When ESPN first scheduled the 76ers-Celtics game for a Friday night national TV matchup, the network likely envisioned a showdown between several of the league’s brightest stars — Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kristaps Porzingis.
But, by the end of the game, Brown was the only player of those five on the court. Shortly before tipoff, Embiid and Maxey were ruled out with an illness, setting the stage for exactly the kind of lopsided game this Celtics group has historically struggled with.
Then, with just one second left in the third quarter, Tatum was ejected after being issued his second technical foul of the night. Tatum turned the ball over, fouled Robert Covington, and was ejected for arguing the call, which was ultimately upgraded to a Flagrant 1, a costly sequence that resulted in three Philadelphia points and the loss of the Celtics’ top scorer.
Jayson Tatum ejected vs. Sixers pic.twitter.com/1XdMBmJ8uA— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) December 2, 2023
Led by Horford, Holiday, Celtics convert in the clutch
The Celtics regrouped heading into the fourth and were ultimately able to pull away with the win. Boston trailed by 1 with just over two minutes to play when Horford nailed a post-up more reminiscent of Al from a decade ago. Then, Brown hit a pair of free throws, and Jrue Holiday drew a charge on Covington before converting on a pair of free throws of his own to give the Celtics a 5-point lead with a minute to spare.
Patrick Beverly, starting in place of Maxey, scored a career-high 26 points on 10/15 shooting, but missed a three-pointer on the following possession that would have cut the lead to two. Holiday then found a cutting Pritchard for an open layup, effectively putting the game out of reach.
It certainly wasn’t the best 48 minutes of Celtics basketball, but Boston improves to a league-best 15-4 record with its second consecutive win over Philadelphia.
The first quarter was a high-scoring affair; the Celtics turned the ball over 7 times and played lackluster defense, but led 44-36 at the end of the period. In the second quarter, the 76ers largely out-hustled the Celtics, and ultimately outscored them 36 to 25 to take a three point lead into the half. The 76ers role players led the way; Beverly scored 16 points (7/8 FG), while De’Anthony Melton had 16. Melton finished with 21 on the night after fouling out with 5 minutes to go in the fourth.
Tatum and Brown both had sloppy first halves; Tatum scored 15 points, but turned the ball over 5 times, while Brown shot 4-10 from the field and had 3 turnovers.
The Celtics started the third quarter on an 11-5 run and more defensive intensity; after allowing 36 points in each of the first two quarters, they held the 76ers to 25 third quarter points. But, the quarter was capped by the Tatum ejection, and the Cs trailed by two heading into the final period before outscoring Philadelphia by 8 in the fourth.
Al Horford had another monster game, finishing with 20 points on 7/9 shooting to go along with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal.
“It was one of those really, really hard games,” Horford said. “That’s just the way it is sometimes.”
Derrick White was also huge for Boston, finishing with 21 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and game-high +/- of +20.
Payton Pritchard, who had 10 points, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers, made several huge plays in the fourth, including two three-pointers and a steal.
Joe Mazzulla on Payton Pritchard:— Jack Simone (@JackSimoneNBA) December 2, 2023
"That's the guy. That's Payton. That's why he's so competitive. That's why he does what he does. And that's why, no matter what happens, you can always rely on him... Made the right plays, competed on the defensive end... That's him."
Sam Hauser finished with 11 points on 3-5 shooting, all of which came in the first half, when the Celtics hot shooting kept them in the game despite a lack of defensive intensity.
Jaylen Brown didn’t have the most efficient offensive night — scoring 20 points on 8-20 shooting — but he made several key defensive plays, and finished the night with 4 steals and 2 blocks.
With Porzingis out for a third consecutive game with a strained calf, Neemias Queta and Luke Kornet both provided back-up center minutes. Queta played six first-half minutes, while Kornet served as the first big of the bench in the third quarter.
Next, the Celtics will face the Pacers at Indiana on Monday at 7:30pm in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals.