BOSTON – As Brad Stevens prepped for Friday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, it became quite obvious to him that this nine-win team was better – a lot better – than their record might have suggested.
That message eventually trickled down to his players who managed to squeak out a 110-106 win over the Sixers in a game that may have been one of the tougher ones they’ve had this season and managed to win.
After a pair of free throws by Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid with 28.7 seconds to play put the Sixers ahead 106-104, Boston took the lead on an Al Horford 3-pointer with 17.2 seconds to play – arguably the biggest shot he has hit in this his first season with the Boston Celtics.
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Philadelphia called a time-out, but we all knew who they were going to get the ball to.
Uh, not exactly.
The ball wound up in the hands of Ersan Ilyasova whose off-balance 3-point attempt was off the mark. The loose ball was rebounded by Amir Johnson who was immediately fouled by Embiid.
For Embiid, it would be his sixth personal foul so his night was complete.
Johnson, who had 13 points and five rebounds, made the second of the two free throws.
Philadelphia called a time-out with 6.3 seconds to play.
Coming out of the time-out, it was Ilyasova once again taking what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer that barely grazed the rim before going out of bounds.
Brad Stevens called a quick time-out, with 2.7 seconds to play.
Boston in-bounded the ball to Isaiah Thomas who was fouled with 2.1 seconds to play which sent Thomas to the free throw line.
Thomas, who finished with 24 points, made both free throws to seal the victory.
Horford, like most of the Celtics, didn’t seem to play with the kind of edge needed to beat a Sixers team that came in having won two straight and seeking a third consecutive win for the first time since 2014.
But in the fourth quarter, he came alive, scoring 14 of his 19 points to go with 12 rebounds and four assists.
But this Sixers team proved to be a pesky bunch, especially Embiid who at this point seems a lock to win this year’s rookie of the year award.
He would finish with 23 points and eight rebounds, showing off a strong around-the-basket game as well as the ability to knock down perimeter shots.
For the Celtics (22-14), a 23-8 run that began in the third quarter and carried over into the early portion of the fourth, put the Celtics ahead 89-84 following a lay-up by Isaiah Thomas following a Marcus Smart steal.
Philadelphia (9-25) responded with six straight to regain the lead 90-89 only for the Celtics to regain the lead and manage to fend off a Philadelphia team that just would not go away quietly.
A 3-pointer by Gerald Henderson tied the game at 104.
Boston had a chance to regain the lead on two separate possessions only to come up short.
And Embiid, a man among boys most of the night, put the Sixers ahead 106-104 with a pair of free throws with 28.7 seconds to play.
Al Horford, who had been relatively ineffective scoring the ball most of the night, scored back-to-back baskets for five points at that point equaled his scoring output through the first three quarters.
For large chunks of the game, the Sixers seemed to be in control on the court as well as in the stands.
“Trust the Pro-cess!” chants rang out loudly throughout the night by Sixers fans in attendance, a reference to the team’s efforts the past few years to rack up as many losses – and lottery pick talent – with the goal being that someday that talent would materialize into an elite, title-contending club.
Philadelphia is nowhere close to being that good, but there’s no mistaking the progress they have made this season even if their record (9-25) doesn’t necessarily reflect that growth.