PHILADELPHIA — When the Celtics blitzed to the top of the Eastern Conference without their injured All-Star, Kemba Walker, there was a true sense of hope and opportunity. Walker would be back soon, and then anything would be possible.
But then the season was briefly derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with three postponements followed by Jayson Tatum’s absence due to a positive test. And the Celtics have not been the same since.
On Friday night they lost their third game in a row, 122-110, against the rival 76ers. No, Tatum was not there, but Boston feels like it should be able to win without him.
Afterward, for the first time this year, there was a true sense of frustration, with questions rising about a defense that is now ranked 21st in the NBA. Coach Brad Stevens said the Celtics were too haphazard. Jaylen Brown said they need to have more of a “villainous mentality.”
“If we’re gonna play the way we played, the way we’ve been playing, it’s just not going to work,” Walker said. “It hasn’t been good. It just hasn’t. It hasn’t reached the level that we know we can play at. We’ve just got to be better. That’s it.”
Brown did all he could, tying his career high with 42 points on 16-for 28-shooting, but it was not enough. Philadelphia star Joel Embiid followed up his 42-point outing in Wednesday’s win with 38.
The 76ers led, 101-89, before the Celtics unspooled a quick 8-0 run. And when Brown drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc with 4:45 left, Boston pulled within 103-100. But Ben Simmons converted a 3-point play at the other end and then came up with a steal and a dunk, igniting a 10-0 run that finished off the Celtics.
Observations from the game:
▪With Tatum out and Walker’s playing time still limited, Brown has been more than willing and able to take on the responsibilities of a primary scorer. He looks incredibly comfortable in every facet of his offensive game, and that’s leaving defenses with tough decisions. His mix of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, mid-range pull-ups, and daring drives to the rim thanks to his improved ball-handling have turned him into a true force. The Celtics have to be eager to finally have Brown, Tatum, and Walker on the floor together.
After this loss, though, Brown was in no mood to celebrate his offensive onslaught. Instead, he took the blame for some of Boston’s defensive deficiencies.
“Just really getting after guys, making them uncomfortable, rebounding, really making their life a living hell,” Brown said. “I can do that, while being great offensively at the same time. It’s a level of commitment and mentality, and I’m capable of it. I’m up for it. Can do more and I will do more.”
▪With just over three minutes left in the first quarter 76ers center Dwight Howard boxed out Brown, sending him tumbling toward the ground and into rookie guard Payton Pritchard’s right knee. Pritchard instantly fell to the floor and held his knee as he winced in pain. He ultimately went to the locker room with his arms draped over the shoulders of a pair of Boston medical staffers and was later diagnosed with a sprained knee.
Pritchard has been a bit of a revelation for the Celtics this season, helping guide them through some bumpy moments earlier in the year. If he is sidelined for an extended period it would certainly be a substantial loss, but the Celtics would be much more able to withstand it now that Walker is back.
Pritchard was sitting behind the bench in street clothes for much of the second half. Stevens did not have an update on Pritchard’s status after the game.
“I would assume that he’s out in the next couple of days,” he said. “I don’t know beyond that. I’m sure there are tests and stuff set up for [Saturday].”
▪Walker had his minutes restriction raised and he played a season-high 28:35. Once again, his burst was apparent, and it’s encouraging that he’s having no issues with the left knee that has caused so many problems. He finished with 19 points, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 3 rebounds. He made 7 of 9 2-pointers but just 1 of 7 threes.
“I’m still finding my way,” he said, “especially with the minutes I’m having, the way the games are going, I’m still trying to find my way. It’ll come. I wish I could’ve played a little better tonight.”
▪After Embiid took 21 free throws in the 76ers’ win on Wednesday, Marcus Smart criticized both the officiating and Embiid’s apparent theatrics that led to foul calls. Embiid figured that could have some impact Friday.
“I knew coming into the game, after they complained, I knew the officiating was going to be, you know, a little tight for us, and I guess better for them,” he said. “So, to me, before the game, I told myself and I told my teammates, ‘They’re not going to give us anything, but I’m going to make them call it.’”
The Celtics threw more consistent double teams in Embiid’s direction, particularly in the first half, when they limited him to seven shot attempts and five free throws. But in the second half he wore Boston down, pouring in 22 of his 38 points and going 10 for 10 from the line.
▪With 4:39 left in the third quarter, Brown drew Embiid’s fourth foul as he completed a three-point play. The ensuing free throw pulled Boston within 74-73, and there was a great opportunity when Embiid went to the bench for the rest of the quarter.
But instead of clawing back, Boston crumbled due to some shoddy play from its bench. The Celtics had just four turnovers in the game up to that point, but matched that number on its next four possessions, as the 76ers closed the quarter with a 17-7 run. It was a missed opportunity for Boston.
▪Stevens is still trying to find the best rotations for his big men. He once again started Grant Williams alongside center Tristan Thompson, keeping Daniel Theis on the bench. But then Theis entered midway through the first quarter to share the court with Thompson again.
Later in the quarter, Theis and Robert Williams were on the floor together during Boston’s 12-0 run, and Stevens clearly liked what he saw, because he put them back in at the same time midway through the second quarter.
Williams missed three games after testing positive for COVID-19 and was available on Wednesday but did not play. Stevens said afterward it would be challenging to find enough playing time for all three bigs. If the Theis and Robert Williams pairing works, it could provide a partial solution, but Stevens is clearly still looking for something that clicks. He even went back to the Theis/Thompson duo to start the second half.