PHILADELPHIA – When the Philadelphia 76ers made two roster-altering trades earlier this season, the Boston Celtics were widely acknowledged as the impetus for change.
While the Celtics don’t sit atop the Eastern Conference, nor do they own one of the NBA’s best records, they possessed something more intangible when it came to their Pennsylvanian rivals. They have owned the Sixers of late and that placed a hefty weight on those wearing blue and red on Tuesday evening.
Entering tonight, Philadelphia was 2-10 versus the Celtics since Ben Simmons made his NBA debut in October 2017. That record included a disappointing postseason fadeout last May, in addition to three consecutive losses this earlier season.
It made the last Sixers-Celtics showdown for this regular season a must-watch, and the Sixers' 47th victory of the campaign was all the more satisfying. Philadelphia defeated Boston 118-115 at Wells Fargo Center, in a showdown that had all of the drama this rivalry has come to know.
Joel Embiid played the sort of basketball that has seen him reach prodigal status locally in Philadelphia. He was the starting role on this night. Embiid didn’t just play like an MVP, he played like the best player in the NBA. His statistical output will point you in the right direction – 37 points and 22 rebounds - although no numerical indicators could fully articulate Embiid’s impact. When his team needed him, the two-time All-Star delivered his very best.
“I think the responsibility and sort of the weight given his history with this organization, certainly he’s aware of, and I think he embraces it and tonight he showed in many ways just how much it means to him and I respect his tenacity,” Brett Brown said of Embiid post-game.
The first half looked identical to the preceding contests in this series. Boston’s methodical offence was picking at the Sixers' tendencies and slicing them up. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier, Boston’s point guard duo, had a combined 30 points on 15 shots midway through the second quarter. It was déjà vu and systematic evidence of the Sixers early woes: missed rotations, mental lapses and a general malaise characterised a Philadelphia performance that allowed 69 points in the first half.
Things changed after intermission, and thanks to an act of madness from Boston’s main protagonist, Embiid and the Sixers came to life. Marcus Smart was ejected for a two-handed shove that pushed Embiid to the floor early in the third quarter. A familiar NBA pushing match ensued, but once the dust settled, Smart was removed from the game, and a renewed focus imbued the Sixers.
“Obviously I was frustrated because it was a cheap shot,” Embiid said of the incident. “I didn’t see it coming, it caught me off guard.”
Embiid’s response to Smart’s act was something to behold. He physically dominated the flurry of Celtics big men who came his way. He scored with ease, drew fouls and shifted the narrative within this night, and potentially the season. The thought of this entire rivalry altering thanks to Smart’s malpractice is a tantalising thought. If these two teams meet again in the postseason, then it could the moment in time where the script was flipped and the young upstart finally discovered the gravity of their powers. Only time will tell.
Embiid carried his team to the finishing line, but he needed a finishing kick from a veteran colleague to get Philadelphia into the winner’s circle. Jimmy Butler scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, highlighted a series of pivotal jump shots to close out Embiid’s masterpiece. It was an outcome Embiid prophesised over pre-game.
“I told him that I needed him tonight,” Embiid said of pre-game conversations with Butler. “He showed up, and in the fourth he was fantastic.”
Butler, who played 38 minutes in Charlotte 24 hours earlier, overcame a self-diagnosed tired performance through three quarters. He served the role of Sixers closer, an accomplishment that underpinned the franchise’s desire to acquire him back in November.
“They put the ball in my hands in the fourth and tell me to make plays and make shots,” Butler said post-game. “I think as of lately I've been doing a good job of that, but that could be anybody to tell you the truth. With as many weapons that we have on this team, anybody can get the hot hand, anybody can put the ball in the basket. Just, the last few nights have been me.”
Ben Simmons finished the evening with 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and as has become common practice during games against Boston, his role took a back step to Butler and Embiid. That’s not to say Simmons didn’t significantly contribute to the victory.
With scores tied in the final minute, Simmons drove hard to the basket and finished through contact for what proved to be the decisive field goal. Simmons calmly converted this three-point play from the free-throw line and in doing so, he had scored the most important field goal and free throw of his young NBA career in the same possession. It was a moment that underpinned the Australian’s growth during a second NBA season.
“I think it just gives us more confidence,” Simmons said of the Sixers victory. “We know that we can beat anybody in the league, it’s just a matter of doing it and having it on the paper and having that confidence going into playoffs. Confidence is key.”
Confidence is starting to accrue Philadelphia is g to accrue. Their new starting lineup of Simmons, Butler, Embiid, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris is now 8-1 in the handful of games they have played together. It is a promising sign for what awaits the Sixers in the postseason. The Celtics monkey is off their back and tonight’s result only reinforces the promise within this newly constructed side.
“I think we’re all in a good place,” says Butler. “We’re out there just having fun, just hooping. Obviously it’s more fun to win than to lose. I think everyone’s in a good spot.”