PHILADELPHIA — Jayson Tatum couldn’t help but smile after sinking the winning 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left Saturday night. It had been that dreadful night for the All-Star MVP; at times he appeared uninterested, at times resigned that he wasn’t himself.
Instead of benching his cornerstone, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla inserted Tatum back in the game with 5:20 left and Boston up 7. It was the ultimate sign of confidence, an indication that Mazzulla knew Tatum would make at least one play, would become reinvigorated after his three-quarter stupor to uplift his team.
He took a pass from Marcus Smart, dribbled from side to side quickly enough to create space from De’Anthony Melton and then swish. Tatum, who never hesitates to admit when he’s played poorly, never too prideful to reveal his errors or miscues, knew he had arrived just in time.
“Obviously I wasn’t playing well or shooting the ball well but I always shoot the ball with confidence and believe the next one is going in, no matter what,” Tatum said. “It’s a shot I worked on 1,000 times before. I wasn’t surprised at all. It’s a perfect story, right? Tie game, five seconds left, I haven’t been shooting well, come through for the guys when we needed it the most.”
Boston’s 110-107 win was more a damage to the Philadelphia psyche than a boost to the Celtics’ confidence. Boston is already convinced it can win a difficult road game, it has already beaten the 76ers three times.
It was Philadelphia looking to make a statement Saturday at Wells Fargo Center after winning 14 of its past 17 games. The 76ers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, led by as many as 9 points in the first half and 15 in the second. Yet, it wasn’t good enough.
Joel Embiid scored 41 points with 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocked shots. Still not good enough. The 76ers attempted 35 free throws to the Celtics’ 12. Still not good enough.
This nationally televised showcase was hyped as an opportunity for the 76ers to prove they belonged among the Celtics and Bucks as the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
And as many aforementioned advantages they had, including a putrid offensive night from Tatum, they fell short.
“If we won by 40 tonight, what does that mean?” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “If we don’t win, what does that mean? It means tonight we were not good enough. There’s some nights where you are good enough and you just don’t perform well enough. But you do want to play well against them.
“They are the team to beat in the East. They won the East, so that’s the team you have to beat, so the more you do that, the better it is for you.”
The 76ers have proven formidable at home and when facing inferior opponents but against the likes of the Celtics and Bucks, they need someone besides Embiid and James Harden to respond. That’s been their biggest issue.
On Saturday, Tobias Harris, one of the keys to any Philadelphia title run, scored 12 points in the opening period and 7 in the final three. Harris is far from the player Tatum is. But they play the same position and despite his offensive malaise (18 points on 17 shots, 5 turnovers), Tatum still found another way to help his team win. He outrebounded Harris 13-0. He out-assisted Harris 6-1.
In a game in which possessions were precious, the 76ers lacked the supporting cast to aid Embiid. Harden scored 21 points but it required 16 shots, but he was helped by nine free throw attempts. Tyrese Maxey had his moments but Philadelphia remains a two-man team, and that’s a concern for Rivers.
The Celtics used their depth to prevail. Al Horford hit five second-half 3-pointers. Derrick White continued his sparkling play by helping the Celtics climb out of a 15-point second-half deficit.
Jaylen Brown was the best player on the floor for the Celtics, scoring 26 points but also collecting a key steal of Embiid and emphatic dunk as well as a stellar pass to Robert Williams to complete a fast break. The Celtics are a better team than Philadelphia because they are deeper, more cohesive, and more confident.
“Humility and trust, that’s going to be the nature of our team as we continue to grow,” Mazzulla said. “And regardless of how [Tatum] is playing, he’s going to be ready to execute the next play. I thought Jaylen did a great job in that second stint. He won the minutes when he was out there because of his offense in transition and his defensive execution.”
Saturday’s game meant just as much for the Celtics as for the 76ers in the standings. Boston is now a full game ahead of Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference. But Mazzulla’s team has already proven it’s one of the NBA’s best with its work through the first three-fourths of the season. Health will be the lone obstacle as the playoffs approach. The 76ers are still trying to escape the pretender tag, still trying to prove they are a team capable of winning three playoff rounds and reaching the NBA Finals.
Last year, they were eliminated by the Miami Heat in six games, losing the final two games by a combined 44 points. This season they are a combined 1-4 against the Bucks and Celtics. In other words, Philadelphia has beaten up on the below-average teams and been inconsistent against the elite teams. Saturday was a chance to change that perception and they fell short again.
“You just tell them, we’ll live with that shot,” Rivers said. “There’s things we can do better and we’re right there. This doesn’t change anything for us. Stay encouraged. We’re right there. When you’re Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, you know one thing: You could miss 15 shots in the first half, you’re going to get 20 more in the second half. That’s not going to change.”