ORLANDO — It happened again. The Celtics were dominating an opponent, toying with them in stretches, and suddenly started fooling around too much and let a double-digit lead slip away.
It’s a troubling characteristic of this team, one of the primary reasons they lost out on the No. 2 seed to the Toronto Raptors. But this was Game 1 of the playoffs, against their archrival Philadelphia 76ers, who clawed back with a stirring 15-0 run to take a 6-point lead early in the fourth.
There have been times this season when the Celtics struggled with prosperity and it cost them dearly. This time, however, in their first postseason game with no fans and on a neutral floor, they responded like elite teams do.
Despite a painful quadriceps bruise sustained in a collision with mammoth center Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown used his savvy and will to spark a game-changing 17-5 run as the Celtics prevailed, 109-101, win at The Field House.
The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series, 1-0, with Game 2 Wednesday.
It would have been a painful loss if the Celtics had blown this one. Philadelphia is without All-Star guard/forward Ben Simmons and honestly looked befuddled at times against the Celtics defense.
There are some basketball experts who have picked the Celtics to win the Eastern Conference, despite perhaps the most challenging first-round opponent of any of the top four teams. Boston played like that team most of the night, save for a 5:05 scoreless stretch that allowed Philadelphia to claw back.
Yet, good teams respond to adversity. They answer runs. They restore order. Without Gordon Hayward, who sprained his right ankle and could miss a few games, the Celtics were able to pull away and get a critical win.
What’s interesting about all these playoff series is there is no home-court advantage, just up to seven games of pure basketball. So there is no concern about going back to Philly. The Celtics have a chance to dominate this series with the right moves. They held the 76ers to 26.1 percent shooting in the fourth quarter. All-Star Embiid missed four of his five shots.
They turned the 76ers into a bunch of uncertain shooters, relegated to going one-on-one. The Celtics were the better team, aside from that stretch late in the third quarter.
“We gotta get better at that,” Stevens said of the lackadaisical play. “I thought we really made great strides against Brooklyn and Toronto in the seeding games where we just kept going. We need to keep going, no matter good or bad. I’m really happy with the way we responded when we were down but there were three or four times where we were up 10 or 11 and it got cut to 3 or 4. We gotta be better than that.”
Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 61 points and 19 rebounds, while Kemba Walker scored 11 of his 19 points in the pivotal fourth quarter.
The Celtics have been claiming since they got down to the bubble that they were a tougher team than they had been, learning about themselves during the four-month break and realizing they have to be more consistent during games. They didn’t want to be a front-running team. They wanted to be a team that finished off opponents, withstanding runs and then coming back with timely, big plays.
“Those dudes are super-special talents,” Walker said of Brown and Tatum. “Every big moment they made big plays. Whenever we needed a big play, they made it. It’s just fun to watch, fun to be part of their growth.”
It was a much-needed test for the Celtics. And they know they have two cornerstones to lean on down the stretch. Brown was again soaring with confidence when the game was being decided. He has perhaps made the biggest mental jump during the restart, proving several times he can be relied upon to score a pivotal bucket.
In a game-changing sequence, he drained a tying 3-pointer with 8:34 left and then moments after attacked former Celtic Al Horford near the basket and Horford had no choice but to allow a dunk or grab Brown. He chose the latter and picked up a flagrant foul. Brown followed with two free throws and then another two after getting fouled on the next possession.
That stretch gave the Celtics the lead for good.
“You get with adversity, you gotta respond,” Brown said. “You can’t look around; you gotta get up and fight. That’s what we did when they went on that run.”
The Celtics won despite shooting just 42.2 percent, getting 8 points from the bench, and dealing with injuries to Brown and Hayward. They accepted that Embiid would make a major impact (26 points, 16 rebounds) but provided enough resistance that he was unable to make an impact in the final minutes.
Boston finished off this game as if it has learned painful lessons from past blown leads, and this should provide more than enough confidence to take control of this series in the next two games.
“I’m super confident, I believe in my team, my coaching staff, organization, all the way through,” Brown said. “If we continue to play basketball how we know we could play basketball, we could be here for a while.”