We should start by noting that the 76ers didn’t have James Harden in their 135-87 loss to the Celtics, and that the Celtics are unlikely to put together another firestorm from 3-point range like the one they unleashed Tuesday.
We could, however, continue by noting that the Sixers did have Joel Embiid and the rest of their core roster intact. We could also point out that the Celtics were without Robert Williams, and that Marcus Smart hobbled to the bench with a sprained ankle midway through the first half, which barely seemed to slow the Celtics at all. The Derrick White addition is already paying dividends.
We could add that while Embiid did go to the free-throw line 16 times, Al Horford and Daniel Theis helped limit the MVP contender to 3-for-9 shooting from the floor, and Horford’s impact was obvious from the jump.
“Oh it’s sweet,” Horford told NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin after the game. “For sure. It’s a great win, and I’m just most proud of the way we’ve been playing coming in to this game. This is another team that’s a really good test for us. I told the guys that Denver, Atlanta, Philly, let’s see kind of where we’re at. I feel like we’re in a really good position.”
It might also be worth acknowledging that the Sixers scored 22 points in the first quarter, 20 in the second and 16 in the third as the Celtics built an eye-popping lead over their rivals that extended as high as (not a typo) 51. The victory continued to close the gap between the Celtics and the tightly bunched five-team grouping at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Tuesday’s game was a beatdown — an impressive display by a good team that has found an otherworldly rhythm. The Celtics still have to take care of business against the Pistons to keep their winning streak going into the All-Star break (and don’t be surprised if they fall behind in the first quarter, because this pace is impossible to maintain), but reasons to doubt this Celtics team ring hollow now. They are a team nobody wants to face in the postseason, certainly, but they have a chance to be a lot more than just a potential first-round spoiler.
Just ask FiveThirtyEight.
Over this stretch, the Celtics have looked as good as any team in the Eastern Conference. Make of that what you will.
2. Smart turned his ankle badly driving at Joel Embiid. He went to the free-throw line after the Celtics called timeout to get him out of the game, but he limped to the locker room and was ruled out almost immediately. No injury is convenient, but a minor one right before the All-Star break is — at least — somewhat well-timed. The Celtics will hope Smart’s ankle injury is in fact minor.
Ime Udoka did not have an update after the game but acknowledged that Smart’s injury didn’t look good.
“[Smart’s] temperament has been fantastic over the last 10-15 games or so, which has been great for us,” Jaylen Brown said. “So seeing him go down was tough. He seems to be alright, not too bad, but definitely got to find ways to step in for him in his absence, especially tomorrow.”
3. Defense wins championships, but 3-pointers and defense combine to generate blowouts. The Celtics set a franchise-record for triples, burying 25 of their 45 attempts from behind the arc. Jaylen Brown started the Celtics off with 5-for-5 shooting from deep. Grant Williams and Jayson Tatum hit four apiece. Aaron Nesmith and Sam Hauser added three each as the bench unit extended the Celtics’ monstrous lead. Ironically, of all the players who took 3-pointers, only Derrick White missed all of his attempts (0-for-3) … and he led the team in plus/minus with +41.
The Celtics aren’t going to shoot that well often. They seemingly can, however, defend consistently at this level for lengthy stretches. When they get hot from three, blowouts are a distinct possibility.
“We’ll take it,” Brown said. “Other people might make excuses, guys was out, whatever, we came in and we did our job. No matter who was out there, we have to come out and play basketball. At the end of the day, it’s the NBA. So we wanted to come out, execute, guard, and we did.”
4. On a night when 3-pointers are falling, Jayson Tatum becomes a threat to pile up assists, and sure enough, he finished with six on Tuesday. All six were either 3-pointers generated when the Sixers’ defense collapsed on his drives, or layups after defenders closed out to hard to prevent … 3-pointers generated by Tatum’s drives.
On one play in the third quarter — which might have short-circuited long-suffering Celtics fans early in the season due to all the ball movement — the Sixers doubled Tatum out of a pick-and-roll. Tatum’s pass to the 3-point line still generated a close out that led to a 3-pointer, but with one more step involved.
“I think we’ve been really clicking well as a unit, starting games, both ends of the floor,” Tatum said after the game.
5. Ime Udoka — who, we will reiterate, deserves his flowers for the turnaround this team has pulled off — was asked if he enjoys silencing a road crowd as a coach as much as he did as a player.
“Yes,” Udoka said and paused as reporters chuckled. “I think honestly, for myself and the group, I’ve always said that it’s going to build character with our group to play in these environments. So I did say that as a player, but as a coach, it’s no different. And to see the crowd leave in probably the third quarter is an impressive thing for us and I think our team relished that. …
“To have that road warrior mentality, it will help us as a group overall.”
6. The Celtics might get well-acquainted with White over the next few games if Smart misses extended time with his ankle injury. White is now 2-for-13 from deep in his last two games after a solid start as a shooter in his debut, but he continues to be a clear positive whenever he’s on the floor. His 2-for-1 floater before the half felt like a big play, setting up a Jaylen Brown 3-pointer that essentially acted as a second-quarter early dagger (if such a thing exists).
7. Brown suggested the Celtics — presumably at some point during their current winning streak — made it a point to win out until the All-Star break, noting that the Celtics particularly wanted to beat the Sixers.
“We wanted to keep the streak going before the break, two games left,” Brown said. “We wanted to make sure we got this one. Philly is a tough place to play in general, so we wanted to get it, and we got it today. We did a good job.”
The Celtics play the Pistons in their final contest before All-Star weekend on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
We will have more takeaways later this evening.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism