Celtics force decider, Denver advance to Western finals
Jayson Tatum has missed his first six three-pointers before drilling two straight clutch ones late in the game that pushed the Celtics past Philadelphia 95-86 to send the NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals back to Boston for a deciding Game 7.
The defending conference champions are in familiar territory. Boston trailed 3-2 last season in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks before winning Game 6 on the road and the clincher at home.
Game 7 is on Sunday.
Tatum, who averaged 30.1 points in the regular season, never stopped shooting even as the misses kept coming in Philadelphia.
He missed 14 of his first 15 attempts overall from the floor and his ineffectiveness was a key reason the Celtics couldn't hold a 16-point lead.
With a shot at their first conference final since 2001 at stake, the 76ers slogged through the first half before Joel Embiid, who had an equal game-high 26 points with teammate Tyrese Maxey, flashed his MVP form and rallied them to a fourth-quarter lead.
Maxey hit two free throws with 5:25 left for an 83-81 edge, but that was it for Philly.
Tatum buried a triple for the 84-83 lead and a second that made it 87-83 and put the Celtics in firm control.
"I kept looking at the time," Tatum, who finished with 19 points, said.
"I've got time, I've got time to make a difference. I believed that the whole time."
In Phoenix, Nikola Jokic scored 32 points in another triple-double, Jamal Murray added 26 as Denver advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2020 by beating the short-handed Suns 125-100 in Game 6.
The Nuggets' series victory comes two seasons after they were embarrassed in a second-round post-season sweep by Phoenix.
This time, it was the Suns getting blown out on their home floor to end the season for the second straight year.
"When we defend, when we rebound, when we run, when we share the ball, we believe we're the best team in the NBA," Denver coach Michael Malone said.
"And tonight, we showed it."
Denver will play in the conference finals for the first time since they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Florida bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have never reached the NBA Finals.
The top-seeded Nuggets used a 23-2 run during the latter part of the first quarter to take a 44-26 lead and never looked back.
Denver's offensive onslaught continued in the second as the lead grew to 81-51 by halftime, leading to boos from Suns fans as players made their way to the locker room.
"It was a bad feeling," Phoenix superstar Kevin Durant, who had 23 points, said.
"It was embarrassing. They came out and got us in the mouth and we couldn't recover."
The Suns were playing without injured starters Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul and were led by 31 points from Cameron Payne.