PHILADELPHIA — There were times where the old Celtics were fully present Wednesday, taking quick shots when they held a sizeable lead, wasting possessions with a contested 3-pointer, or whipping a difficult pass instead of a sound one.
However, the Celtics abandoned their recent troublesome pattern of attempting late-game heroics and instead relied on the workmanlike duo of Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass to secure a much-needed victory and avoid embarrassment against the league's only winless team.
Sullinger scored 11 points in the final 5:56 as the Sixers were creeping back and finished with 22 as the Celtics posted a 101-90 win at Wells Fargo Center, dropping Philadelphia to 0-11.
Bass, averaging just 6.7 points per game, scored a season-high 23 on 9-for-13 shooting with six rebounds. He was often the beneficiary of crisp Rajon Rondo passes as he rolled toward the basket. On a night when Kelly Olynyk was uneven following a scoreless performance Monday, the Celtics needed Bass.
And the Celtics needed a game that wasn't decided by the last possession. The 76ers, as expected, were scrappy, spending the fourth quarter making mini-runs.
Henry Sims's jumper cut Boston's lead to 84-79 with 6:20 left before Sullinger responded with a layup and putback, then Bass added a jumper to make it more comfortable. Finally, brimming with confidence, Sullinger received a Rondo pass off a pick-and-roll and hit the sealing 3-pointer.
"Coach challenged us at halftime to play harder, smarter, faster, and more physical and that's what we did," Sullinger said. "Shots were falling. I was in the right spot at the right time. I think the last couple of games I've been on the block a lot more, just playing in the paint, the outside shot is not falling like it's supposed to, so you go in the paint and get easy buckets."
Down the stretch, the Celtics refrained from launching 3-pointers, which has been their pattern. They entered 10th in the NBA in 3-point attempts but just 20th in makes, so the emphasis in the waning minutes was interior play.
"The best part of [the win] is the way we played when things got stressful," Stevens said. "And the simplicity we played with. What I liked about it was the recognition and the ball movement to the post feeds. We made good reads all the way until the point where we got the ball in the post. Once you see that ball go in a couple of times up close, it's more likely to go in from afar."
Bass helped the Celtics create some separation in the third quarter, streaking to the basket or hitting his reliable midrange jumper. He was coming off an 0-for-5 effort Monday against Phoenix and had played 20 or more minutes just twice in the previous nine games. But he was sparkling in his 32 minutes, helping the Celtics maintain a lead for the final 19 minutes.
"I know it was an very important night for us," Bass said. "Philadelphia was desperate for a win and we knew they were going to come out and play hard."
The Celtics freely acknowledged they didn't want to be Philadelphia's first victim and the lead story on the highlight shows. They don't want that kind of publicity, and they took the Sixers seriously because three of the 76ers' 19 wins last season came against the Celtics.
Philadelphia shot 48 percent in the first quarter and actually led, 35-26, after Robert Covington's 3-pointer early in the second quarter. That's when the Celtics began to increase their defensive intensity after allowing Philadelphia to dominate the offensive boards.
Brett Brown's team is considered a bunch of mostly no-names highlighted by Boston-area products Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, but Stevens warned his team that the 76ers were close to beating the Rockets and Bulls. The key for the Celtics was not allowing the 76ers to gain any confidence after they went into halftime tied at 46-46.
Philadelphia's offense became stagnant in the second half with reserve guard Tony Wroten or Carter-Williams trying to create off the dribble. They were a combined 6 for 16 shooting after halftime with zero offensive rebounds.
Wroten led the 76ers with 21 points but he needed 19 shots, and Carter-Williams warmed up early in the fourth quarter but finished with just 11. The 76ers shot 36 percent over the final three quarters. The Celtics entered Wednesday having allowed an average of 29 points in the final period. The 76ers scored 22 in the fourth on 7-for-18 shooting.
The Celtics managed to avoid embarrassment and notch an important victory in one fell swoop.
"I've been doing my scouting reports, so I know a lot of the guys," Rondo said. "They're a young team. You don't want to be that guy and in this case you don't want to be that team. We're glad this is over and we avoided being the first team they would get a win [against]. We needed to get a win ourselves. We didn't want to be that team."