The Celtics front office has spent the past few days combing through potential deals in advance of Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline. The team is believed to be looking into ways to add a big man or bolster its wing depth, or perhaps even do both if the opportunity arises.
But it is worth remembering that this team has vaulted to the top of the NBA, and become the favorite to win the championship, with this current roster. And against the 76ers on Wednesday night, with starters Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and Al Horford sidelined, Jaylen Brown joining them after taking an inadvertent elbow to the face in the second quarter, and Jayson Tatum struggling to score, this team’s depth was on full display in a surprising 106-99 win.
There was Blake Griffin, getting a rare start and drilling five 3-pointers. There was Payton Pritchard, checking in for the first time in the fourth quarter and playing smothering defense. There was Sam Hauser coming off the bench and hitting all four of his 3-point attempts. There was Grant Williams, bodying and bothering the 76ers’ massive superstar, Joel Embiid, in the paint with few other options available to help. There was Luke Kornet, throwing down alley-oop dunks and swatting shots at the rim.
All five of those players could have their roles reduced if Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens makes a deal or two on Thursday. But on this night, the team’s depth was on full display, perhaps sending a message that reinforcements might not be needed.
“You can’t control where you’ll be, what you’re doing, what your playing time is,” Williams said. “You can only control how you react and how you approach every single day. And I think that’s what we have in this locker room: a bunch of guys who, no matter what’s going on around them, they do a great job of coming in with a great attitude and coming in with the right mentality of making the team better, no matter if they’re going to be here or not.”
Added Malcolm Brogdon: “Guys hear that stuff. Guys hear the chatter, guys hear the talking, and it motivates them. I think it motivated a few guys tonight, especially the big talk and the wing talk. But guys stepped up and really played their [butts] off.”
As satisfying as the win was for the Celtics, it may have come with a cost. According to a league source, Brown suffered a facial fracture when he took an inadvertent elbow to the face from Tatum when the two were chasing after an offensive rebound with 1:30 left in the second quarter.
The source said that the injury will likely force Brown to miss some games, but more will be determined after he undergoes further evaluation on Thursday.
It’s the latest setback for a Celtics team that has had to navigate some injury issues recently. Smart on Wednesday missed his eighth game in a row with a sprained ankle, and Horford (knee swelling) and Robert Williams (ankle) were late scratches.
In most cases, those absences would require a heroic effort from Tatum for the Celtics to have any chance of toppling a fellow Eastern Conference power. But Tatum was held to a season-low 12 points on 5 for 15 shooting.
Boston prevailed thanks to its scorching long-range shooting. It connected on 19 of 35 attempts, a season-high 54.3 percent. Players other than Tatum and Brown combined to go 18 for 26 (69.2 percent). Contributions came from all corners.
“I think we go into situations like this with the utmost trust and comfortability because of our depth and the character of our guys,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And so Payton, Blake, the whole crew, you can always count on them.”
With just over eight minutes left, Derrick White (19 points) soared in and swatted away a Tobias Harris fast-break dunk attempt, leading to a Hauser 3-pointer at the other end that gave Boston a 95-85 lead.
But the Celtics then went more than five minutes without a point, with Tatum unable to find a rhythm with his jumper. The 76ers hit a pair of 3-pointers during a gradual 7-0 run, then appeared to be in good position to make a stop when the ball went out of bounds with 0.5 seconds on the shot clock. But Mazzulla called a timeout and drew up a lob pass to Kornet, whose dunk ended Boston’s drought.
With the Celtics clinging to a 100-97 lead, White drilled a 3-pointer from the left arc with 2:09 left that stretched the lead to 6. Boston then forced a pair of misses before Tatum essentially finished off the win by converting a runner with 35.9 seconds left that made it 105-97.
“I thought everybody that touched the floor tonight played well,” Brogdon said. “It’s really that simple.”
Embiid had 28 points and James Harden added 26 for the 76ers. It is just one game during a long slog of a season, but it felt like one that could stick with Philadelphia if these teams meet again.