The Boston Celtics faced the Philadelphia 76ers tonight without Kyrie Irving—sidelined by a bum shoulder—and coming off a close but embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. Your recapper also came into this writing somewhat hamstrung, by a brutal chest cold. Naturally, Kyrie’s absence made much more of a negative difference, and the Sixers got their revenge for the humiliation the Cs heaped on them last week in London.
THE GAME FLOW
Early minutes had Boston not underestimating their opponent, as they had two nights ago against New Orleans, and striking hard and early on Philly. Al Horford did most of this work, and proved an interestingly superior matchup against his much younger defender, Joel Embiid. One particularly great play saw Al do the big man version of a shake-and-bake in the high post on Embiid to hit a fadeaway jumper right in The Process’s face.
The Sixers came back with a respectable counterpunch in the latter half of the first quarter. Their attack relied strongly on the underrated Trevor Booker, who got successive buckets by nimbly circumventing post defense from Horford, Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis. Philadelphia continued this advantage into a slight lead by the frame’s end.
For the second quarter, the Celtics were up extent two immutable truths: They are terrible in second quarters of late (one of the lowest-scoring teams for that period in the league) and the 76ers are a great size-for-size matchup against them in most aspects. Even with Sixers fulcrums Embiid and Ben Simmons playing inferior games (to start, at least; Embiid’s final figures were excellent), the team did well enough to pull ahead of the Cs by double digits for a time.
Boston’s rampant turnovers (15 in the first half alone) and the stout defense of their opposition kept the scoring low, despite shooting slightly better by percentage than Philadelphia. By “slightly better,” I mean about 41 percent for the half as opposed to just under 40 percent, so no one was offensively lighting the world on fire. But the Celtics couldn’t defend the 76ers as well as they should’ve, with Dario Saric proving himself particularly adept at getting around the protective efforts of our heroes. At the half, Boston was down just 7 points in a 39-32 game, but they’d just put in one of the lowest-scoring halves the franchise had seen in more than 5 years.
This one would need strong work from the Celtics youth contingent to have any chance of going down as a win, but the likelihood of that stood in question as the second half began: Jaylen Brown hadn’t made a shot all night (and continued this trend early in Q3 with two off-the-mark contested trey attempts), while Jayson Tatum only had two FGs for 4 points (though he rounded out his efforts with rebounds, steals and blocks). Marcus Smart functioned well in his role as starting point guard, like he always has, but his best offensive contributions are playmaking rather than scoring. By the time Philadelphia cracked the half-century mark in points, Boston hadn’t reached 40.
Boston wasn’t playing without energy, as is often the case when they can’t score well. But they had zero finesse and looked uncomfortable, which could suggest a lack of confidence stemming from the absence of Kyrie. (Though I must remind you I’m not a psychologist or mind reader.) Philadelphia pounced all over that. The Cs weren’t helped in the slightest by a complete inability to get to the free-throw line: Until Booker fouled a Mook Morris shot attempt and he sank his two at 3:39, they hadn’t spent a second on the charity stripe, whereas Philly had 8 FTAs and made them all.
Some tentative signs of life flickered through the Celtics roster late in the third quarter, as they went on a decent offensive run and Brad Stevens used a small-ball guard-heavy lineup (with Brown, Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin on the floor simultaneously) to generate aggressive defensive traps. But it wasn’t nearly enough to get out of the whole they’d made, especially when renowned White Chocolate Impersonator T.J. McConnell (who has got to be Richard Spencer’s favorite ballplayer) can torch Boston defenders on four consecutive field-goal makes.
It looked real bad as the fourth quarter started with our heroes putridly down 71-53. While an NBA quarter can feel like an eternity, it obviously isn’t, and despite an immediate run of scoring by Tatum, Larkin and Morris, Philly’s motor hadn’t run out, with McConnell and Embiid working in tandem to maintain the Sixer lead of about 20 points.
The best chance for a Celtics comeback would be during the Q4 minutes when Embiid took a breather and beloved but old Amir Johnson took his place. They also finally saw some calls going their way as well, including two Sixers charges. But they couldn’t capitalize offensively, and with only 4 minutes on the clock and a 15-point deficit, a Celtics comeback had officially traveled from the familiar galaxy of “unlikely” into the murkier quasar of “improbable.”
Boston decided to turn its defense up from the “grind” setting into “FULL-ON 1988 DETROIT FUCK YOU.” Basically, if they were gonna lose, they’d work the hell out of Philly for the game’s stretch run. This had mixed results, as it seemed to surprise the Sixers like a punch to the jaw and led to some Celtics opportunities, yet also got good Philly free-throw shooters to the line.
It slowed the game enough for the Cs to find some rhythm, and finally get the margin of deficit within just 7 points. Not good enough. Boston missed some threes that would’ve made an upset possible if not probable, and between that and the existing hole, walked away with a grimy 89-80 loss.
HOT ISH: Well, they only turned the ball over 4 times in the second half as opposed to 15 in the first. I guess that’s…OK?
NOT ISH: Pretty much everything, but it was particularly excruciating to watch the team unravel in the paint so many times on both offense and defense. They simply are not this sloppy as a matter of course, but certainly were tonight.
One of those crazy threes we love so much from SMARF, fortunately going in this time:
Let’s remember a time when Boston led in this game! Wasn’t that nice??? Also, goddamn Jayson Tatum is good.