There was a war of attrition in TD Garden tonight between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Continuing to grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak that has affected much of the league, the two teams each missed a number of key contributors and deployed nine-man rotations, combining to play nine players more than 30 minutes in a physical rivalry showdown. The game remained remarkably tight throughout, with neither team enjoying a double-digit lead at any point, but in the end, the Sixers made just enough plays in the closing minutes to pull out the win.
Jaylen Brown led the way for the Celtics offensively, scoring 30 points, and Payton Pritchard built off his encouraging play against the Knicks on Saturday with 14 points off the bench. But despite a gritty effort from the Boston defense, Philadelphia’s big three of Joel Embiid, Seth Curry and Tobias Harris proved to be sufficient on their own, scoring a whopping 90 points combined while the rest of the Sixers’ rotation recorded just five made field goals total.
Though the Celtics welcomed both Romeo Langford and Dennis Schröder to their lineup this evening, they still found themselves missing crucial pieces of their rotation. Al Horford and Grant Williams missed another game in the league’s health and safety protocol and Robert Williams (personal reasons) was a surprise late scratch, leaving a healthy frontcourt of just Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando. Additionally, Josh Richardson sat out after re-entering the health and safety protocols just one game after previously clearing them.
It quickly became apparent that operating with just your third- and fourth-string centers is an issue against Philadelphia. The 76ers surged out of the gate with a hot offensive start, shooting 55% from the field in the first quarter as Embiid and Curry danced around Freedom’s defensive limitations. The Celtics found some quick points in transition in a Marcus Smart fastbreak steal and a savvy outlet pass from Tatum to Schröder, but sub-40% shooting from the field left them trailing after the first, 28-20.
Boston’s defense found its composure as play began in the second quarter, highlighted by spectacular blocks from Langford and Fernando in the opening minutes (along with a second Fernando block that was questionably ruled a foul). The tightening of the screws defensively helped lead a 6-0 run to open the quarter and reverse the momentum of the contest, morphing a burgeoning lead into a one-possession game for much of the quarter. The Sixers kept pace, however, aggressively running the offense through Embiid (17 first half points) and Curry (18) against Freedom, and carried a 51-49 lead into the halftime break.
Just a couple minutes into the second half, the Celtics claimed their first lead of the game after Brown drew a foul on a fast break and connected on both free throws. The Sixers returned fire with a strong quarter from Harris, scored nine points largely operating as a pick-and-roll partner for Embiid.
The lead juggled back and forth for much of the quarter, but neither side was able to claim much of an edge as the Celtics struggled to generate consistent offense outside of Brown and Embiid’s scoring pace slowed for Philadelphia. Boston closed the quarter with a pair of three-pointers from Smart and Brown, and entered the final quarter with their largest lead of the game, 80-75.
In the second half, the Celtics made their bread through aggressive ball pressure and active hands on defense. They deployed a full-court press on some occasions, and heavily disrupted Philadelphia’s offensive flow. This carried over into the fourth quarter, as the Celtics forced a couple early turnovers (including a shot clock violation), but their offense was as inept as their defense was excellent, and the Sixers hung around.
Near the halfway mark of the fourth quarter, the Celtics broke the stalemate with a surprise contribution from Pritchard. Fresh off a season-best 16 points against the Knicks, Pritchard scored 14 points against the Sixers, providing a spark when the Celtics needed it most. He connected on a pair of smooth mid-range jumpers to prompt a Philadelphia timeout with just under seven minutes to play, before scuttling a nascent Sixers run a minute later with a three to put the Celtics back up five.
Not long after, the Sixers trimmed the Boston lead back down to two on a pair of free throws from Embiid. After a few scoreless possessions, Sixers coach Doc Rivers challenged Matisse Thybulle’s disqualifying sixth foul of the game, but the challenge was ruled unsuccessful; though, in the process, Smart was whistled for a technical foul that reduced Boston’s lead to one point. Smart drew a shooting foul on the other and split the free throws to restore the two-point edge.
With just under two minutes to play, Philadelphia struck hard. Danny Green connected on a three-pointer to put the Sixers back ahead, and after a traveling call on Brown, Embiid scored to put the Sixers ahead by three. Brown responded on the other end with a layup, but Embiid matched it with yet another mid-range jumper as the clock ticked under one minute remaining. After a Freedom free throw, Embiid connected one more time from the midrange with 12 seconds to play, and that proved to be the dagger.
Next up, the Celtics head into the final game of their homestand, hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at 7:30 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.
For more postgame coverage of Monday night’s rivalry game slugfest, tune into the the Garden Report Postgame Show LIVE on CLNS Media right after the game. Join A Sherrod Blakely, Bobby Manning, Josue Pavon, Jimmy Toscano and host John Zannis for a full breakdown.