BOSTON – The Celtics trust the process.
In fact, they embrace it. Brad Stevens preaches that focusing on the end result takes away from the journey, which is the exact kind of thinking that makes it a challenge to turn around a 13-point deficit to one of the worst teams in basketball. It’s the philosophy that helped them fight to the finish for a 110-106 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Stevens found just the right combination Friday, when Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley dug the Celtics out of a surprisingly deep halftime hole. They went on a 17-4 run over a five minute stretch in the late third and early fourth quarters to turn that deficit into their first lead since the beginning of the second.
“I went with Marcus and Terry, because I really trust how much they compete,” Stevens said. “They’ll get after it. They may make a mistake or two here or there, but they’ll really get after the ball.”
Even with a great run to get back into it, this was a game that started and finished with Joel Embiid at its core.
Embiid’s first half was just short of phenomenal. He opened the game with a thundrous dunk in transition and pestered the Celtics from all over the floor. He can already do nearly everything a center could possibly do. He bookended his performance with some incredible tomahawks.
First play of the game and it's a Joel Embiid slam on the break. #76ers #Celtics pic.twitter.com/X8rjtk436s— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) January 7, 2017
Joel Embiid is a very dangerous man. #76ers #Celtics pic.twitter.com/seP7BAnfs7— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) January 7, 2017
But he came alive in the final minutes, with this incredible dunk and some big defensive plays at the rim. He and Gerald Henderson brought the Sixers back into a tie, battling against great shooting from Bradley and Al Horford. The Celtics looked like they had control until Embiid drew a tripping foul on Horford to go to the line with 28.7 seconds left and a tie game. Embiid hit both free throws to set up a game-saving possession for the Celtics.
Isaiah Thomas had an open lane initially but reset to run the Stevens ATO. He ran a pick-and-pop to the elbow for Kelly Olynyk. When the Sixers collapsed the lane on Thomas, he swung it to Olynyk, who took one dribble to collapse Embiid and then swung it to Horford in the corner. Horford buried a rare corner three to give the Celtics the 107-106 lead.
Al Horford hits the three to give the #Celtics the one point lead. pic.twitter.com/NuyTBVKGQR— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) January 7, 2017
“We said it all year, we’re not very big, so the skill element is very important for us,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Kelly made a great play on that pass to Al. It was the right read, right thing to do in that moement and Al hit the shot.”
The Celtics managed to force a loose ball before Jae Crowder carefully ducked under an Ersan Ilyasova corner three. The three went wide and four Celtics surrounded Joel Embiid as Amir Johnson came down with the rebound. Embiid fouled out to get Johnson to the line, where he hit one.
After another missed Ilyasova three, Isaiah Thomas clinched the 110-106 win at the line, basking in a roaring sea of MVP chants.
The Celtics finished with 19 threes, a new franchise record per Basketball Reference. They had tied the record of 17 in the previous two games and are the fourth team to hit 19 threes this season (Houston six times, Cleveland twice, Warriors once). This run of three straight games with at least 17 threes is the second time this has happened in NBA history per Basketball Reference, after Houston had five in a row from December 10–17 earlier this season.
STOPPING THE PROCESS
Joel Embiid’s first half tear was smothered into a series of turnovers and offensive fouls in the second half, as Kelly Oylynk and Amir Johnson figured out how to stop Embiid in their unique ways. When Embiid caught his fifth foul charging into Kelly Olynyk, he was sent back to the bench for much of the fourth quarter to continue processing. The Celtics figured out how to rough it up with Embiid on the block and...sometimes....get in front of his drives.
Olynyk had a classic non-ManBun game, alternating maddening feats of discombobulation with wondrous acts of foresight and positioning. He continues to run the gamut on a nightly basis from “clearly not staying in Boston” to “imagine what he can do next year!”
He and Amir even swapped roles, with one play where Olynyk worked the post up to swing a pass to Amir on the weak elbow, who hit the open three. Amir would later be completely ignored by the Sixers on the elbow and hit another three to make them pay.
Olynyk works deep post position and catches Noel sleeping on the weak side. Finds Amir for an open three. #Celtics pic.twitter.com/iQF7VfinTO— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) January 7, 2017
Juxtaposed with Olynyk’s erratic perforamnce, Gerald Green has provided one specific constant to this team. For the third game in a row, all at the Garden, Gerald Green drank his divine cup of hot chocolate on the bench after halftime.
The Celtics remain undefeated. Trust the chocolate.