fb-pixelJayson Tatum was struggling in front of a hostile Philadelphia crowd. But in the biggest moment, the Celtics star delivered. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
CELTICS 110, 76ERS 107

Jayson Tatum was struggling in front of a hostile Philadelphia crowd. But in the biggest moment, the Celtics star delivered.

After hitting just two of his first eight 3-point attempts, Jayson Tatum sank the one that mattered most.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Celtics forward Jayson Tatum has a routine during late-game timeouts. When he is sitting on the bench, usually getting prepared for a game’s defining moment, he waits for either Malcolm Brogdon or Grant Williams to come and help him up.

On Saturday, with the score tied and 5.9 seconds left in a wild and rowdy game against the 76ers, Williams was the one who walked over and extended a hand. And Tatum, who had struggled for much of the game, made a forceful and confident declaration.

“It’s game time,” Tatum told Williams. “We’re going home.”

“All right,” Williams responded. “Let’s go home.”

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Coach Joe Mazzulla drew up a play that he stole from former Celtics coach Brad Stevens, in which Tatum comes darting in from the backcourt with a full head of steam, hoping to catch a defense on its heels. The inbounds pass came to Marcus Smart, who quickly found Tatum, who pulled up and calmly drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1.3 seconds left.

76ers star Joel Embiid’s full-court heave slid through the net just after the final buzzer, helping the Celtics escape with a 110-107 win.

“I know how good I am,” Tatum said. “I know what I can do. You play 82 games and know it’s not going to be perfect. But I want to win more than anything.”

The 76ers are just 1-8 in playoff games against the Celtics over the last five seasons. They entered Saturday night’s showdown 0-2 against Boston this year, including a disheartening setback earlier this month when the Celtics were without starters Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Smart.

So on Saturday, playing in front of a rowdy crowd, with a 15-point third-quarter lead, with Embiid erupting and Tatum scuffling, there was a sense that if Philadelphia did not find a way to win, it would not anytime soon. Then it unraveled.

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With the win, the Celtics avoided falling percentage points behind the Bucks atop the Eastern Conference standings. Boston also clinched the tiebreaker against the third-place 76ers, who trail the Celtics by four games with just 21 remaining in the regular season.

Tatum finished with 18 points — nearly 13 below his season average — and five turnovers, but all that will be remembered is his dagger from the top of the key.

“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. “Shoot the right shot.”

Embiid’s attempt at a rebuttal was fired up from inside Boston’s 3-point line. The crowd erupted when it went in. Tatum had already turned and assumed the win was locked up when he saw Embiid take a dribble, but a slice of doubt briefly crept in. It quickly became clear that it was too late, though, flipping the fans’ glee to stunned silence in an instant.

Embiid finished with 41 points and 12 rebounds, but surely an empty feeling, as well. Jaylen Brown had 26 points to lead the Celtics, and Derrick White was dominant off the bench, with 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting, as well as strong defense on 76ers guard James Harden.

Al Horford had 15 points but probably saved Boston. With the Celtics facing a double-digit deficit late in the third quarter, he connected on three 3-pointers over a 64-second span. He hit two more in the second half, including a big one from the left arc with 1:38 left.

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“He was 0 for 4 and got three great looks in that first half,” Mazzulla said. “So you have to have the ability to withstand some of those, and Al, when he’s at his best, he’s confident and not passing up shots. We can’t afford for him to. I thought he did a good job just staying poised and taking the shots that were there.”

Saturday’s last-second victory comes on the heels of Thursday’s overtime survival against the Pacers. The positive results could be masking some underlying flaws, but it’s hard to quibble too much with a team that is now 44-17 and atop the NBA.

“Our guys have been there,” Mazzulla said, “have been through it all.”

The night was filled with big runs and big swings, and the Celtics’ second-half flurry flipped a 15-point third-quarter deficit into a 95-85 lead in the fourth. But tense moments remained.

Boston went more than three minutes without a point, as the 76ers used an 8-0 flurry to push within 97-95. Embiid continued to punish the smaller Celtics defenders in the paint, either drawing fouls or firing tough jumpers over them.

His fadeaway with 2:20 left pulled the 76ers within 102-101, and Tyrese Maxey broke free for a fast-break layup to give them a 103-102 lead. Horford once again had an answer, though, calmly hitting a 3-pointer from the left arc to put Boston back in front.

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Tatum tipped in a Williams miss to give the Celtics a 4-point lead, but a Harden layup was followed by a Tatum airball, giving the 76ers possession with 22.1 seconds left. Embiid was fouled with 10.8 seconds remaining and hit both free throws, tying the score at 107.

But after a timeout with 5.9 seconds left, Tatum received the pass from Smart in the backcourt and went to work, helping the Celtics remain in first place in the East, and surely damaging the confidence of this 76ers squad.

“Regardless of how he’s playing,” Mazzulla said of Tatum, “he’s going to be ready to execute that next play.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.