The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers have an Atlantic Division rivalry that traces its origins to the early days of the NBA.
While they have yet to engage in any meaningful playoff match-ups since the 80s, both teams have been on the rise in recent years behind a fresh batch of stars. This has rekindled some of their animosity towards one another, although both teams have underperformed to begin this campaign.
They entered their first regular season match-up with identical 11-10 win-loss records that had them in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings and searching for any semblance of momentum to jump start their respective teams.
In a somewhat fitting manner, the Celtics and Sixers engaged in a low-scoring slugfest that was a throwback to the days when physicality ruled the league.
Boston eked out an 88-87 win at the TD Garden over the Sixers in a grueling contest that featured 16 lead changes and 15 ties. The Celtics had a dominant first quarter and built a 12-point lead, though the Sixers quickly rallied and led by as much as five in the third quarter.
Come the fourth period, neither side led by more than three points until Dennis Schroder hit a lay-up with 37 seconds remaining in the match that put Boston up by four. A timely three-pointer from Danny Green on the ensuing possession followed by a missed jumper from a well-defended Schroder then opened the door for the Sixers to steal the game.
Tobias Harris received the ball with six seconds left to play and unsuccessfully challenged the defense of Al Horford. Harris was forced to toss the ball in desperation to Georges Niang in the right corner. The reserve forward Niang managed to fire up a three-point attempt at the buzzer that could have won the game, but it was deflected by Robert Williams to seal the win for the Celtics.
After an eight-point dud in their previous win over the Toronto Raptors, Jayson Tatum led the way for the Celtics with 26 points and 16 rebounds. His performance versus Toronto was actually an aberration and he had scored over 21 points in 10 of their previous 11 outings, highlighted by five games with over 30 points.
Now that Tatum has shaken off his slow start, Boston can focus on getting the rest of their team in a rhythm offensively, especially with a five-game Western Conference road trip looming.
Tatum’s nine-of-20 shooting from the field was surprisingly already one of the better clips for both sides during the game which is indicative of what kind of evening it was. Out of the nine players who took at least 10 shots, only two of them–Philadelphia’s Seth Curry and Shake Milton–made over 50% of their attempts.
The Sixers’ All-Star center Joel Embiid, in just his third appearance following a serious bout with COVID-19, had the most atrocious shooting line for both sides with only three conversions out of his 17 shots.
Jaylen Brown made only three of his 11 field goal attempts en route to nine points while their sixth man Schroder was four-of-12 to finish with 13. Their starting guard Marcus Smart took seven of his own and converted only two, albeit poor shooting percentages are already expected from him. He chipped in through other ways in his typical fashion with eight assists and two steals.
Boston direly needs Brown, who has already missed nine games this season due to a hamstring injury, to regain the form that he flashed to begin this season. This iteration of the Celtics is highly dependent on strong play from the Tatum and Brown duo, especially in the absence of a traditional point guard on their roster.
Smart and Schroder occasionally have impressive stretches, but there is no way that a team that heavily relies on them for scoring should be considered a contender. Their potential will be maximized once Tatum and Brown simultaneously find their rhythm as they attack closeouts and feed off the risks that opposing defenses take to contain Boston’s two stars.
While the presence of Tatum, Brown, and even Smart and Schroder, to a certain extent, give the Celtics a chance to match any team basket-for-basket, the most encouraging takeaway from their win over Philadelphia is that they can win “ugly” when needed. This will come in handy when the playoffs come around, though they will first have to worry about making it that far to begin with.
Their defense has been a source of strength over the past few years and continues to be one this season. Brown and Smart are excellent defenders while Tatum is decent and Schroder is passable. Meanwhile, Williams and Horford are an excellent pair of defensive big men who have been their unheralded stars on that end of the court this season. Their other rotation pieces, Josh Richardson and Grant Williams, are also above average defenders.
This team has the ability to compete with the best of them defensively, as long as back-up center Enes Freedom, fresh off a name change, can stay away from opposing pick-and-rolls that target his sub-par lateral movements.
This win over the Sixers was by no means aesthetically pleasing, yet in a league that does not award bonus points for playing a pretty style of basketball, the Celtics may have finally found their identity as a group.
For all of their struggles and internal turmoil over the past few weeks, they have emerged with a 12-10 win-loss card that has them just two losses behind the second place Washington Wizards in the competitive Eastern Conference. The top-seeded Brooklyn Nets are not out of reach either and only have four less losses than Boston at this point in time.
Anything is still possible for this Celtics team and it will be interesting to see whether what is typically considered an antiquated form of defense-first basketball with not much spacing on offense can help them become relevant in this modern era.