The Philadelphia 76ers moved to within one win of a series victory over the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs on Tuesday as the Denver Nuggets thrashed the Phoenix Suns to edge closer to a place in the conference finals.
A towering performance in Boston from NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid helped the Sixers power to a 115-103 victory over the Celtics to stun the home fans into silence.
The result gives the Sixers a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, meaning they will advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a win in game six back in Philadelphia on Thursday.
In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Nuggets are also in the driving seat against Phoenix after pummeling the Suns 118-102 in Denver.
Denver star Nikola Jokic finished with a 29-point triple-double for a win that leaves the Nuggets 3-2 up in the series, with game six in Arizona on Thursday.
The Sixers will head into their clash with Boston brimming with confidence after an assured game-five display.
Embiid led the scoring in a superbly balanced Sixers offensive performance, with five players finishing in double figures.
Tyrese Maxey tormented the Celtics with 30 points, including six three-pointers, while point guard James Harden was a constant thorn in the side of the Celtics, finishing with 17 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
“I thought Joel did a great job of shooting when he needed to shoot and passing when he needed to pass,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said.
“Our composure overall was good. You know they’re going to make shots, they’re going to make runs. That team is tough, and you’ve got to breathe through it. I thought our guys did that.”
Rivers reserved special praise for the contribution of Harden.
“I thought James was a magician tonight. He called a perfect game. He was aggressive early on, when he needed to be aggressive. And then he got everybody else involved.”
Boston coach Joe Mazzulla was left ruing what he described as his team’s worst performance of the postseason.
“That was the first game of the playoffs where we didn’t play well,” Mazzulla said.
“We can’t lose perspective because the players have played some really good basketball. But that was our first really really bad game of the playoffs.
“Doesn’t come at necessarily the best time, but we just need to shift perspective and get ready for the next game.”
Boston never recovered after the Sixers pulled away to lead by 14 points in the second quarter.
Although the Celtics closed the deficit to nine at half-time they were unable to apply sustained pressure.
The Sixers always found a way of responding to keep them at arm’s length throughout the second half, with Philadelphia leading by double digits for almost the entirety of the third and fourth quarters.
Boston’s scoring was led by a 36-point display from Jayson Tatum while Jaylen Brown finished with 24 points.
In Denver, the Nuggets took control early on with a 35-point first quarter before Phoenix roared back to outscore the home side 25-17 in the second quarter.
Phoenix took a brief lead in the final minutes of the first half but Denver hit back to lead 52-49 at the break.
The Nuggets then roared out of the blocks in the opening minutes of the second half, outscoring Phoenix 21-6 to open up a 73-55 lead. Denver outscored Phoenix 39-25 in the third quarter and led by as much as 24 points in the final frame.
Phoenix coach Monty Williams pulled his starters from the floor long before the end as Denver celebrated a crucial win.
Jokic finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists to lead Denver’s scorers, while Michael Porter Jr. had 19 points including five three-pointers.
Devin Booker led the Suns with 28 points, while Kevin Durant finished with 26.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said an improved defensive display had laid the foundation for his team’s emphatic win.
“We didn’t play any defense in the two games we lost in Phoenix,” Malone said. “When we’re not running, and we’re not defending, we’re going nowhere.
“And that’s what we’ll have to do in game six if we’re going to close this series out.”
Suns coach Williams said his team’s challenge wilted in the lop-sided third quarter.
“It was like nothing we’ve put on the floor this year from our standards,” Williams said.
“We stood still and didn’t move them around enough. I felt we were somewhat stagnant.
“We’ve got to meet the challenge with the physicality.”
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