PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics were forced to pass time during the Joel Embiid pre-game MVP Party at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers turned Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals into a mini-tribute as the NBA presented Embiid with his long-awaited MVP trophy.
It was well-deserved. Embiid enjoyed a stellar season as the league’s most dominant player. But that’s where the kudos stopped for the Celtics. While Embiid was tearing up with his young son in his arms, the Celtics players were in the locker room, anticipating the opportunity to take control of the series.
They were focused, understanding the galvanized Philadelphia crowd wanted the basketball version of blood after celebrating their hero. The ceremony and atmosphere did little to impact the Celtics intensity or concentration.
“It didn’t affect us, we were locked in,” Al Horford said.
“We were locked in,” Malcolm Brogdon said.
The Celtics weren’t perfect Friday or as flawless as their Game 2 win, but they were the better team, staving off Philadelphia rallies until sending those once frenzied fans home with critical plays when it counted. The Celtics team that was left furious after blowing Game 1 turned themselves into the team they wanted.
The 114-102 win was the best team effort of the season. Jaylen Brown kept the Celtics ahead with big third-quarter buckets. Brogdon countered a big Philadelphia three with one of his own, and after an erratic offensive night, once-time MVP candidate Jayson Tatum scored 7 consecutive points during a 14-6 run.
It’s not that the players expected a raucous road atmosphere, they relished the opportunity to play here. They seized the chance to show they could follow their blowout win with another strong performance, this time against a more productive and nimble Embiid.
“That’s the fun part of the playoffs is playing on the road,” Tatum said. “The environment was electric tonight. Embiid got his MVP trophy. You could feel the energy. Just being a competitor, you like being part of games like that.”
Tatum may have been personally motivated by Embiid’s ceremony. He said Friday morning he’d like to win an MVP eventually, saying he’s got at least a decade left in his career. But that individual award is a definite goal for Tatum, and he watched Embiid raise the trophy from the Celtics locker room. That unquestionably served as motivation.
“It got me really ready to play,” said Tatum, who led the Celtics with 27 points. “The energy from the crowd in the building. I’m happy for him. He earned it. He deserved it. But I was just focused on trying to win tonight.”
There was anxiety in Boston when Embiid announced he was coming back from a knee injury after Philadelphia’s stunning Game 1 win at TD Garden. There was concern that Embiid’s presence along with a vintage James Harden would be too much for the Celtics to handle.
Instead, the players, with key adjustments from Joe Mazzulla, have retaken the momentum in this series with their relentlessness. They responded to every run, took the lead at the 8 minute, 34 mark of the second period and never gave it up.
Embiid had 30 points but never looked completely comfortable. Harden’s performance was bizarre, as he passed up open shots, reluctantly attempted others and looked frazzled, despite playing in his 156th postseason game.
The Celtics thrived in this atmosphere. They carried over their defensive principles from Game 3, shutting down the paint and forcing the 76ers to rely on 3-point shooting to stay close. It almost worked. More than half their second-half field goals were threes.
But Embiid’s impact, on his big night, was reduced to the emotion and gratitude he displayed pregame. The MVP did not play like an MVP.
“They did their job and won on our home court,” guard Marcus Smart told the Globe. “We wanted to come back and give them one that they deserved. We had to get our lick back in a sense and tonight was no different. We were on a mission. They were coming out to celebrate the MVP, and rightfully so, and it was our job to come in and spoil that night for them.”
The Celtics realized how pivotal Game 3 was. They knew Embiid would be better. They knew Philadelphia would be rocking. They knew their pattern would be to struggle with prosperity after the Game 2 win.
They responded with pivotal plays, such as a Tatum rebound or an Al Horford 3-pointer or Grant Williams returning to the game after Embiid literally smashed his head with his size-17 foot during a scramble with a little more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
A bloodied Williams returned shortly thereafter. Earlier, Robert Williams bruised his right forearm diving in front of the Celtics’ bench to save a possession in the second half. Friday required toughness and hustle plays and the Celtics surpassed the 76ers in that category. They were the tougher team. They were the more motivated team.
“They’ve been here before,” Mazzulla said. “The way they communicate to each other is most important. You’ve got to know what you’re going up against. It’s them. They stick together. We’re playing against a great team. Our expectation is just to win the game, weather storms and handle adversity. Every possession is a round and an opportunity.”