PHILADELPHIA — Close, but not quite enough is one way to characterize Joel Embiid and the 76ers, who saw a 15-point deficit wiped away by the Celtics, and their potential game-tying beyond halfcourt heave hit the bottom of the net after the game clock expired.
Sixers fans at Wells Fargo Center celebrated anyways as if the mere implausibleness of Embiid’s shot going in would tip the scale in their favor as NBA officials reviewed the tape. And, after watching Jayson Tatum make the heartbreaking go-ahead 3-pointer with only 2.0 seconds to spare, Philly’s faithful was desperate.
But the truth was written all over the Philly six-time All-Star’s face as Joel walked across the court and toward the tunnel. No basket was the official ruling. The Celtics beat the Sixers 110-107.
Snapping a five-game win streak, the Celtics handed Philly its first loss since losing at TD Garden 106-99 on February 8. The Celtics, playing without starting center Robert Williams and All-Star Jaylen Brown, who missed the second half after suffering a facial fracture, rallied back in their previous meeting. Both starters were available Satuday night.
The 2023 All-Star Game MVP had a mediocre scoring night overall but hit the biggest shot when Marcus Smart, on a bounce pass, found a cutting Tatum soaring midcourt. Tatum stopped on a dime, dribbled behind his back, and made the go-ahead 3-pointer over De’Anthony Melton.
Tatum finished with 18 points on 7-of-17 attempts, including 3-of-8 from deep, 13 rebounds, and six assists, while Jaylen Brown led with a team-high 26 points on 10-of-21 shots, and Embiid’s dominating 41-point performance led Philly’s ten-point comeback late in the fourth quarter. Then, he nearly sent a thrilling back-and-forth conference showdown to overtime.
“I wish I would have shot it sooner, but as I turned, I saw Derrick White there. So, I couldn’t really get it off,” Embiid said about his last shot. “So, I had to go back to my right side kind of to try to get it off. Unfortunately, you know, the story of my life.”
Trailing the Celtics by four games in third place in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers remain mathematically and figuratively behind the reigning conference champs, where they’ve been nearly all season long.
“It didn’t count, and we lost the game. So, it’s frustrating,” Embiid added. “Losing this type of game, especially when you’re winning by so much. It’s frustrating.”
The Celtics chipped their double-digit deficit (15) down to six by halftime (56-50) before a 23-3 second-half run — highlighted by Al Horford draining three 3-pointers after halftime — which carried into the final frame and led to a ten-point (97-87) midway through the fourth quarter.
“We’re right there. I think they’re obviously a great team,” Embiid said. “Like I said the last time we played them, they’re extremely deep. Only any given night, especially if their best player is not playing well, they have a lot of guys that can pick it up, and then for us, we’re right there. Being up 15, I thought we were all not ready to play basketball, and we just have to be better; all of us.”
Celtics shot 44.4% from behind the arc on 16-of-36 attempts while connecting on 50% of their shots overall. Doc says Horford’s nine points in two minutes from behind the arc was a turning point for Boston, but when it came down to late-game execution, the ones leading into Tatum’s game-winner, the Celtics dominated by making game-winning plays.
Boston is winning its season series against Philly, 3-0. This deep into the regular season, depth is in the Celtics’ favor, considering six players scored in double figures against the Sixers, while James Harden (21 points) and Tobias Harris combined for 40 points.
Joe Mazzulla’s club continues to find ways to win. Getting offensive production from players such as Horford, White, and Smart makes a difference, and if you ask Rivers, the Sixers’ head coach, it’s guys like those making plays that are making all of the difference for Boston.
“It’s a game that comes down to single plays. It was a very playoff-game-ish atmosphere. I can look at little plays, not the last ones. The last one you live with that, Tatum makes a tough shot going right; you live with that,” Rivers said after Saturday’s game. “But, just little plays throughout the game. Free-throw rebound; they score. Transition threes; that was the game to me. For us, it is what it is.”