Jimmy Butler stumbled, regained form free from the pressure on the baseline and drilled his fourth shot in the clutch. Joel Embiid had beat the Celtics up and down the third quarter and into the fourth, helping the 76ers produce 43 free throws of which they hit 39. Butler’s shot fell, stealing a chance for the Celtics to match and securing long-awaited victory for Philly over the C’s 108-105.
The Celtics led by double-figures several times, but the weight of the free throw differential, Gordon Hayward’s absence, Aron Baynes’ injury and the ejection of Marcus Smart capsized them beneath the weight of 37 points and 22 rebounds from Embiid. Ben Simmons and Butler delivered with clutch baskets and Tobias Harris offset a 6-0 Terry Rozier run with six points of his own early in the fourth.
Kyrie Irving wasted no time asserting the Celtics’ superiority early with two makes in the first ninety seconds. With a lead in hand, Jayson Tatum blocked Harris to start a transition run that ended with two for Al Horford inside. Tatum took it himself on the next stop inside on Harris, running and finding Smart for three. Boston established pace and space that exhausted Philadelphia’s defense early.
The 76ers reached back into the game behind five offensive rebounds in the first quarter. Harris hit a three, Embiid found Simmons on a cut and Harris added two more points at the free throw line.
Philly tied the game at 21. Then Boban Marjanovic entered in a move that became a momentum-halter. Boston targeted him to get Irving an inside look and Tatum a three on another key run that swung the game hard in the C’s direction.
Rozier grabbed a rebound on the defensive end, ran the length of the floor and dumped the ball off to free himself in the corner for a three off the catch late in the first. Irving and him traded finishes for a 39-30 lead after one.
Rozier’s triumphant night, 8-for-16 with 20 points, continued with a pair of threes early in the second quarter, scoring around Baynes’ screens. Then running supplemented the shooting. Horford and Baynes sprinted ahead of the Sixers’ lackadaisical defense on consecutive plays. Smart misplaced the first pass and made it up with the lob to Baynes on the run and a 52-39 lead. Philadelphia had to hang around with their free throw superiority, 39-for-42 in the game.
Embiid converted 9-of-10 in the first half as Baynes and Horford tried to stay in front of his battering isolations in the post. Amongst the collisions in the post, Smart and Baynes crossed paths the wrong way guarding a drive and Baynes suffered a left ankle sprain. He didn’t return.
The Celts had built a 48-35 lead and frustrated Embiid with an isolation by Irving in the right corner to draw a foul inside. Baynes caught hikm with a charge. Rozier added his fourth three, Irving hit a pair of free throws and a reverse layup to reach 20 points, then Horford reach 15 with a post-up and three to lead 69-55.
A dominant first half for the Celts could only be spoiled by a last-second foul call on Smart covering JJ Redick’s three attempt, hitting all three.
That officiating, and Smart, collided early in the third when Smart ripped a ball away from Embiid and got tagged with a foul. Next play, Embiid stuck an elbow out on Smart on a screen and Smart responded by shoving him to the ground. Smart hit the locker room, Embiid poured in both flagrant free throws, and the 76ers took advantage of the frustration on a 6-0 run.
Embiid motored to the rim on the extra possession for two. He returned to the low post to grab his own miss three times in a row, before heading to the free throw line for two more makes. Philly landed within striking distance, down six, and Irving negated it all in a hurry.
Irving poured 36 points over Philly, without a guard to stick with him, in the closing minutes of the third. Alongside a 4-0 run by Jaylen Brown, Irving hit free throws, a mid-ranger and put back a shot by Horford for his eighth rebound. After a Tatum layup, the C’s again led 82-77.
Embiid played 11 of 12 minutes and some of his best basketball of the season. Boston had an answer for his charges through Morris and Tatum to the rim, his impeccable free throw shooting and passing on the wing that earned him four assists to go with 33 points into the fourth quarter.
Boston extended its lead further with the bench in to start the fourth, forcing an early timeout after Rozier breezed through the 76ers’ front line for a 99-90 lead. Rozier scored six straight points midway through the quarter, only to get negated by an aggressive three takes from Harris for six points of his own.
That opened the door for Butler, who spotted up twice behind the three-point line and connected to arrive to and tie the game at 105. Irving splashed from deep immediately after the timeout.
Butler didn’t turn back though, free throws, a hard drive to the rim for two and a game-sealing shot after nearly losing the ball sealed Philly’s effort for a win. Their first over Boston all season. Simmons contributed with a crucial and-one floater driving by Morris and Philadelphia cemented both its spot in the east, and Embiid’s resurgent performance against his hardest opponent.