PHILADELPHIA — Al Horford turned to the crowd after his final three. The same section he remembered badgering him in past visits. Sixers fans hadn’t forgotten his ill-fated departure from Philadelphia that led to boos through last postseason. His latest game there, a Celtics loss one week ago, featured him off the bench.
The crowd only slightly acknowledged his appearance on that night, three points on 1-for-6 shooting. They couldn’t ignore it Wednesday — 14 points, 12 in the second half, along with eight rebounds, three assists and five blocks in a spot start for the injured Kristaps Porziņģis. His final block sent fans groaning toward the exits. The latest Philadelphia defeat, heavily influenced by an ageless Horford, sent Joel Embiid to the podium lauding Boston as the team to beat. The Celtics won, 117-107, without Porziņģis (knee) or Jaylen Brown (illness).
“We can’t have the type of culture, team and the thing we have without a guy like (Horford),” Joe Mazzulla said. “For him to come off the bench in some games and then when his name is called, to play the way he did in that second half; he came up to me and asked me, he missed a three on the right wing and asked if he should’ve cut to the basket. I said, no, you should shoot it faster. Then he shoots one in the corner. When you can empower him and when he’s ready to go, it just makes us a different team. He’s in that list of, when he plays hard, he inspires everybody … he’s Al, one, he’s two years older than me … second, he’s one of the most selfless, humble people that you have.”
Breaking up the league’s best starting lineup also pulled Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk into heavy usage with little-to-no real rotation minutes for either through the first 10 games. Between Horford, Banton, Mykhailiuk and Sam Hauser, who also started, the Celtics won the starting minutes and mostly held the line off the bench. That unit started the year among the league’s worst and made major strides over the past week.
Mazzulla approached Banton in the locker room pre-game, telling him that he’d play and enter in the first quarter. The brief exchange put smiles on Mykhailiuk and Lamar Stevens’ faces on either side of him, and Hauser shouted across the room let’s get it. Banton lurched up and joked I better get an extra stretch in. He walked into the bathroom and splashed some water on his face, tossed headphones in and exited the room.
“Not really a surprise,” Banton told CLNS Media. “Just being out of the rotation, you don’t know when you’re gonna play, but just knowing every day, him informing us guys that are not playing that our chance will come. So it’s never really a surprise. It’s every day in practice when we’re doing our own thing, we’re doing our groups, trying to implement just stay ready, stay ready, stay focused. Wait your turn and when your opportunity comes, try and make the best of it. I was definitely excited … just trying to do the little things and make the game easier for these guys. Play as hard as you can, run corner-to-corner and do the little things that help space the floor.”
Boston called on him after taking an 18-16 lead on a pair of Jrue Holiday and Tatum baskets, along with a Hauser three. Payton Pritchard joined Banton and Hauser on the floor with Holiday and Horford early, Banton quickly putting back a Holiday miss. Banton air-balled a corner three, but stole a pass from Joel Embiid before Mykhailiuk hit a three and poured in another put-back. Holiday dunked in transition to cap a 12-3 run with Tatum off the floor. The Celtics won those 10 minutes for the second straight game — by 51 points per 100 possessions — even with Brown unavailable, posting 65 defensive rating.
The bench struggled at points too, squandering a 17-point lead that run helped establish into the second quarter with a 26-13 burst sparked by a Jaden Springer three and five straight Tyrese Maxey points. Holiday missed a three and layup, the latter more damaging as Mazzulla often mentions as the rebound led Maxey out in transition for free throws that pulled Philadelphia within five points after Springer saved the rebound by crashing into Celtics assistant Charles Lee, spilling fan’s drinks behind him. The game kept rolling as the cleanup ensued. Tatum found Hauser and White for threes to save the lead for a moment, then Harris delivered five straight points and a Sixers lead into halftime.
In the third, White found Horford for three to crack the lid off a long-running drought to begin the latter’s season. Horford shot 38.3% from the field (23.1% 3PT) entering Wednesday. White stole the ball from Harris and hit a free throw after Embiid flattened him with a chase-down attempt. Horford hit a three. Then another before Tatum hit a turnaround to pull ahead 72-69. Embiid poured in hook shots over Horford to keep pace until Tatum and Holiday asserted their physicality, Tatum separating from De’Anthony Melton for three and Holiday banging against Marcus Morris into a floater. The bench returned, swinging the ball around the perimeter while Kornet set a down screen for Holiday to hit a three.
“I felt like we didn’t miss a beat tonight,” Mazzulla said. “Because of the consistency in our development, the way our assistant coaches watch film with them, the program … (and) the guy’s work ethic. The goal is to not miss a beat when you’re in situations like this and I thought those guys were ready to play. It’s only 10 games in, they haven’t gotten their name called a ton, but games like tonight are gonna happen a lot and they better be ready because we need them … they all have NBA experience … they’ve all played in NBA games. So it’s not that they’re not really good players … that they don’t have the experience … they come to a team that, this is the situation that we have. For them to stay mature and ready to go is important for us.”
The Celtics led 83-75 after winning another Tatum-less stretch by three points to close the quarter, and Mazzulla left Holiday and Tatum off the floor for nearly two minutes to begin the fourth. White held the line with four points, attacking the rim after two swing passes from Pritchard and Kornet, then hitting a floater in the lane. Philadelphia went on its run with Tatum back in, Springer running the floor and turning into a reverse dunk to reach within 89-88.
White answered again, hitting a three on a touch pass from Kornet before converting another floater into a six-point advantage. After the Sixers pulled within one despite five straight Kornet points, Tatum raced in transition after stripping Embiid on a double team to score a three-point play through Embiid’s foul.
Horford blocked Maxey, hit another three thanks to a beautiful Hauser baseline cut that pulled Embiid away from the corner where Horford’s haters resided. Horford felt the need to spark the Celtics, and believed the performance showed his competitiveness.
He ran back on defense and rejected Covington’s layup attempt, which sent Tatum out on the break to drill one more three. Mazzulla won another challenge on a late Holiday three-pointer foul and the Celtics walked away with a 10-point win. Banton, who returned in the second half, brought up how Mazzulla supported him on Saturday with a similar challenge.
“(Mazzulla) never makes us feel like we’re out of it,” Banton said. “He tells us we’re just as important as the first five. Knowing that and showing that in practice, or even the last game where there was probably one minute left, I think he called a challenge, so going up to bat for us knowing we’re playing out there with a minute left and we’re up 20, he’s still gonna go to bat for us, he’s still gonna fight for us as if it’s the beginning of the game. We never feel like we’re not a part of it.”