I mean, that was an awesome game. And not just because the Celtics won.
The Celtics came into Wednesday night’s rematch with the Philadelphia 76ers shorthanded, missing two starters in Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis. But we don’t make excuses before the game even starts.
All that meant was starting nods for Al Horford and Sam Hauser, as well as early minutes for prospective rotation guys Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk. If the Celtics were going to succeed, someone other than Jayson Tatum, Derrick White, and Jrue Holiday would have to step up.
The 1st quarter seemed likely to be a cluster with the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency rotation, but nobody told the Celtics that. They came out firing on all cylinders, as well as on all the other parts of an engine.
Banton in particular understood the assignment, coming in and immediately starting making waves, grabbing rebounds like a maniac and even Grand Theft Alvarado-ing Joel Embiid in transition, leading to a free layup for Holiday.
He also broke Patrick Beverly’s ankles, which was beyond sick. But he didn’t realize it until it was too late, and the 76ers recovered to contest his floater. But he came thiiiiis close to making SportsCenter’s Top-10, so I’m proud.
It was also the Holiday revenge game, albeit two teams removed. Holiday was drafted by the 76ers way back in 2009, or as Tatum put it in a mic’d up moment before the season opener, “you old.”
Holiday came out swinging early, scoring 10 points in the 1st quarter alone and furiously shoveled coal into the hype train to rip off an 18-4 1st quarter run, taking Tyrese Maxey to the weight room and torturing perimeter ball handlers.
After one, the Celtics led 37-22, an inspired start to a game that looked sketchy on paper.
The 2nd quarter saw the Sixers desperately try to change course, coming out in a full-court press without Joel Embiid and going after every loose ball like a pack of crazed Hyenas.
And it definitely started to work, with the 76ers slowly matriculating a 10-0 run to help cut the lead to four with just over three minutes to go in the first half.
The 2nd quarter resurgence from the 76ers showed the issue with missing Porzingis: big depth. The Celtics can’t afford to run Horford into the ground, but with Luke Kornet holding down the paint, the 76ers felt empowered to create shots from every angle. Guys like Robert Covington and Jaden Springer were suddenly slashing like prime Derrick Rose, and the Celtics struggled to keep pace on the other end of the floor. And all of this happened without Embiid, which was doubly concerning.
Coach Joe Mazzulla was likely hoping to scrape by with Kornet when Embiid rested, shadowing the reigning MVP with Horford almost the entire game. Big Al’s reputation as “The Embiid Stopper” is definitely dubious these days, and Embiid muscled Horford right out of his way a few times in the first half to great effect.
Al got him back a few times in the second half, and it’s hard to think these guys don’t take their matchup a little personally these days. It wasn’t too long ago that the 76ers signed Horford to prevent him from guarding Embiid, but I guess what goes around comes around.
By the end of the 2nd quarter, the Celtics lead had evaporated, condensed, and precipitated back down to earth in the form of a 58-57 deficit. Leading by 15 after one was incredible, but finding a way to be trailing after two erased all the good vibes.
Interestingly, the Celtics and 76ers made the exact same number of two and three-point field goals in the first half, shooting roughly similar splits from the floor save for six more missed threes from the C’s. The rebound margin was basically equal, as were assists, steals, and turnovers.
On balance, nothing jumped out statistically, but the real killer was the six turnovers in the 2nd quarter alone. It was anyone’s game, but Philly had all the momentum.
Intermission. Go grab some snacks.
The third quarter began with a well-placed question from Brian Scalabrine about if Tatum could control the game in the absence of his main scoring support, and about six seconds later, he hit a three.
But Tatum struggled to assert himself down low early in the second half, mostly because of the presence of Joel Embiid, a fearsome shot blocker and mountainous human being that changes the psychology of going to the rim. The Celtics responded by shooting a massive amount of threes, with over 43 percent of their shots being from outside the arc.
It’s nothing revolutionary, as Embiid has a tendency to ignore defensive spacing in favor of holding down the restricted area, which is a pretty effective trade considering his effect. He was camping in the paint all night, and the Celtics had to figure out a way to space the floor if they wanted to get anything going offensively.
That space came in the form of Horford triples. He hit three in a row midway through the third, affording the Celtics a breath and finally opening up some form of scoring after such a stagnant 2nd quarter.
The whole 2nd and first half of the 3rd had that queasy feeling. The wheels could fall off at any time, but at around the five-minute mark in the 3rd, the game stabilized. Both teams began trading blows more regularly, and the game slowed down.
This coincided with a pretty liberal allowance for contact from the referees, and with how many scrappy role players each team dusted off, the game felt like an old-school mud fight. It was pretty fun to watch. All the while, the Celtics only turned the ball over once in the 3rd, which was glorious.
The Celtics employed a truly wild lineup to close the 3rd, what I will henceforth call “Guard and the Boys.” Head chef Holiday was joined by sous chefs Mykhailiuk, Pritchard, Banton, and Kornet, and they managed to cook up an eight-point lead.
It actually wasn’t the worst thing ever, but let’s just say I was not expecting that specific lineup… ever. I’ll just be pleasantly surprised and move on. Celtics up 83-75 going into the 4th.
The beginning of the 4th was a Derrick White decision-making masterclass. He took Holiday’s role in the Guard and the Boys set, and quickly drew a foul to keep things in front of him. A few possessions later, he found Kornet rolling to his right and found him for an easy slam. A few possessions later, he did it again.
The Celtics began riding the White-Kornet pick and roll like it was well-tuned sports car, and it felt like White made the right play every single time. Kornet is a physically limited player, but he has some real size on Paul Reed, something he could exploit for free buckets when White set him up.
Meanwhile, Deanthony Melton was lighting the floor on fire, going 5-6 from beyond the arc, seemingly in every impactful moment. He single-handedly prevented the Celtics from running away with it, sniping the 76ers back into the game each time the Celtics looked to be putting together a run.
But the Celtics own game-wrecker was not about to be outdone. With around six minutes to go, White decided that it was going to be a DWhite game. This battle was feeling more and more like a playoff game, White took control of the situation, ripping Embiid and hitting a huge rhythm three to put the Celtics back up by seven. With Brown and Porzingis sidelined, White was the one who took on the challenge.
In the closing moments, the Celtics turned to their bread, butter, and jam to try to close it out. Holiday brought more hustle than hustle-doctors previously thought possible, and Horford added more big-time triples. Tatum manipulated the game out of the post once again, because on no planet can Melton stay with Tatum on the block.
The 76ers hung around though, with Tyrese Maxey converting a circus and-one to cut the lead to five. It was an uneasy last two minutes, but an electric challenge negated three free throws for Maxey and all but sealed the game.
All in all, it was an incredible game. These teams don’t like each other, and the cities don’t either. But within all that animosity, there is an unbelievable amount of respect all around. This rivalry is the real deal, and these teams will be battling for the foreseeable future. Sign me up for that.