Point guard Kyrie Irving’s 36 points weren’t enough to lift the Celtics over the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night, as the Sixers avoided the regular-season sweep with a rousing 118-115 victory.
Boston led by as many as 15, including a 12-point lead in the third quarter, but Philly mounted a comeback — one that was punctuated by Jimmy Butler’s incredibly clutch basket to make it a two-possession game with 4.7 seconds on the clock.
“In order to consider yourself a really good team, you got to beat those really good teams,” said Butler, who scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. “[The Celtics] are one of them. I got a really good feeling we’ll probably see those guys some time down the road.”
Here’s what we learned from Wednesday’s game:
Marcus Smart is going to be Marcus Smart.
Coach Brad Stevens said after the game he was “disappointed” in shooting guard Marcus Smart, who was tossed during the first minute of the third quarter for forcefully shoving 76ers center Joel Embiid.
“We need [him],” Stevens said. “We need him to be in the game.”
Marcus Smart shoved Joel Embiid to the floor 😳 pic.twitter.com/yshJkeO1fe
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 21, 2019
Smart’s hostile reaction seemed to stem from the fact that he had hit the deck while coming around a screen set by Embiid on the previous play. Even after the pair had to be separated, he continued to motion to Embiid that he was ready to fight.
It’s hard not to wonder if Smart could have made a difference down the stretch, given the tight final score and his ability to make “winning plays.” At the time of Smart’s ejection, the Sixers trailed by 11 points. They proceeded to chip away at Boston’s lead, tying things up at 82 apiece with five minutes remaining in the third. By the end of the quarter, the Celtics clung onto a five-point advantage.
“Stuff like that, it gets me going, it gets the crowd going,” said Embiid, who called the two-handed shove “a cheap shot.” “Everybody knows that I play better when the crowd is involved, so that energy was definitely good for us.”
Smart left the locker room without speaking to reporters. While Irving was not interested in making excuses for the loss, he noted that Smart “took responsibility” for his actions and that the team has “squashed” it and moved on.
“Those things can’t happen in terms of Smartie getting ejected, especially when we’re in an environment like this,” Irving said.
“Don’t get it wrong: We love all that Marcus is,” added Stevens. “Part of Marcus is fire. As you know, a time or two a year, it gets the best of him. But, this is just a reminder of how important he is.”
Earlier this season, Smart was fined $35,000 for aggressively charging at Atlanta Hawks shooting guard DeAndre Bembry.
Joel Embiid finally went off against the Celtics.
Embiid has been listening.
“I’ve been hearing that these guys can guard me better than anybody else, so I just had to come out and show that I’m the most unstoppable player in the league,” Embiid told ESPN in his walk-off interview Wednesday.
In undoubtedly his best game against the Celtics, Embiid unleashed a monster 37-point, 22-rebound performance. The 25-year-old was determined to feast from the start, seemingly motivated by his past struggles against Boston’s defensive anchor Al Horford. According to the league’s tracking data, Horford still presented problems for Embiid — limiting him to five points on 20 percent shooting (1-for-5) — but other Celtics didn’t have the same impact.
Against center Aron Baynes, for example, Embiid racked up 15 points on 3-for-4 shooting and eight free throws. Baynes logged just 12 minutes of play before exiting during the second quarter with an ankle injury.
“Embiid was determined to get to the front of the rim from the get-go,” Stevens said. “He’s a tough guy to guard, especially when he gets to the rim like that.”
The biggest differences between Embiid’s stat line Wednesday and those from previous games against the Celtics are his number of free-throw attempts (22) and his number of three-point attempts (3). In the last meeting between the two teams, for example, he only got to the line four times and attempted eight threes.
“I figured out that when I play low and I’m in attack mode and I want to get to the rim, I’m basically unstoppable and I’m going to get to the free-throw line,” he said. “Just got to keep doing that. Tonight, I felt like I was aggressive from the start. I got to have that same mentality every night.”
Embiid said he felt as though he shied away from being physical in previous matchups against Boston, so he also made an extra effort to set the tone accordingly this time around. Well-rested from sitting out Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, he logged a near season-high 41 minutes of action.
“It was good to get this win,” he said. “In the first half, we were down 15. To see us fight through it and get back in the game was a great step toward what we’re trying to build here.”
Terry Rozier backed up his trash talk.
As the phrase goes: If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.
Leading up to the game, backup point guard Terry Rozier wasn’t afraid to dish out bulletin board material. The newly turned 25-year-old called Embiid “lame” in an interview with FS1’s Kristine Leahy and also clapped back at a Sixers fan on Twitter.
“Philly ain’t beat us since they had [Allen Iverson] dummy,” he tweeted.
Despite the losing effort, Rozier certainly carried his weight in 23 minutes off the bench, tallying 20 points and six rebounds in one of his better showings of the season. After starting a perfect 5-for-5 — including 4-for-5 from behind the arc — Rozier finished shooting 50 percent both from the field and from three.
And he didn’t skip a beat while speaking to reporters after the game.
“I thought the confetti was going to drop tonight,” Rozier deadpanned, referencing the end-of-regulation fiasco from Game 3 of their playoff series last season. “No, I did. It was a big win, not trying to take nothing away from them, but I thought the confetti was dropping tonight.”
Embiid, a known social media troll, seemed to get the last word, however. Late Wednesday night, he didn’t waste much time in reveling in Philly’s victory, posting a photograph of him celebrating with Rozier looking on in the background. The caption? “Big time win.” The location? “Lametown.”
These two teams might not even face each other in the postseason.
Before tip-off, coach Brett Brown made it clear he did not want to over-dramatize the regular-season contest, although he also acknowledged there is, in fact, “a little bit” of a mental factor at play when facing the Celtics.
“We’ve experienced some stuff,” Brown said.
Psychologically speaking, yes, there’s an argument that Philadelphia needed a win against Boston due to its well-documented losing record. With the victory, the Sixers are now 1-3 against the Celtics this season and 4-17 over the last four — a mark that includes the gentleman’s sweep during last year’s playoffs.
“I think [the win] gives us more confidence,” point guard Ben Simmons said after Wednesday’s game. “We feel like we can beat anybody in this league.”
But point guard T.J. McConnell offered a different perspective.
“I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, but they still beat us three times,” McConnell said. “I’m not a fan of moral victories. They rested Gordon Hayward. Was Al Horford on a minute restriction? I don’t know. So, it will be a different team in the playoffs. That’s when it matters.”
[Note: Hayward was out because he is in the league’s concussion protocol.]
With the way the seeding is expected to shake out in the Eastern Conference, however, it’s very possible these two teams will not see each other in the postseason. Boston, currently seeded fifth, and Philly, currently seeded third, will likely be on opposite sides of the conference bracket, which means they could only meet in the conference finals. In order for that to happen, the two top teams in the East — the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors — would have to falter at some point. The scenario is obviously not impossible, though it seems unlikely.