PHILADELPHIA — Al Horford knew he’d receive motivation later that night. Boos and bad feelings festered three seasons later among the 76ers fans he played one season in front of. Philadelphia sets him up, announcing him last in the Celtics starting lineup. Before that, his long-time rival and former teammate Joel Embiid received the MVP trophy, something the Celtics’ players gave a nod to, but largely ignored.
Horford moved past that dispute too, he said on Friday, so he felt his jolt during the final question at shootaround, speaking in short about the atmosphere in Philadelphia and Boston’s defense before receiving a question about his shooting slump. Horford shot 2-for-12 from three in the first two games of the series.
“Not much difference really,” Horford said before a reporter began laughing. “I’m still getting good looks. I’ll continue to shoot them. Even throughout the season, I went through ups-and-downs, that’s just a part of it when you’re an elite shooter.”
“You’re laughing, you don’t think I’m an elite shooter? My numbers don’t support it?”
Horford pulled similar motivation from either a Hawks player or fan he refused to name in Game 6 at Atlanta, which he helped seal similarly, with a late three. He shut down Philadelphia’s late comeback attempt on Friday with a second-chance pull up three, his fifth in seven tries. Malcolm Brogdon recovered an offensive rebound and tossed the ball to Horford on what nearly became Boston’s fifth empty possession over its last six entering the final five minutes — the clutch — an area of concern for the Celtics this postseason.
Horford stopped Embiid on the other end out of timeout, solidifying a nine-point advantage before Tatum closed with seven straight. They escaped, 114-102, but not without an injury to Robert Williams III, who dove for a fourth quarter loose ball along the baseline and hurt his right arm. Grant Williams received an accidental stomp on his head courtesy of Embiid.
The Celtics almost swung the game toward their preferred style in the opening three minutes, shooting ahead 14-4 on sharp sets where Jaylen Brown played initiator with Jayson Tatum finishing, inverting the offense from much of the season. Brown found Tatum close to the basket for a leaner and hit Marcus Smart for a quick three into the half court. Horford rushed up the floor with a defensive rebound and led Derrick White downhill to find Tatum in the corner. Smart, rolling off Brown, targeted Tatum again to creat another three and a double-digit lead.
“As the playoffs go on, putting the ball in my hand and trusting Imma make the right play against the matchups that I have,” Brown told CLNS Media. “It was P.J. Tucker or Harden, put them in space, I can get by them and make the right play at the rim. I think that create open opportunities for our guys, and it creates open opportunities for our team, but if I’m tucked, stashed in the corner, I’m not doing anybody a service. Being more aggressive, getting more involved, I can create for others, even just by getting to the paint, passing it out, that creates an advantage and opens other opportunities.”
Offensive stagnancy grew through halftime as the Celtics fouled and sent the 76ers to the free throw line 15 times, a chance for Philadelphia to work within single digits then take a brief lead between quarters. Embiid received free points blowing by Horford and drawing a pair of shots from White, while Williams‘ hard pull-down of the big man to the floor incensed the crowd ecstatic from before tip-off to see Embiid claim his MVP award.
Boston started 8-for-21 from the field, and fouled two more times to close the first quarter before De’Anthony Melton’s soccer kick of the game ball into the crowd cost Philadelphia its one-point lead — Grant signaling the technical foul.
Smart salvaged offense into the second quarter, playing through his chest and shoulder injuries, by sneaking to the rim as Brogdon ran out of time on a baseline in-bounds. He picked off a Tobias Harris outlet pass attempt while Grant trapped Harris in the corner following a miss, Smart hitting a three to end a third chance possession. Grant attacked a closeout and found White with a skip pass for three foul shots. Embiid piled up shots inside to achieve a narrow positive +/- midway through the game, but Boston’s spacing produced consistent offense while Philadelphia’s looked uncomfortable chasing three-pointers. He finished -8 while scoring 30 points.
Brown hit an and-one jumper over Harden, who fell to 5-for-28 between Games 2 and 3, and Horford shot one of his five threes before the buzzer to push the Celtics ahead by 10 points at half after a string of turnovers by the Sixers’ guards. Brown’s attacking capitalized on those opportunities, pulling Embiid out to the corner and racing past him for a three-point reverse layup. He forced the issue, targeting Harden in transition for three more. Brown continued to play the primary defense on Harden, now holding him to 2-for-11 across three games.
And the Celtics followed Brown’s lead.
“We just ultimately wanted to be better on defense and make it hard for everybody,” Brown said. “And I think our pressure and intensity over the last two games have done that. I think they scored 102, right? When we keep a team in that range, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
Fouls and bruises accumulated, Brown reached five before the end of the fourth quarter and Tatum crashed into a crowd in the third, exiting the game with a cut. Embiid stepped on Williams’ head, slamming it into the ground while Brown exited the game in foul trouble. Williams III exited with a right arm contusion chasing a rebound, drawing concern from White and Smart along the sideline as he bent over on the bench and soon exited to the locker room. Mazzulla said Williams III seemed ok after shaking his right hand. The team deemed him available to return.
Those extra efforts became pivotal to the Celtics holding on once Brown exited the game. The slow creep back toward crunch time loomed as the clock dwindled closer to the 5:00 cutoff mark. They started with Tatum stripping Embiid above the three-point line to close the third. He grabbed an offensive rebound to set himself up for a free throw midway through the next quarter. Tatum stuck his arm in to secure a defensive rebound after turning the ball over on the other end. Brogdon hit a pull-up three after Melton’s made it a five-point game late.
Then, Brogdon grabbed Grant’s miss off the front of the rim after Smart’s kick-out, and set up Horford with the decisive triple.
“Jaylen is setting the tone for us,” Horford said. “He’s doing a great job for us, and we are following him, not only on the offensive end, but on the defensive end as well. He’s playing at a very high level right now.”