– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
View this post on Instagram
PHILADELPHIA — In the lead-up to the day in which love is celebrated across the country, the main emotion the Boston Celtics were emanating out of their locker room, spawned after a couple of head-scratching home losses forced one of the veteran leaders to call into question the team’s direction and camaraderie, was unadulterated frustration. In response, the team went into its monumental matchup in the City of Brotherly Love against the “it” team in the Eastern Conference filled with a different, yet equally as powerful an emotion as love or anger, one that carried it to what might turn out to be a season-defining victory: desperation.
Without the services of the injured Kyrie Irving, the Celtics put together a balanced attack and made clutch plays down the stretch to stunt a number of runs in coming away with a 112-109 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. Not only did the win put an end to a two-game losing streak, it temporarily extinguished the miasmic cloud that started to envelop the team after Marcus Morris Sr.’s postgame comments on Saturday in which he excoriated his teammates for playing like “a bunch of individuals” and lamenting the lack of joy currently present in suiting up for the green and white.
As it turned out, getting away from Boston while having to play one of the hottest teams in the NBA, one that transformed its team yet again at the trade deadline in stating its championship aspirations, was the perfect prescription for the Celtics’ current lovesickness.
“We understood Philly’s been playing at a high level. We had disappointing losses at home. I felt like our backs were against the wall, so we all needed to come out and set the tone and we did that,” said Celtics center Al Horford, who had 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals while going body-to-body defensively all night against Joel Embiid. “But what I’m most proud of from our group is that we were able to sustain it and just played hard. I mean even if we would have lost, I was just happy that our guys were really engaged throughout the whole game.”
Morris Sr. uttered those same sentiments in stressing that it was more than just the final result that made a difference, something akin to a prevailing wisdom that takes hold during the Hallmark holiday: it’s the thought that counts.
“This was one of the better games. Not even that we won, man. It’s the intensity everybody played with, the force everybody played with, and we just let it go,” Morris Sr. said. “Everybody played. And it was very fun.”
What also is fun for the Celtics is the continued domination of the 76ers, having now won 10 of their last 12 contest against Philadelphia, including last season’s 4-1 series victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Just as what occurred in every game that series, Boston played tonight’s contest without the services of Irving, who suffered a knee strain during Saturday’s loss to the Clippers in which the Celtics blew a 28-point lead. Stepping into the Kyrie’s starring role, at least late in the contest, was Gordon Hayward, who scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the second half and nailed six of his seven three-pointers.
In the fourth quarter, Boston shot 67 percent from the field (12-of-18). Hayward scored eight in the final stanza, and his three-pointer from the right corner off of a pass from Morris gave the Celtics the lead for good at 105-103 with 1:50 remaining.
“It was a good win for us, especially considering the last two that were dropped and just some frustrations in those,” Hayward said. “I said it after those games, we played well in stretches but played miserable in other stretches, so for us to get the win tonight against a very quality opponent was big, especially on the road without Kyrie, it was huge.”
Even with Philadelphia playing near-imperious basketball over the last few games, and with the buzz surrounding it after its deadline-day acquisition of Tobias Harris to complete a lethal starting quintet, the Sixers continued to not make the plays down the stretch once again in a matchup with Boston. After being fouled on a three-point attempt, Jimmy Butler missed two out of three free throws which could have tied the game with 1:14 left. One possession later and still down by two, Joel Embiid, who had 23 points but only made nine of his 22 field goal attempts, missed an off-balance shot that led to a transition dunk by Marcus Smart.
“There’s a physicality that you have to play with to beat them and you’re reminded of that,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “They do a really good job of going at mismatches. We could all see the difficulty at times that we had guarding some of the physicality of them trying to post us with different mismatches.”
Somehow, this series between seemingly two evenly-matched squads has been a mismatch, but any worries that those past results might have any effect on a possible get-together down the road in the spring are far from the Sixers’ minds, especially since the team is still feeling itself out after its latest roster transformation.
“You want to win every game, but at the same time, you know this is a new team,” said Ben Simmons, who had 16 points, five rebounds and five assists. “There are things we’re going to work on, things we need to get better at, but it’s a good test for us to see where we’re at with this new team. But I’m excited with everyone we have and to see how far we can go.”