BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 15: Dario Saric #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball during a game against the Boston Celtics on February 15, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Recap | Sixers Come Up Short in Latest Hard-Fought Pairing with C's

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Recap:
BOSTON, MA - When discussing the Boston Celtics and the success they’ve enjoyed this season, it would be hard to leave Isaiah Thomas out of the conversation.

Brett Brown said so himself prior to Wednesday’s tip-off, and the pint-sized All-Star point guard later proved those words to be true.

In the freshest example of his fourth-quarter scoring prowess, Thomas helped propel the C’s to a 116-108 victory at T.D. Garden. The game was the Sixers’ last appearance before the All-Star break. They now head into an eight-day hiatus with a record of 21-35.

“I mean, you just want to be there in the end,” Brett Brown said afterwards. “This is the second-best team in the East. I think when you really study it, it’s going to be a top-four, five team in the NBA. It’s an elite team playing extremely good basketball on their home court. You take all those things, and really you hope to be there at the end.”

Thomas, who’s responsible for more fourth-quarter points than any other player in the NBA this season, tallied 13 of his game-best 33 points in the closing frame, including a stretch of seven straight that set the stage for Boston’s decisive 10-0 run once the Sixers had tied the tilt at 101-101 with just over five minutes to go in regulation.

Making just as significant of an impact in Wednesday’s outcome, however, was Thomas’ backcourt partner, Marcus Smart. He tallied 21 points Wednesday, his offensive efforts highlighted by a 3-pointer that gave Boston a five-point pad with less than four minutes to play.

Smart also came up with a pair of steals during the C’s push that allowed them to put Wednesday’s game out of reach. The Sixers committed turnovers on six possessions in succession after the scoreboard was tied.

“I give him tons of credit for his heart,” said Brown, when asked about Smart’s impact. “I give him tons of credit for the improvement of his shot, and he’s always been somebody we studied from afar.

“When the [2014] draft was going on, we paid a lot of attention to Marcus Smart. There’s a toughness in him that you can’t help but respect.”

Brown’s club showed plenty of resiliency and scrap itself Wednesday.

Down eight points, 87-79, entering the final period of play, the Sixers came out unconscious, connecting on their first six field goal attempts of the quarter. The flurry pushed the Sixers ahead twice - first on a Nerlens Noel put-back dunk that made the score 97-96, and then again on a Dario Saric finger-roll lay-up that nudged the visitors in front, 99-98.

The Sixers were threatening to deal Boston just its second setback in the span of 12 contests.

“They’ve been particularly effective against us,” said Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens, whose team has edged the Sixers by a combined 13 total points in three meetings this year. “They make it tough on us to execute. If you don’t drive the ball and get a paint touch, you’re going to struggle against those guys. We were fortunate enough to score, or shoot it well enough to be in the game, and then we played better defense in the second.”

Representing a recurring theme from the past week, Saric again emerged as a pivotal contributor. His energy on both ends of the floor was vital to jumpstarting the Sixers at the outset of the fourth frame.

The 22-year old forward, set to participate in Friday’s BBVA Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans, manufactured 14 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. It was the fifth time in six games Saric either topped or shared the team lead in scoring. He also hit the 20-point plateau for the third time in five outings, and, with 11 rebounds, posted his second double-double in a row.

“About two weeks ago, I thought I was seeing like I’ve seen all of my years in Philadelphia, the proverbial rookie wall, and it’s real, it’s not a myth,” Brown said of Saric. “All of a sudden, he pivots out, and he’s on a tear. Whatever he may lack in foot speed and verticality, he surely makes up for in toughness and intellect. I just feel like we’re seeing something quite unique developing before us.”

The Celtics’ Thomas, generously listed at 5-feet-9, certainly creates a unique challenge in his own right. The 28-year old, who was the 60th and final selection of the 2011 draft, took the floor Wednesday with the second-highest scoring average in the NBA, at 29.8 points per game.

While he only converted 9 of his 19 shots, Thomas did damage from the free throw line, sinking 11 of 13 attempts. Seven and eight of those makes and attempts, respectively, came in the fourth quarter.

“Isaiah Thomas, what he is doing to the NBA and the volume of points that he scores, and what he does in fourth periods...he’s an All-Star for a reason,” Brown said Wednesday. “You can’t help but talk about him and the firepower that they have collectively when you talk about how do you give yourself a chance to win. You have to find ways to defend them, and they’re really hard to do that.”

As was the case in their three victories that preceded Wednesday’s Atlantic Division duel, the Sixers put forth a balanced, uptempo attack underscored by interior success.

First, in respect to the Sixers’ balance, five additional players on top of Saric finished in double-figures. Robert Covington, who sustained a head contusion down the stretch of the fourth quarter, netted 18 points (7-12 fg, 4-6 3fg), all of which came in the first half. He supplied nine rebounds and three steals, as well.

In his latest homecoming to the Boston area, Noel netted 16 points, and brought down seven boards.

T.J. McConnell racked up 12 points (6-9 fg), three rebounds, eight assists, and five steals, a new career-high. He takes a career-long streak of three straight double-digit scoring games into the All-Star lay-off.

Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas each ended the evening with 11 points apiece.

Another noteworthy subplot Wednesday was that Jahlil Okafor came off the bench to assume the squad’s back-up center role. After linking up with the Sixers in Boston Tuesday night, the big man logged 17 minutes, manufacturing four points (2-5 fg), 4 rebounds, two assists, and three blocks.

“[It] felt good to be back with the team,” said Okafor, in his second season out of Duke. “Everybody was supportive, and everybody fought hard. We just came up short against a really good Boston team.”

“It was fantastic having him back,” Brown said. “He fits in seamlessly.

“I thought given his circumstance, he was really good. [Boston] thought so too. They double-teamed him almost every time he caught the ball. I thought him being unselfish and passing out of pick-and-rolls was the correct read. It was good to have him back.”

Both the Sixers and Celtics had trouble with ball security Wednesday. The Sixers committed 29 cough-ups, and Boston 24, with the Sixers outscoring the C’s in points off turnovers, 34-29.

The Sixers also established considerable advantages in points in the paint, 62-42, second-chance points, 20-11, and in fastbreak scoring, 25-15.

A key disparity favoring the Celts was that they converted 13 of 28 3-point attempts. The Sixers, meanwhile, were 8 for 31 from behind the arc.

Although Wednesday’s loss denied the Sixers what would have been a season-high four-game winning streak, the defeat didn’t diminish one of Brown’s lasting takeaways from the campaign’s unofficial first half.

“It is one of the most enjoyable groups that I coached,” said Brown of his team, which arrived at the break with its highest win total since his hiring in August of 2013. “I like them and I respect them.”

Sixers Social:
Giving Nerlens Noel any kind of opportunity to make an impact at the rim - offensively or defensively - probably isn’t the wisest of ideas. This putback chance was just way too easy, even by easy’s standards. The Sixers’ third-year big man didn’t waste chance to slam the ball home with punishing force, as the Boston frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko looked on helplessly.

Up Next:
The next game on the Sixers’ schedule is a home pairing with the Washington Wizards, but it won’t be coming around for a while. Following Wednesday’s stop at T.D. Garden, most of the team, with the exception of those players chosen to participate in All-Star Game festivities in New Orleans this weekend, will be on an extended hiatus. The Sixers will regroup for a couple of practices in the middle of next week, then get back to work versus John Wall and Co. Friday, February 24th at The Center.

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