Al Horford last played the 76ers on Mar. 20, 2019, absent for both of the Thunder’s battles with Philadelphia during his condensed 2020-21 season. Once heralded as something akin to a Joel Embiid slower if such a thing exists, he joined him for an admittedly challenging season in 2019-20 before getting dealt.
He’s now playing in Boston on that contract Philadelphia originally signed him to and thriving, and Horford’s former and current coach Ime Udoka admitted Philadelphia misused him on the way to a first-round exit against Boston.
The Celtics righted that early in his revenge game, throwing him in the post against Philly wings like Tobias Harris with Ben Simmons’ size on the perimeter missing. Horford flushed a pair of early post hooks, along with catching and draining a pick-and-pop three to establish an early lead the Celtics only momentarily gave up through halftime and the second half.
Jayson Tatum and Dennis Schröder battled back from those small deficits in the second half, buoying Boston’s offense, while the defense had just enough stops in it to hold off a last-second charge by the 76ers to within one with six seconds left. Tatum scored 26 points with a career-high 16 rebounds, powering through another inconsistent shooting night to reach 9-of-20 by the buzzer.
Robert Williams III blocked Georges Niang in the corner then, to cap a dominant final defensive possession, on a night where Boston held Philadelphia to 37.1% from the field.
Williams III chipped in with a pair of lob finishes from Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum early in the first quarter, marking the return of double big by scoring Boston’s first nine points alongside Horford. The Celtics’ third big, Enes Freedom, checked in to a standing ovation donning his new uniform and immediately stopped Joel Embiid in the post.
Embiid started 1-of-9 in the first half after initially dominating with 58 points between his first two games back from a nine-game absence while battling a difficult case of COVID-19. Udoka even checked in early on, heading about how it rocked the big man, who also grabbed at his wrists after being fouled late in the second by Freedom and scored his first points. He finished with 13 points, 18 rebounds and six assists on 3-of-17 shooting.
Horford, who Boston hopes to lean on less through this west coast tripped, blocked an early Tyrese Maxey drive and another by Embiid. He stuffed a Seth Curry drive, saving the ball back in-bounds and got him again in third from the three-point line. Horford even stuffed his former teammate and rival on a put-back attempt shortly after halftime.
Shake Milton helped Philadelphia overcome an early 12-point deficit, starting 5-of-5 in the first quarter off the Philadelphia bench, including three makes in 51 seconds toward the end of the first quarter. From there, Lawrence, MA native Georges Niang blocked Tatum, got to the free throw line on a transition run and beat two Celtics defenders with a fake for an and-one finish. He beat a Boston switch downhill into a floater and gave the 76ers a 26-23 lead before Tatum flashed a fake into an and-one underneath of his own to tie the game after his 1-of-6 start.
Freedom botched a pair of opportunities at the basket, got blocked twice before cleaning up Harris’ block on him midway through the second for a put back. The Celtics led 44-40 after two quarters despite a 6-for-17 start from Jaylen Brown and Tatum, remaining on a string defensively to hold the Sixers to 34.8% from the field and 20% from three.
While doubles and good help defense, including double teams on Embiid on the perimeter prevented an all-out attack on Freedom, Brown grabbed and stretched his hamstring repeatedly, slow to close out on Harris and Curry on early makes by the pair into the third. Embiid bodied his way back to the free throw line through Horford and hit a three, while Curry’s seven points and two assists in the first six minutes kept tied the game at 54.
Embiid hit a three and Harris drove to another finish in the lane to build a 61-57 lead from there, Harris inadvertently striking Josh Richardson behind him. Schröder checked in for Richardson as he held a towel to his head on the way to the bench, catching a three from Brown to his right following a Horford skip pass from the corner.
Schröder hit a step-back three possessions later. He dribbled around the world before dumping to Tatum for two. Then he found Smart on a cut after a long dribbling to take back a 64-63 lead into the third.
Richardson retuned with four stitches above his left eye early in the fourth, hitting a mid-range jumper and finding Grant Williams for three in the corner before Tatum reestablished Boston’s lead, 72-71, with a step-back three. Tatum paced Boston’s offense with six of the next eight points, while Andre Drummond, Matisse Thybulle and Curry worked the lead back late in the quarter with separate buckets playing off each other and Embiid.
Brown took the lead back with a pair of free throws, Embiid tied it at 82 at the free throw line and Tatum provided some breathing room with a step-back long two, falling to the floor as Curry raced the other way, turned toward the baseline and stepped out-of-bounds.
Danny Green hit a desperation heave down by four to get within one and Schröder forced an unwise shot against Embiid in the lane, which he swallowed up and the 76ers called timeout to draw up a play down by one point with 6.7 seconds left. Horford handed off Embiid to Brown following the in-bounds, and Horford hounded Harris all the way to the right wing, where he dumped to Niang, open in the corner, until Williams III darted and swatted down the potential game-winner.
The Celtics now begin a five-game road trip, starting Friday in Utah at 9 p.m. EST against the Jazz.