LONDON – The popular narrative leading up to the Celtics’ 114-103 comeback win over Philadelphia on Thursday centered on both teams being young and on the rise.
While there’s definitely some truth in that, there is one huge difference.
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The Celtics have a superstar in Kyrie Irving who knows how to both dominate play and use his position and presence on the floor to help his teammates take over.
Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is a great player, but a star he is not.
And this game proved once again while extremely talented, Embiid still hasn’t figured out how to “trust the process” required to be a great player in this league.
Numbers aren’t enough anymore.
There are plenty of players who can put up big numbers and still win games.
They do it by balancing their strengths with those of their teammates.
That’s how Kyrie Irving can score 20 points, but a second-year wing (Jaylen Brown had a team-high 21 points) and a rookie (Jayson Tatum, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the pivotal third quarter) wind up making just as significant an impact.
As I watched Embiid continue to come up short when the Sixers did turn to him, I was reminded up something his coach Brett Brown said the day before when asked about superstar players.
“We don’t yet have stars,” said Brown, referring to the Sixers. “We don’t have any championships, we don’t have any All-Stars. We’re very much at the foundation of trying to get to where you brought us too quickly.”
Embiid’s name was mentioned which prompted this response from Brown: “There’s a difference between popular and championships. That’s my version of a star. Are you able to get your teams to win, and win championships?
Brown added, “This is the challenge. I think Ben Simmons and Joel, that’s my mission for them; that’s my mission for all of us, to grow champions. Right now, we’re just scratching the surface.”
There’s no denying the Sixers have some talented players in the fold now whose biggest shortcoming is youth and inexperience, both of which will only get better in time.
But for now, the Celtics will continue to limit Embiid from having superman-like performances because their Big Three – Al Horford, Aron Baynes and coach Brad Stevens.
Horford and Baynes defend Embiid better than any defensive duo in the NBA, even if Embiid won’t admit it. And Stevens’ ability to constantly give him different looks defensively has left him dazed and confused, prone to taking forced shots or passing up good ones or just turning the ball over.
I asked him about specifically about the Celtics’ defenders after a game in which he was 6-for-17 shooting with most of his made baskets coming against Celtics backup Daniel Theis.
“I don’t think they did anything,” Embiid said. “I started off really frustrated by the way everything was set up.”
The way things were “set up” involved J.J. Redick making a ton of tightly contested shots with Ben Simmons navigating the offense to a lead that peaked at 22 points with few contributions from Embiid at that time.
“From there, if I’m not having fun…or kicking someone’s ass, also talk trash, if I’m not doing that I usually have bad games,” Embiid said. “I don’t think they did anything.”
Well, this was the second game Embiid has played against the Celtics this season, and he was limited in both, which is evident by him shooting just 30.3 percent against Boston this season – that’s his lowest field-goal percentage against any team this season.
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 114-103 win over Philadelphia:
SECOND-HALF DEFENSE ELITE (AGAIN)
Boston continued the trend we saw throughout the season and that’s saving their best for the second half of games. The Celtics have the league’s top-rated defense in large part because of their ability to lock down teams over the course of the final 24 minutes of play. Against the Sixers, Boston held them to just 36 percent shooting from the field, 25 percent on 3’s while outscoring them by 20 points (66-46).
RELATIVELY HEALTHY ROSTER
Aside from Gordon Hayward, this was about as healthy and well-rested a Celtics team as we’ve seen all season. And with that health, Boston was able to showcase its versatility at both ends of the floor at a relatively high level. Offensively, the Celtics attacked Philadelphia from various points in the second half with assassin-like precision. And the defense was in lockdown mode in the second half as the Sixers had no answer for how to handle this healthy, fully engaged Celtics squad.
The talk about Boston’s bench not being up to snuff seems to be getting quieter as the season progresses. What we’re starting to see more of from this group is guys settling into roles and not deviating too much from them. Terry Rozier is a defender, good rebounder from the guard position who can make shots. Marcus Morris is a scorer/defender at the big wing position. Daniel Theis defends, rebounds and finishes around the rim every now and then. And then there’s Marcus Smart, an elite defender who has significantly improved his playmaking game this season. Collectively, they have been a really strong unit of late.
Give Jayson Tatum credit. He has done a good job, for the most part, picking when to be aggressive and when to let the game sort of come to him. But the more you watch him and the Celtics, the clearer it becomes they need to see more of the aggressive Tatum. The Sixers got a taste of that in the third quarter, which is when the game’s momentum fully swung in Boston’s favor. It was also the quarter in which Tatum scored 11 of his 16 points. Coincidence? Nope. Boston is a better team when he’s looking to be more aggressive, more of the time. When he has taken at least 10 shots from the field, Boston has a 17-4 record. Don’t be surprised if we see the more aggressive Tatum in these last couple months leading into the postseason.
It really says a lot about a team to be down 22 points and show absolutely no signs of concern about the deep hole they find themselves in. Boston has been there, done that time and time again and consistently show not the slightest bit of concern. Victories like Thursday’s comeback win adds another brick to the sturdy foundation of this team’s ability to come back and win despite falling into some huge deficits. When Boston closed out the half with a 21-8 run and was within nine points, you kind of sensed that Boston would continue surging ahead and eventually wind up with the win. That takes talent, obviously. But more than that, it requires a Teflon-strong confidence that Boston has plenty of.