PHILADELPHIA — Eight things I’m thinking about after the Celtics’ wild 110-107 win over the 76ers on Saturday night …
⋅ Al Horford is generally mild-mannered and soft-spoken, with a gentle smile he’d probably flash even if you spilled red wine on his carpet. But his countenance can be deceiving. He’s a ruthless competitor.
So Horford heard the boos and catcalls coming from the, well, lubricated 76ers fans. His 0 for 4 start appeared to give the hecklers the early edge, but they were fueling him.
“I like it,” he said late Saturday night, flashing a sly grin.
With the Celtics trailing by 13 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter, Horford drilled three 3-pointers over a 64-second stretch. The Celtics were no longer wobbling. Horford added two more 3-pointers before the game was over.
In 2019, Horford opted out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics to sign a four-year contract with Philadelphia, in large part because he considered it his best chance to win his first NBA title. But it was a forgettable 2019-20 season. He was a clunky fit alongside Joel Embiid and the season ended with the 76ers getting swept from the first round of the playoffs by Boston. There was some suggestion that Horford was finished.
Three years later, four months shy of his 37th birthday, he is starting for the team with the NBA’s best record. His returns to Philadelphia do not approach the Kyrie-in-TD-Garden vitriol, but the verbal pellets remain noticeable. On Saturday, Horford brushed aside the slow start in front of a ruthless crowd and had one of his finest moments of this season.
“Al, when he’s at this best, he’s confident and not passing up shots,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We can’t afford for him to.”
⋅ Derrick White had another sterling performance. He came off the bench and scored 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting and played excellent defense on 76ers star James Harden. The Celtics outscored Philadelphia by 25 points with White on the court for 25 minutes. By comparison, they were outscored by 26 during Marcus Smart’s 26 minutes.
For the second game in a row, though, White watched most of the game’s end from the bench. He was taken out with 5:20 left and returned only for Boston’s final offensive possession, which ended with Jayson Tatum’s game-winning 3-pointer.
The Celtics escaped with wins in both games, reducing any scrutiny, but one bad bounce here or there would invite bigger questions about why White, who was the best player on the floor for Boston on Saturday, was not there when it mattered most.
This is hardly just a mild hot streak for White, either. He ranks 16th in the NBA in FiveThirtyEight’s overall RAPTOR rating, an advanced metric that measures the number of points a player contributes to team offense and defense per 100 possessions, relative to a league-average player. Harden, Heat star Jimmy Butler, and the Bulls’ Alex Caruso are the only non-All Stars ahead of him.
⋅ Speaking of crunch time, the Celtics continue to feast in tense moments. They are 20-8 in games that are within 5 points in the final five minutes, and their plus-13.9 net rating in these situations trails only the Nuggets and Nets. Interestingly, the Celtics have thrived in the clutch by easing off the accelerator. They average 95.14 possessions per 48 minutes in these spots, the 28th-slowest clutch pace.
⋅ It wasn’t Smart’s finest night, but he deserves credit for being the conductor on the final play. When he received the sideline inbounds pass near the top of the key with 5.9 seconds left, he had a few options. The first was finding Tatum, who had come streaking in from the backcourt. DeAnthony Melton was blanketing Tatum, but he was face-guarding him, making it more difficult to see what was going on elsewhere. Smart slid a perfect bounce pass through a mail slot-size opening to Tatum’s far hand, and the All-Star took care of the rest.
“Marcus gave him a really good pass,” Horford said.
⋅ Not a big deal right now but worth keeping an eye on: Tatum has taken just two free throws in three of the Celtics’ last four games. He has thrived this year when aggressively attacking the basket, and that approach must continue.
⋅ Embiid’s 70-foot heave that followed Tatum’s game-winner was a remarkable shot. It just came a moment too late. Embiid said he was briefly disturbed by White, whose presence made him shift his body just enough to make time run out.
“Unfortunately,” Embiid said, “the story of my life.”
⋅ Jaylen Brown has played two games wearing a mask to protect his fractured cheekbone. Aside from the Batman look, though, there is no indication that anything is wrong. There are times he appears even more aggressive than he was before the injury. A good sign for Boston.
⋅ Tatum showed some brotherly love after drilling his game-winning 3-pointer, signing his jersey and giving it to Eagles star wide receiver DeVonta Smith. It probably didn’t make up for Philadelphia’s Super Bowl loss, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.
Brown will miss Monday night’s game in New York against the Knicks due to personal reasons. White (ankle) is probable.