BOSTON — It seems as if the more firepower you take away from the Boston Celtics lineup, the more dangerous they become. The full-strength Philadelphia 76ers found that out first hand to start the latest chapter of one of the NBA’s legendary rivalries.
The trident of veteran All-Star Al Horford, second-year emerging star guard Terry Rozier and super-talented rookie Jayson Tatum combined for 83 points, each scoring at least 26, as the Celtics defeated Philadelphia 117-101 to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals at TD Garden on Monday night.
Already without stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics once again were playing shorthanded as forward Jaylen Brown, who averaged 20.5 points per game in the first six games of Boston’s first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, missed tonight’s game after suffering a hamstring injury during the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Bucks in the first round series finale on Saturday night.
That news, while discouraging, only galvanized Brad Stevens’ bunch even more, as the role players continue to step up and grow into more of a starring role in the team’s system. Horford became the focal point in the first half, with Boston continuing their high pick-and-roll offense to create mismatches inside, with Horford having success going one-on-one with defenders like the Sixers Marco Belinelli and Dario Saric – and avoiding having to go up against Joel Embiid too many times in the post. Horford scored 12 of his 26 points in the first half, as the Celtics opened up a 56-45 lead at intermission.
The last three points of the first half for the Celtics came on a Rozier three-pointer, three of his 13 points in the first half. Tatum, the rookie who has yet to hit the proverbial rookie wall as his debut campaign rolls into a 10th month (including NBA Summer League), led all players in the first half with 16 points and ended the game with 28 points.
Am Embiid layup with 7:31 left in the third quarter cut Boston’s lead to 64-58, but then Boston went on a 12-4 run to once again reestablish control of the game. The lead only went below single digits a couple of times after that, including when two Belinelli free throws brought the Sixers within eight (79-87) with 10:07 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Boston put the game away with back-to-back three pointers late in the fourth quarter, when Horford’s triple from the top of the key game the Celtics a 100-88 lead and, after an Embiid layup, Rozier drained a three-pointer with 4:54 remaining for a 103-90 advantage.
Rozier ended the game with 29 points, while, on the other end, Embiid led all scorers with 31 points in a losing effort for Philadelphia.
Another key to victory for the Celtics, outside of the trio of Horford, Tatum and Rozier, was choking off the production by the Sixers from the three-point line, as Philadelphia went just 5-for-26 from beyond the arc.