against a really rowdy Denver crowd on a hike.
Match moment: After Jokić’s half-hearted push for new Suns referee Mat Ishbia dominated the talking points after Game 4 – with the discussion centered ridiculously on whether Joki should be suspended, even if the question was only put to the talking heads to say no – you have to respect Jokić’s response Entertaining before the game.
Basic stats: Bruce Brown scored 25 points on just 11 shot attempts on Tuesday, his second-highest this entire season. His highest game since joining the Nuggets last summer? It was a 31-point game, you guessed it, against the Phoenix Suns in one of the last regular season games of the season in early April. While Christian Brown and Michael Porter Jr. also deserve a shout out for their key performances backing up Jokic and Jamal Murray, it’s worth noting that the Nuggets wouldn’t be here without Brown being an essential addition to that squad.
The little bits should feel…invincible. Watching the team that came out in Game 5 almost makes you wonder why this series hasn’t already ended. Yes, we know why it isn’t. This is not a mockery of the sun. But there should be no shiver from Booker and Durant’s undeniable brilliance going into Game 6. Denver have their own duo in Jokić and Murray, just as unstoppable in their own unique ways, and a better-fitting supporting cast who complement and understand the Stars better than anyone. In the unmatched Suns list. Go win.
The sun must feel… like nothing could happen. On paper, this series has tilted a lot in favor of the Nuggets. Not just the 3-2 lead that Denver now has, but the plus-32 advantage margin that Denver holds in the series. Denver’s first two wins were far more convincing than Phoenix’s next two. However, these two matches were wins. However, the Suns have two players who could really be the best players in the world on any given night. Quite possibly even the same night. Which is why, even if you need two straight wins to keep this season alive, no loss of faith can come yet. With these two guys, it would be ridiculous to lose that.
What then: Game 6 will take place on Thursday, May 11th at 10 p.m. ET.
(Top photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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