In Review | Battle With Boston Reinforces Importance of Toughness
BOSTON, MA - Even in the face of adverse circumstances, the 76ers were close.
Absent their leading scorer and rebounder, as well as their trusted, gritty back-up point guard, the Sixers went north ready to put up a fight against the team with the best record in the NBA.
It was a division rivalry game, on the second night of a back-to-back, no less, and there were the Sixers, managing to hang with the Boston Celtics until the final stages of the fourth quarter.
Then, arguably the most dangerous isolation player in the game, new in green and white this season, left one final imprint on a contest he was dialed into from the start.
Kyrie Irving scored 9 of his game-best 36 points (12-21 fg, 5-8 3fg, 7-8 ft) in the last 6 minutes of regulation, ensuring the Eastern Conference-leading Celts would win for a league-high 19th time this fall, 108-97.
His performance, coupled with that of fellow All-Star Al Horford and other members of Boston’s talented, deep surrounding cast, thwarted the Sixers’ upstart plans on an evening Joel Embiid (load management) and T.J. McConnell (sprained AC joint, left shoulder) were out.
Brett Brown loved his group’s effort.
“I thought they came in, and they played; they really competed,” said Brown. “We were here after a back-to-back, no TJ and Jo, and I respected their work ethic. Their togetherness was elite. We just didn’t have it tonight against the league’s best team.”
Not just the NBA’s best team in terms of record, but arguably one of the league’s premier defensive clubs, too.
Earlier in the week, Boston owend the NBA’s lowest defensive rating (and might again after Thursday’s showing). They held the Sixers to 41.7 percent from the field, limited interior scoring opportunities, and brought a physical brand of basketball to the court.
Despite trailing virtually all of Thursday’s opening half, the Sixers, fueled by their bench, ripped off 8 straight points to sneak in front, 67-65, with three and a half minutes to go in the third quarter. The Celtics answered with an 11-4 run to close the frame, and shut the door on the Sixers once more early in the fourth, after the Sixers had clawed to within three, 81-78.
“We were there,” said Brown.
Ben Simmons, who tallied 15 points (6-14 fg, 3-4 ft), 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, felt the same way.
What tipped the scales in Boston’s favor?
“Less turnovers, and better defense,” the rookie said.
There was also the matter of Irving and Horford, who notched 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists.
“It’s disappointing in a sense when you do play that hard, you battle, and you lose,” said JJ Redick (17 pts, 4-6 3fg). “We fought, and gave ourselves a chance to win a game in the fourth quarter. You have to give [the Celtics] a lot of credit for the plays they made down the stretch, and their defense in that fourth quarter.”
And perhaps, contained in that statement, lies the underlying takeaway from the Sixers’ first visit to TD Garden of the regular season. As determined and persistent as they were, all while short on rest and bodies, a little bit more was still needed to pull off a win.
“The challenge is using that energy, and getting that fire back after a game the night before, which is always tough, but this is the NBA,” Simmons said, about 24 hours after the Sixers beat the Washington Wizards at The Center.
Arguably no person on the Sixers’ roster Thursday embodied a hard-fighting spirit more than Dario Saric. Continuing a productive stretch of play that began during the team’s recent homestand, the 23-year old Croatian manufactured his fourth double-double of the season, with 18 points and 10 rebounds (5 of those boards came on the offensive glass, and factored in the Sixers outscoring Boston 17-5 in second-chance points).
“I thought [Saric] was really good,” said Brown, who, in missing Embiid, tried to deploy Saric in post up scenarios more frequently.
Most of all, the head coach appreciated Saric’s ability and willingness to match Boston’s toughness and tenacity.
“You need every bit of that against this aggressive Celtics team,” Brown said, “so that you can go apples-for-apples with them, because that is a physical team.”
Saric, with four double-figure scoring outings in his last five appearances, expressed respect for Boston’s personnel, calling the C’s players “unbelievable,” and crediting them for being tough. He sensed the Sixers required a similar presence, and believes Boston’s attitude is one the Sixers should keep in mind.
“It’s hard to play against them,” said Saric. “I think our team, if we continue to play this tough and we present that every night, and we can [learn] from Boston, I think this team [Sixers] can be unbelievable.”
For the Sixers, it was an uphill climb for most of Thursday’s affair. Irving and Horford each reached double-digits by the end of the first quarter, and did their part to set the tone.
“Kyrie is obviously amazing,” said Redick, “but Horford probably doesn’t get enough credit. It’s almost like Horford is the sort of hub of everything they do, and because he’s so versatile, it creates all sorts of issues.”
The Sixers fell behind 54-44 at the break Thursday, before breaking through for their brief third-quarter lead. Boston, though, was able to overcome the Sixers’ push.
“We look forward to the growth of our own program, trying to move these guys forward, playing these guys more together,” Brown said afterwards. “I like what I’m seeing from a competitive standpoint as much as anything.”
Ben Simmons’ second basket of Thursday’s game was a beaut, as this sweet view from @NBA’s courtside cam shows.
Poetry in motion.
— NBA (@NBA) December 1, 2017
In the second quarter, Simmons delivered yet another highlight sequence.
Pick-s̶i̶x̶ two pic.twitter.com/hslwhGtnor
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 1, 2017
After a brief up-and-back trip to Beantown, the Sixers return to South Philadelphia to open another homestand, this one three games in length. By hosting the Detroit Pistons Saturday, they’ll also continue a challenging stretch of the schedule, in which they face a top-3 Eastern Conference opponent for the third time in four contests. The Sixers downed Detroit on October 23rd for their first win of the season. The Pistons, however, have been playing well the past month, and hold the second-place spot in the standings.