PHILADELPHIA – An all-too-familiar feeling flooded the Wells Fargo Center.
As the fourth quarter of another titanic battle between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers took shape, both combatants were throwing haymakers back and forth, in a manner that couldn’t do anything but draw parallels to their gripping encounters over the preceding 12 months.
It has become common practice since Brett Brown and the Sixers emerged from the NBA lottery last season. There are countless examples: Game 2 of their Eastern Conference playoff series last May is a high leverage moment that comes to mind . The same theme goes for Game 3 of that same series, in this very arena. How about either of two earlier meetings this season, on opening night and then Christmas Day, both on the Celtics’ home parquet floor?
Name the contest of your choosing, because it doesn’t really matter. Each followed a familiar tune. The Celtics and Brad Stevens remind the basketball world of their intellect, a hyper-talented opponent pushing back, and a tight game ensues. Equally common was the result, as each of the four examples we skimped over ended in Celtics victory. This recipe was repeated once again in Philadelphia tonight and the result was equally familiar.
Boston, who played without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, walked away with a 112-109 victory in the Sixers' last home game before the NBA’s All-Star break. Al Horford masterfully led the Celtics resistance against Joel Embiid, who in his own words sleepwalked through the opening three quarters. As has become common practice during the millennial reboot of this old-fashioned rivalry, the 12-year NBA veteran has been the kryptonite to Embiid’s rampage around the NBA.
“I felt like our backs were against the wall, so we all needed to come out and set the tone,” Horford said postgame. “What I’m most proud of from our group is that we were able to sustain it and just played hard. I mean even if we would have lost, I was just happy that our guys were really engaged throughout the whole game.”
Gordon Hayward played what unquestionably constitutes his most important game as a Celtic, scoring 26 points off the bench to pick up the offensive punch that was missing Irving. Beyond that, a returning cast in Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart all delivered for Boston in their own ways. Some scored, while others rebounded and played superior defence. In an indicative representation of where these teams left things last season, and hope to pick them up again in May, none of these individually measures mattered in the aftermath.
Only the result.
“I just thought the whole night we played the right way,” Stevens said postgame. “We just tried to stay within ourselves and we didn’t get too high or too low. We fought and that’s what you have to do to have a chance to win.”
There was, predictably, a more somber feel to the Sixers locker room.
“They’re a really good team and they did what they were supposed to do ,” said Jimmy Butler. “We had to find a way to win. At the end of the day, I think we’ve been in the same predicament, position, so many times and we didn’t do our job.”
As in any tight game there are a series of singular moments or statistics that can be drawn upon to serves as the means to an outcome. Although the most telling statistic in the post-mortem is equal parts obvious and significant - the Sixers are 2-10 against Boston since Ben Simmons made his NBA debut last season.
There are many factors that go into it, but when you boil things down to their simplest form, these current Sixers have been unable to conquer their foes from the north. And yet, there is new hope for Philadelphia, despite their familiar shortcomings.
Optimism comes from everything general manager Elton Brand did at the deadline in acquiring Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanović, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis. All bar Ennis played tonight. While each member of the quintet have skills that lead those within the Sixers franchise to believe all can help in a hypothetical postseason rematch, it is Harris whom much relies upon. He is another shooter who can space the floor and mitigate the struggles a Simmons-led offence has experienced in high pressure moments against this team.
“There is going to be ups and downs,” said Harris, who played 35 minutes in just his third game for the franchise. “It’s just, when we do have a game like this that we lose, we make an adjustment from it and we understand how we need to play to be the best team that we can be. So I think there are things from this game that we can take and go back and look at and get better at, and just move forward from there.
Simmons, who was asked if there is added frustration in losing to Boston yet again, would instead point to the promise of the future.
“You always want to beat the Celtics, yeah, but at the same time you have to look at it like we want to beat them in the playoffs and make a great run and get to the Finals. Obviously we wanted to win this game, but we have to look ahead.”
All five of the Sixers starters scored in double digits, while their revamped bench could only muster 22 as a group. Simmons, a newly minted All-Star, accumulated 16 points and five assists but was below his impactful best. Fourteen turnovers for Philadelphia is too many. Brown pointed to the importance of securing the basketball pregame, and lamented the careless spirit of his side in the aftermath.
“I think when you really study the Celtics, what they do a good job of is they turn you over. I think we ended up with 14 for the game, which isn’t bad; 10 in the first half which was bad and they make threes. I think you have to be careful if you overreact to that type of environment as much as you do at times have to guard it better.”
A non-call on Embiid’s drive to the basket during the game’s final minute will draw the ire of Sixers fans. It certainty did for Embiid, who left his postgame availability telling the assembled media that “the referees fucking suck.” Embiid’s frustration was clear, and while Simmons admitted to wanting victory every time he plays the Celtics, a more circumspect response was offered. It was one that can carry Philadelphia into the All-Star break, with hopes that the familiar taste of defeat can be washed way sometime soon.
“This is a new team and there are things to work on. This is a good test for us for where we are at with this new team. I am excited with everyone we have to see how far we can go.”