The Celtics used an 18-3 run to close out the 3rd quarter and seize control of Saturday’s marquee matchup against the 76ers. They’re offense continued to hum in the 4th quarter, but the Sixers fought back, and Jayson Tatum needed a buzzer-beating step-back three to give Boston the 110-107 victory.
Prior to the 3rd quarter scoring flurry, Joel Embiid used his size to dominate the smaller Celtics bigs. I imagine head coach Doc Rivers emphasized to Embiid that he should impose his will on Boston’s front line, and for two-and-a-half quarters, it worked.
Here, he bull-rushes Horford on the block then finishes over three defenders:
Horford was most often Embiid’s primary defender, but head coach Joe Mazzulla mixed up the coverages all night, sometimes doubling him after the first dribble, other times digging with the perimeter defenders. Occasionally, a wing was the first guy to pick him up and they’d send a strong-side double, but it usually resulted in an open shot.
With 4:31 remaining in the 3rd, Embiid had Derrick White defending him on the elbow, and he easily overpowered him for a one-dribble layup. At that point, he had 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and Philadelphia took a 75-62 lead. That’s precisely when the Celtics flipped the game.
It started by accident. James Harden clanked a pullup three that would have certainly (potentially) prompted Mazzulla timeout if it went in. Instead, Tatum grabbed the board and passed it ahead to Horford alone on the right wing, who hit the shot before PJ Tucker could get a proper contest:
Horford was 0-for-4 up until that point. Tucker defended him most of the game so Embiid could stay in the paint. Embiid opted against picking him up in transition and Horford took advantage. On the next play, Horford connected on the rare off-the-dribble transition three:
Once again, the Celtics attacked early in the clock. Tucker picks up Robert Williams in the cross match, Embiid is late to step up on Horford, and he hits a second straight three. It seems like the Sixers effort level is low, and that’s likely because there’s 3:30 remaining in the 3rd quarter and Doc Rivers hasn’t sent in any subs. Usually, fatigue shows with a team’s transition defense. The Celtics noticed the waning effort and immediately pounced.
Doc called a timeout to halt a potential run, but it didn’t matter. Embiid missed a baseline turnaround jumper, the Celtics attacked early in the clock, then Malcolm Brogdon drove and found Horford for another three:
It was 9-0 personal run from Horford. Brogdon then got by De’Anthony Melton, who’s usually a stout defender, but Brogdon’s fresh legs won here. Embiid is once again caught on Horford and can’t get out to the perimeter.
On this next play, Brogdon was once again able to drive by Melton. Embiid can’t come all the way over to protect the rim because he’s worried about Horford’s shooting:
The Sixers are a lot of things: big, experienced, skilled, and deep. But nobody would ever describe them as fast. Outside of Tyrese Maxey, they’ve got a roster full of slow guys at every position, and the Celtics used their speed advantage to blitz them in the 3rd quarter. Horford would eventually hit his fourth three in under four minutes, and the Celtics scored on seven straight possessions for an 18-3 run, taking an 80-78 lead going into the 4th quarter.
Boston continued its transition attack in the final frame. Here, Brogdon gets the steal, pushes the pace, and the scrambling Sixers can’t get to White, who drains the corner three:
The Celtics were taking turns beating the Sixers up the floor and getting fastbreak dunks:
The Celtics went up 97-87 with 6:31 to play, but the Sixers came storming back. Harden repeatedly found Embiid for elbow jumpers on the pick-and-roll, and Maxey was Philly’s one-man fastbreak. His finger roll over Tatum with 1:58 remaining gave them a 1-point lead, but who else but Horford came right back and rattled home a left wing three.
We know Tatum’s heroics propelled Boston to a three-point victory, and if his step-back over Jalen McDaniels was a bit quicker, maybe Embiid’s full-court heave would have counted and we would have seen one of the great buzzer beaters in NBA history.
Instead, the Celtics picked up a huge win over their division rival on the road. The Sixers have played dominant basketball since the start of the calendar year and had won 14 out of their previous 17. A win over the Celtics in a Saturday night nationally televised game would have prompted a Monday morning full of ESPN segments like “Are the Sixers Legit Title Contenders?” Instead, Boston turned on the jets and gutted out an important victory over a team we might see in the playoffs.