Footage from the Celtics’ game against the 76ers on Wednesday will not end up in a museum anytime soon. But considering how this bumpy season has started, the Celtics are not seeking style points.
In the end, a messy night had a fulfilling end, as the Celtics escaped with an 88-87 victory when Robert Williams blocked a Georges Niang 3-point attempt at the final buzzer.
“Not really going to apologize for an ugly win,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It happens.”
While Williams’s play secured the win, Al Horford’s defense that preceded that shot may have been more essential.
As the 76ers looked to inbound the ball from their sideline with 6.1 seconds left, center Joel Embiid set a screen on Jaylen Brown, forcing Horford to switch onto Tobias Harris.
Horford swarmed Harris instantly and kept him from getting any momentum toward the rim. He forced Harris well beyond the arc, quickly turning a possession that started with plenty of time into something considerably more scattered.
Harris dribbled six times, and when Jayson Tatum came over to help, Harris flung a pass to Niang, whose attempt would have been close to a desperation heave even if Williams had not gotten a piece of it.
“I just wanted to make sure I put pressure on the ball and just kind of get the clock going, and rushed [Harris] a little bit,” Horford said, “and Rob made a great play with the block.”
Horford opted out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics after the 2018-19 season to sign a four-year contract with the 76ers, in large part because he viewed it as the clearest path to a potential championship. But late in the season he was often coming off the bench, and after the 76ers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Celtics, he was traded to the Thunder in a salary-clearing move.
When the buzzer sounded Wednesday, this win certainly appeared more meaningful to Horford. He raised both arms and hopped up and down before hugging Josh Richardson, a former 76ers teammate.
“I’m sure I was written off,” Horford said. “I’m just glad I got another opportunity in a place where I want to be.”
While Horford’s late defense on Harris will be one of the enduring images of this game, his play that preceded it wasn’t bad, either. He helped hold Embiid, the 76ers star, to 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting, and also registered five blocks.
Tatum had 26 points and a career-high 16 rebounds to lead the Celtics, who had their full roster available for just the sixth time this season. The contributions on the glass were not lost on Tatum, either.
Udoka said that when the All-Star forward started the game just 1 for 6 from the field, Udoka quipped that it would be nice if he could make a shot, and Tatum pointed out that he had at least grabbed nine rebounds already.
“We’re asking him to do a lot, defend, pass the ball, create for others and himself,” Udoka said.
The Celtics generally turn to Tatum when a game is on the line, but Dennis Schröder has claimed that role a couple of times this season, and Wednesday was another example.
With the Celtics leading, 84-82, Schröder took two shots and two free throws over the game’s final 90 seconds, and no other Celtic attempted any of either.
Tatum mostly shrugged off the notion that he was serving as a decoy, insisting that these final moments will just be based on matchups and potential double-teams.
“I guess more often than not it’s going to be in my hands,” he said, “but we play 82-something games in the regular season. It’s going to be some nights where you might need to space the floor, take the best defender out of the action and see what we get.”
Although this game was not exactly beautiful, it was close. The Celtics briefly held an early 12-point lead, but neither team led by more than 5 points after the first quarter.
With the score tied at 82 and 1:53 left, Tatum drilled a tough 20-footer from the right baseline as he was falling down.
Schröder added a pair of free throws before Embiid scored to pull Philadelphia within 86-84 with 54 seconds remaining.
Schröder then attacked for a layup that stretched Boston’s lead back to 4. After a timeout, Danny Green drilled a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key with 28.7 seconds left that made it 88-87. The timing was significant, because Philadelphia did not need to foul to get the ball back.
Schröder took a contested fadeaway from the foul line area and it was an airball, and the 76ers grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 6.1 seconds remaining.
But Boston’s defense, which held Philadelphia to 37.1 percent shooting, had been stout throughout the night, and Horford stepped forward and ensured that it would not wilt when things mattered most.
“Really dug in late in the game when we had to,” Udoka said, “and as you can see on that last play, guys scrambled around and defended at a high level.”