PHILADELPHIA — Robert Williams III sat injured. Al Horford picked up two fouls minutes into the game. Marcus Smart limped off the court unable to put pressure on his right leg, only returning to miss both of his free throws after colliding with Joel Embiid on the prior play. And the Celtics led by 50 before the night ended.
The 76ers, Boston’s most difficult opponent opponent since their string of 15 wins over their last 19 began, would test the Celtics’ ability to sustain a loss to what’s been a seven-man rotation lately. On offense, Boston swung the ball around and built a double-digit lead by burying 10 of their first 13 threes. The defense rotated inside and prevented Embiid from scoring a field goal in the first quarter, while swarming the perimeter. When Smart went down, the Celtics led by 22. That lead only grew.
Embiid throwing away two possessions to end the first half signaled waning offensive fortune for the rest of the night. Philadelphia’s 20 second-quarter points fell to 16 in the third. The Celtics had battered him with five fouls in the first quarter, sent him to the line three more times in the second and Grant Williams proved to be a physical enough presence with Daniel Theis’ help behind him to burn out a second MVP candidate in three nights. Grant and Al Horford hit corner threes to start the second half, and the Celtics never led by fewer than 30 points again on their way to a 135-87 blistering win on the night the Sixers introduced James Harden.
Harden — wearing a dark pink jacket with cutoff sleeves over a beige one over a button-up above embroidered jeans — sat and watched the blowout while recovering from his hamstring injury, ringing the Sixers’ bell pregame. After watching his Nets, in his final game in Brooklyn, go down by an unprecedented 28-2 early last week against the Celtics, Harden escaped to watch his new 76ers teammates shoot 28.8% from the field over Boston, a low for any NBA team this season.
The Celtics have now held opponents to four of the lowest 12 field goal percentages any team has posted in 2021-22. Since their string of 16 wins over their last 20 began, they’ve posted a 99.1 defensive rating that is 7.4 points per 100 possessions better than No. 2 Dallas over its last 19. That’s led them to the best net rating (+15.2) by 6.1 PP100 over No. 2 Phoenix across a span that amounts to roughly 25% of the NBA season dating back to Jan. 8.
“It feels great. This is probably one of the better defensive teams in my career,” Brown told CLNS Media post-game. “We’ve had some really good defensive units, but it feels hard to score on us. So it feels really good. It feels connected. We’ve got a lot of guys each and every night stepping up on that side of the ball. I don’t think they get enough credit. Rob has been fantastic. Smart, of course, is going to be Smart. JT. We can play on both sides of the ball. All season and we’re still getting better. So we’ve been getting the job done on that end and that’s what’s going to give us a chance down the line.”
The Celtics largely rode their double big starting lineup to its massive advantage in net rating, tightening up the bench before adding Derrick White and Theis, who factored heavily into Boston’s win in his debut amid foul trouble. Grant stepped into the unit in Williams III’s absence and nothing changed. Philadelphia met several bodies in the paint, Embiid needing to settle for jumpers that skimmed over the rim through a 2-for-7 start for the Sixers.
Tyrese Maxey tried to turn up the pace, catching Smart and Theis ball-watching in transition, splitting them, before Tatum flew out of nowhere and blocked them at the rim. Theis, of course, took an elbow to the neck from Embiid in his first game back in green. As numerous Celtics noted, it was like he never left.
“For the most part, recently, we’ve been healthy,” Tatum told CLNS post-game. “Obviously, we were without Rob tonight. I think that made us even more aware. Sometimes, even myself, just knowing Rob’s out there, you always feel like you’ve got a safety net. Whether it’s right or wrong, you may gamble a little more, or whatever the case. But I think knowing that we didn’t have Rob, that made myself and everybody else tighten up at the defensive end and be more connected.”
Rival teams saw Boston rising on the defensive end going back to Christmas, but as Ime Udoka predicted, a faster pace following those stops in both the half court and transition turned the Celtics into the No. 7 offense in the NBA through their last 20. They’re whipping the ball around the court, led by Tatum’s increased poise on the ball. He looks ready to take over at point guard in Smart’s absence, leaving White in his secondary creation role. Their 63.8 AST% ranks seventh in the league during this nine-game win streak. Smart is doubtful Wednesday with a right ankle sprain.
“They moved the ball. You watch Boston play, and you can literally see the improvement of their ball movement,” Doc Rivers said post-game. “The old Boston is more ISOs. This Boston is driving and playing with each other and that’s what makes them so much tougher. I think it makes Tatum and Brown even tougher when they move the ball like that.”
Tatum’s averaging 5.2 assists to 1.9 turnovers per game during the streak. He’s embracing a stylistic shift toward go-ahead passes, throwing the ball to the man in front of you even if it doesn’t lead to a basket. A continued down shooting year hasn’t deterred his commitment to growth, and as he and Brown shared the ball regularly on the way to a 57-point night between them, Udoka used Brown’s 4-for-7 first quarter to set up diversions for Tatum.
Aaron Nesmith even got involved, contesting three long 76ers attempts early in his first stint, then staying with Matisse Thybulle all the way to the basket and forcing him to turn the ball over kicking a pass over the half court line. Nesmith rattled in his first three-point try around two by Brown that broke the Sixers’ back midway through the second quarter, scoring 19 points in his best performance all season. He’d go on to hit a fadeaway jumper, and two more threes into the fourth, where Udoka lauded Payton Pritchard’s ability to organize and build the lead up to 50.
The coach called the team’s ability to send fans on the road toward the exit signs impressive, always one of his favorite moments as a player and coach. Udoka knew the Celtics wouldn’t shift away from bad habits overnight. After a 25-point collapse where the team looked broken — they seemingly did.
“My biggest thing is health and consistency with the group on both ends,” Udoka told CLNS. “Obviously, Marcus has been huge as far as getting us into our stuff. Jayson and Jaylen’s shooting numbers have come back up. So that’s a big part of it, shooting numbers alone will help our offense improve. But like I said, it takes time to break some habits. Jayson and Jaylen have been adamant about watching the film, improving in those areas and you can kind of see it. Less playing in a crowd. Simply getting off the ball and letting everybody else feed off of those guys. So they’ve been great at that. Marcus has been huge … you add Derrick White to the mix, it doesn’t miss a beat.”