BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 6: T.J. McConnell #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball against Terry Rozier #12 of the Boston Celtics during a game on January 6, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Recap: Celtics Outlast Sixers, 110-106

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

BOSTON, MA - The 76ers delivered a first half Friday that was without a doubt complete, and, at times, dominant. The problem was, they found themselves on the road against one of the top second-half teams in the NBA.

Boston backed up its clutch reputation, emerging from a significant hole to rally for a 110-106 victory at T.D. Garden.

After being held to just two points between the first and second quarters, All-Star big man Al Horford rose to the occasion in crunch time. He nailed a decisive 3-pointer with 17.2 seconds to go that gave the Celtics a lead that wouldn’t be relinquished.

The C’s comeback spoiled the Sixers’ 11-point lead at intermission.

“I think it was a good game for us,” Brett Brown said afterwards. “There was a lot of good things that came out of it. You’re on the road, you’re against the sixth-best team in the NBA. Performance, I thought, for the most part was solid. There are a few things you’d like to have back, but in general I’m proud of our group.”

In particular, Boston’s production from the perimeter was problematic. The Celtics unloaded 19 threes, their highest total in team history.

“They needed every one of those 19 threes, and I give them credit,” said Brown. “Obviously, the game is different if they didn’t shoot as well as they did.

Horford’s go-ahead long-distance deposit was one of the four 3-pointers he buried in a fourth quarter that saw him pump out 14 of his 19 points. He ended up being a tricky cover, one that would leave Joel Embiid with valuable rookie lessons to learn.

“I think that’s a challenge for Joel Embiid, guarding a stretch five,” said Brown. “You got a 7-2 rookie that’s having to figure out Al Horford picking and popping, and it’s one of the dilemmas.”

“I thought they did the pick-and-roll really well, holding the ball really well,” Embiid said. “Horford got away, and just getting the easy shots. He was one of their guards that did a good job on the pick-and-rolls.”

Embiid, for his own part, was again a vital presence for the Sixers, especially late. After Isaiah Thomas hit a three to put Boston up by four, 103-99, with just over two minutes to go, Embiid roared back down the floor, quieting the sellout crowd of 18,624 by throwing down a powerful one-handed dunk.

Following a free throw from Thomas, Embiid notched a key block, which set up Gerald Henderson for a trey that knotted the tilt at 104-104 with one minute, 24 seconds left. The Episcopal Academy product then returned the favor, turning aside an Avery Bradley 3-point attempt from the corner that ultimately led to a pair of go-ahead foul shots for Embiid.

The Sixers held a narrow 106-104 margin, but Horford still had one timely triple left in him. Boston closed the night on a 6-point run.

“Horford was, to me, the real killer,” said Brown, while also acknowledging the output generated by the Celtics’ potent backcourt tandem of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. The duo combined for 50 points, tallying 24 and 26 points, respectively.

“It’s a tremendous learning situation for Joel, guarding a very unusual type of five-man, and I give Al credit, and I reference the importance of Joel learning from this.”

Embiid wound up registering 23 points and eight boards, both of which were team-high totals. The 22-year old’s status for Friday’s trip was a question mark hours before the Sixers flew from Philadelphia to Boston, due to a case of gastroenteritis.

“I feel alright,” Embiid said after Friday’s game. “It’s funny, because every time I get sick, that’s when I have a good game, or I have a good first half, so hopefully I get sick more often and just come in and play.”

Embiid finished 10 for 10 from the foul line.

Without Sergio Rodriguez (left ankle sprain) for a third straight game, T.J. McConnell was again the lone true point guard at the Sixers’ disposal, and they needed every bit of him against a foe known for its relentless perimeter defense.

All in all, McConnell shined. In a game-high 36 minutes, he handed out 17 assists, becoming just the fourth player in franchise history to hit that mark in a single contest. His total was two off the Sixers’ all-time record of 19 helpers, initially set by Maurice Cheeks in 1987, and later matched by Dana Barros in 1995.

“I thought our pace was tremendous in the first half, just getting the ball and getting it up the floor quick,” said McConnell, who committed only two turnovers while scoring nine points. “When we do that, we are a dangerous team.”

Of note was that McConnell cited the Sixers’ performance in the first 24 minutes of Friday’s game. The case could be made it was the Sixers’ most well-rounded half of the season, considering the caliber of opponent, and that the Sixers were in hostile territory.

From the opening tip to the intermission horn, the Sixers were balanced offensively, connecting on 53.7 percent of their field goal tries, going 6 for 14 from 3-point territory, and hammering out points inside the lane. On the defensive end, they were aggressive, and opportunistic.

Entering the evening, Boston averaged fewer than 13 turnovers per game. The Sixers forced 11 Celtic cough-ups in the first half, converting those giveaways into 13 points.

Embiid specifically was a force, racking up 17 points by the break. At that stage of the game, it was he, not Horford, who had the upper hand (Horford, however, did not spend much time guarding Embiid. He was primarily defended by the rugged Amir Johnson).

Embiid’s efforts were audibly appreciated by the Sixers fans in attendance. He was showered with multiple “Trust the Process” chants throughout the tilt.

“They were actually pretty loud,” Embiid said of the cheers. “It’s impressive. Boston is supposed to be our rival. For the fans to come out and just chant ‘Trust the Process’ so loud, it was amazing.”

The tide began to turn against the Sixers in the third quarter, when Boston, the league’s second-highest scoring second-half team, won the frame, 28-17. The C’s subsequently put up 32 points in the fourth.

“I thought we shot away a little bit of [pace] in the fourth quarter, and that was probably the difference in my pace, and a few defensive breakdowns,” assessed McConnell.

Carrying a 62-51 lead into the locker room, the Sixers were the fourth team this year to hang 60 first half points on Boston. They also obliterated the Celtics in the paint, 30-6.

Nerlens Noel was an important part of the Sixers’ successful interior attack overall. He manufactured 13 points (6-8 fg) and a season-high eight rebounds in 24 minutes, another season-high figure.

The only juncture of Friday’s game in which Embiid and Noel were used together came in the final two minutes, 47 seconds of the first quarter. The Sixers outscored Boston by one during this stretch. Neither Jahlil Okafor nor Richaun Holmes played Friday.

Making his first appearance in four games, Henderson (6-9 fg, 2-3 3fg) seemed fresh. He had been on the shelf because of lingering left hip soreness, and netted 18 points. Ersan Ilyasova (8-21 fg, 4-14 fg) turned in his seventh 20-point showing of the season.

Friday’s setback snapped the Sixers’ modest two-game win streak.

Sixers Social:
The Sixers are being accompanied on their two-game weekend road trip by a special guest. It’s the first time this season this person, the 2016 number one pick has travelled with the team, and, in what represented another first, he appeared on-court during pre-game warm-ups to pass to some of his teammates. 

Up Next:
The Sixers will conclude a stretch of playing six out of seven games on the road with a 12:00 PM EST Sunday matinee at Barclays Center versus Brooklyn. The two Atlantic Division foes first met on December 18th at The Center, with the Sixers prevailing narrowly, 108-107. The Nets lost by eight points to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers Friday, and have now dropped 10 of their last 11 outings.