BOSTON – For most of this season, the Boston Celtics have been a streaking team … but not like this.
The Celtics’ 89-80 loss to Philadelphia (21-20) was their second straight defeat.
For Boston (34-12), it’s only the third time this season they have lost back-to-back games.
Win or lose, the one thing we’ve come to expect from the Celtics all season is that they will make things interesting down the stretch.
Despite Philadelphia leading for most of the game, Boston began to pick up the pace in the fourth and had multiple opportunities to close the gap and position themselves for yet another improbable comeback.
Jaylen Brown did his part in the fourth with big plays at both ends of the floor, including a 3-pointer with 2:23 to play that cut Philadelphia’s lead to 86-76 which led to a Sixers time-out. He would finish with 12 points along with four assists and three rebounds as he along with the rest of the Celtics tried to make up for the absence of recently named all-star Kyrie Irving who was out with a left shoulder injury.
Boston’s fourth quarter comeback continued, as Jayson Tatum drained a 3-pointer that made it an 86-79 game. He had 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting
But the Celtics could not get any closer.
Too many missed shots and too many turnovers (19) proved to be too much for the Celtics to overcome against a Sixers team that they had beaten in each of their three previous meetings this season.
The Celtics were down by as many as 17 points (56-39) in the third quarter, the kind of deficit this Celtics team has seen plenty of times and often, been able to conquer.
A jumper by Marcus Smart, followed by a pair of free throws by Marcus Morris and a lay-up by Shane Larkin after a Celtics steal and just like that, Boston’s deficit was down to 56-45.
Sixers coach Brett Brown has seen this re-run before and quickly called a time-out, knowing the game’s momentum was tilting towards the Celtics who we’ve seen often go on game-altering runs.
Coming out of the time-out, Philadelphia got the ball in the hands of Joel Embiid who was soon fouled by Daniel Theis.
Boston was rotating its three bigs – Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Theis – frequently on Embiid.
It didn’t matter.
Embiid, who learned shortly before tip-off that he would be a starter in next month’s All-Star game, played like one most of the night. He had a double-double of 26 points and 16 rebounds along with six assists.
When he wasn’t giving Boston problems in the paint, he was finding holes in their defense when they paid too much attention to him and not enough to his teammates who far too often were left wide open.
The Celtics’ struggles down the stretch were in sharp contrast to how the game began.
Boston scored the game’s first six points before the Sixers got on the scoreboard and continued to make plays at both ends that culminated in Philadelphia leading 21-19 after the first quarter.
The second quarter was all about the defense of both teams, each making life extremely difficult for the other offensively.
But the Sixers continued to do just enough to maintain the lead, with Dario Saric and Joel Embiid combining to score 11 of Philadelphia’s 18, second-quarter points.
Limiting a team to less than 20 points scored in a quarter is a clear sign of good play defensively, the kind of defense that we’ve seen be good enough for Boston to chip away at a deficit.
But Boston could only muster 13 points in the second quarter, the clearest indicator of the game how much Boston missed Kyrie Irving who did not play because of left shoulder soreness.
At the half, Boston trailed the Sixers 39-32.