Celtics

9 takeaways as Jayson Tatum, Celtics hold off 76ers in a gritty win

The Celtics slipped into some old habits but hung on with hard-nosed defense.

Celtics 76ers takeaways
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown threads between Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey and center Joel Embiid. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Here are the takeaways as the Celtics held on for a gritty 88-87 victory behind Jayson Tatum’s 26-point performance against the 76ers on Wednesday.

1. The final possession of the game was a masterclass in defense. The Celtics, leading by one, just needed a stop to win, and the Sixers had roughly six seconds to work with. Al Horford got screened off Joel Embiid before the inbound pass, leaving Jaylen Brown on an island against the enormous center. Horford recognized the issue and pressed up high against Tobias Harris — cutting off Harris’ airspace, which kept the ball out of the post. Embiid battled Brown to no avail.

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The Sixers still nearly got a great look. While Embiid fought for position against Brown, Rob Williams hung out under the hoop in case Harris managed to throw the pass. Williams, however, was guarding Georges Niang, who sprang free in the corner. Harris found Niang, who appeared to have a good look at a three.

Fortunately for the Celtics, Williams is an otherworldly athlete. He flew out to Niang, leapt straight at him, blocked the shot and twisted his body out of the way to prevent the foul.

“It was one of those things that it’s the end of the game, I don’t want to switch it, but it was such a good screen that we had to,” Horford said. “Once we switched it, I just wanted to make sure I put pressure on the ball and just kind of get the clock going, and rushed him a little bit, and Rob made a great play with the block.”

Here’s a look at the whole thing.

2. Williams’ block (and Horford’s savvy) bailed the Celtics out of a lot of criticism, because their final offensive possession was horrific — Dennis Schröder dribbled and dribbled until the shot clock was nearly gone, and the ball never touched Jayson Tatum’s hands. Jaylen Brown was involved only to set a screen for Schröder, which accomplished very little.

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Some bad habits re-emerged for the Celtics on Wednesday — a concern with a bruising west coast trip looming. They finished with just 18 assists 33 field goals, and while their defense kept them in the game (and eventually won it), the offense generally was stagnant and uninspired.

[We] really dug in late in the game when we had to, and as you can see on that last play, guys scrambled around, defended at a high level there and then got the shot block,” Udoka said. “So not really going to apologize for an ugly win. It happens. Offense wasn’t clicking at all times but guys got it going late.”

3. Perhaps more concerning: Jaylen Brown limped his way up and down the court for much of the evening, and after the final play, he could be seen grimacing on his way off the floor. He did not look healthy.

After the game, however, Udoka said he hadn’t heard anything about re-injury.

“He didn’t say anything,” he said. “I thought he had a really good effort possession at the end there. … But nothing he said, or nothing we saw.”

To Udoka’s point: Hobbled or not, Brown put together one of the better defensive sequences of the season in the fourth quarter — fronting Embiid for an entire possession and then blocking the layup when the Sixers failed to get it to him.

4. Yesterday, we wrote about Enes Freedom and his desire to talk to LeBron James about human rights issues.

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To take you behind the curtain a bit, writing “Freedom said” repeatedly felt very strange. It felt doubly strange, however, to hear on the broadcast some variation of “the screen set by Freedom” or “Freedom … blocked by Embiid!”

One wonders how long the word “freedom” will take to be divorced from its actual meaning in Celtics circles.

5. One odd note: The Celtics had an issue with the net that delayed the start of the second half, as one of the loops came undone. Anyone who has ever threaded a net might think a 7-footer with long arms (or Robert Williams, who has the standing reach of a 7-footer with long arms) could just put the loop back up, but apparently NBA nets are different and run along a cord inside the rim. Ordinarily, we presume, that setup would keep them more secure, but on Wednesday, it complicated the process of fixing the net to the point that a lot of players got an extended water break before the start of the third quarter.

6. Horford admitted how much beating the Sixers meant to him, given the wildly unsuccessful season he and the Sixers shared in 2019-20. That year, the Celtics swept the underachieving Sixers in the Disney World Bubble after they fell far short of preseason expectations.

A reporter asked Horford if Wednesday’s rematch was just another game.

“I wouldn’t say another game,” Horford said with certainty. “I mean, it was definitely a good win. Good feeling. Just with everything. This was a game that was important.”

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In several answers, Horford danced carefully around saying how badly he wanted to beat the Sixers while making it clear the extent to which he did. Finally, he was asked if he feels his reputation took a hit over the last two years.

“Yeah, no question,” Horford said. “No question about it. Obviously, it’s everything on me. It was my decision, my decision to leave, do all these things. It was like, ‘How are you going to respond after you’ve been faced with adversity?’ Being down, being talked down about it and all these things. It’s the reality.

“You have to put results. You have to do different things and I didn’t do that. Yeah, I’m sure I was written off. I’m just glad I got another opportunity in a place where I want to be.”

7. Jayson Tatum let out a little frustration with the media in his press conference when a reporter asked if he was okay with Dennis Schröder getting the final shot.

“I seen a report the other day that said I was a selfish player,” Tatum said, meaningfully. “That seems pretty unselfish of me.

Tatum was likely referencing an ESPN article, in which an Eastern Conference assistant coach told Tim Bontemps that “Jayson Tatum is about Jayson Tatum” and he “doesn’t care about winning now.”

“Whatever it takes for us to win,” Tatum continued on Wednesday. “I guess more often than not it’s going to be in my hands, but we play 82-something games in the regular season. It’s going to be some nights where you might need to space the floor, take the best defender away out of the action and see what we get.”

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“They said you said it, Abby,” Tatum said to NBC Sports Boston reporter Abby Chin, who certainly wasn’t responsible for the report.

8. Joel Embiid finished just 3-for-17 from the floor. Embiid scored 42 points in his return from COVID last week, but in the two games since, he is just 5-for-36 from the field with 29 points.

“I would never use [COVID] as an excuse, but obviously I think it’s going to take me awhile to get back, especially legs and cardio and all that stuff,” Embiid said. “But every single day I got to keep working hard, and keep getting better.”

If there’s one thing we could let an athlete use as an excuse without ridicule, recovering from what Embiid thought might be a life-threatening bout with a global pandemic might be it.

9. The Celtics will now hit the road. The gauntlet includes Utah and Portland on Friday and Saturday, the Lakers and Clippers on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Suns on Dec. 10.

We might learn a few things about this team over the next week.

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