PHILADELPHIA — Three consecutive wins meant nothing for the Celtics in their matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. The first quarter Friday showed they may not be ready for such challenges.
After generating momentum with consecutive wins over Indiana, including a runaway Wednesday, the Celtics were sent back to reality at Wells Fargo Center. Boston yielded a 28-4 first-quarter run, committed turnovers and technicals, and were never close in a 111-99 loss to their rivals.
The Celtics actually led, 10-4, in the first four minutes before the 76ers went on that 24-point run. Boston responded by reverting to bad habits, lacking ball movement and settling for 3-pointers.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, coming off a game in which they each scored 30-plus points, struggled mightily. They were a combined 14-for-35 shooting for 41 points, many of those scored when the 76ers had a comfortable lead.
“It got away pretty quickly after those first few good looks we got,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We hadn’t had one of these in a while. Credit them defensively. We just weren’t sharp on both ends of the court, but I look at it as more of an aberration. We’ve been competitive in most games.”
Payton Pritchard was the lone bright spot, scoring 17 points in 24 minutes. Dennis Schröder, coming off a 23-point game at Indiana, scored 1 point Friday, his lowest output in more than five years.
The Celtics rallied to shoot 64 percent in the second half but it hardly mattered because turnovers and defensive breakdowns ruined any chance for a late rally. Philadelphia scored 31 points off 20 Boston turnovers and Matisse Thybulle harassed the Celtics defensively with five steals.
“This was a tough night,” Tatum said. “We’ve had some nights where we started slow but most of the time we give ourselves a chance. But for whatever reason, we started slow and weren’t really able to cut the lead down and give ourselves a chance. It started with the first unit. It started with myself. We had just way too many turnovers.”
The defensive emphasis was on containing All-Star center Joel Embiid and he had a matter-of-fact 25 points on 7-for-15 shooting. The issue was point guard Tyrese Maxey, who completely outplayed his counterpart Schröder and scored 23 points on a career high-tying five 3-pointers.
Each time the Celtics pushed the lead to under 15, the 76ers would respond with a backbreaking 3-pointer or Embiid would drain a midrange jumper.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys ready to play against a tough opponent, a rival,” Udoka said. “They were obviously coming off a loss and played a little harder than we did. It’s on me. With the start, you make them aware of what [Philadelphia] has out there, two elite defenders. I think that really affected us.”
Udoka said the Celtics were daunted by Embiid’s rim protection and Thybulle reading passing lanes and getting steals.
“Sometimes it don’t hurt to be aggressive,” Tatum said. “That opens things up as well. Especially at the beginning of the game, that’s what was wrong, especially from my standpoint. I’ve got to be a little more aggressive. I was a little too passive.”
Desperate for a spark, Udoka implemented a 2-3 zone defense that slowed down the 76ers in the third quarter, but the margin was too great for any significant rally. The Celtics cut a 20-point deficit to 14 on a few occasions but the 76ers simply dumped the ball in to Embiid who burned single coverage with short jumpers.
The turnover issue continued as Boston had 15 through the first three quarters, including a steal and dunk by Thybulle. As he soared for the dunk, Thybulle was shoved in the backside by Schröder, causing Thybulle to fall hard on his back. Schröder was called for a flagrant foul.
It was one of the worst statistical nights of Schrõder’s career. His 1 point was his lowest total since Nov. 20, 2016. He also finished with 2 assists, 2 turnovers, and 1 rebound in 25 minutes.
After the flagrant foul, Thybulle came back with a 3-pointer for a 67-45 lead. The Celtics tried chipping away but Maxey dribbled through the Boston defense for a backhanded layup and an 83-66 lead after the third.
The Celtics looked as if they were ready to play in the first four minutes, jumping out to a 10-4 lead as Tatum splashed a 3-pointer and looked engaged. Then suddenly, the scoring stopped and the bungling Celtics returned with a vengeance, determined to botch any chances for victory.
The 76ers responded with their game-changing run, scoring at will on most possessions. The strategy was simple. The 76ers passed the ball around until they found a mismatch and that player generally scored on his Celtics defender with ease.
Offensively, Boston couldn’t get off a clean shot against the Philadelphia zone. Tatum committed five of his seven turnovers in the first half, throwing lazy passes when he was blitzed by defenders.
The Celtics finished the opening quarter with 6-for-18 shooting with eight turnovers. Tatum picked up two early fouls and appeared irritated the entire night. The inability to make open shots resulted in a stunning streak of one basket in a stretch of 8:09 before Pritchard scored a layup with 2.1 seconds left in the period.
There were hopes the Celtics were ready for one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but they looked unprepared for prime time.
“We’ve been really competitive this year and[Friday] is not the norm with us,” Udoka said. “We don’t love the [first quarter] start. You look at the positive, you learn some things. You have to scratch it as a one-off because we haven’t had too many of these.”