The Celtics certainly have their challenges and shortcomings, but they are paper cuts compared to the Philadelphia 76ers’ gashes. The 76ers are undermanned and underwhelming, so when Boston blitzed to a 26-point second-quarter lead on Friday, the TD Garden crowd did not seem stunned.
That part came later.
Losing a 26-point lead to any team would be unusual. Losing a 26-point lead at home to the 76ers would have been unfathomable. It would have been crushing.
But these Celtics insist that they are maturing, that they are learning. And on this night, after the 26-point edge had been sliced to 3 early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics did not wilt. They responded quickly and emphatically, and by the time the 107-96 victory was complete, they could focus on the ways they have grown, not the ways they have remained the same.
“A few weeks ago, we probably would’ve got rattled and probably wouldn’t even have come out with that game,” guard Marcus Thornton said. “But we’re starting to jell as a team now. We’re starting to play for one another, and that’s a great thing.”
The Celtics have won three games in a row. Yes, the victories came against teams with a combined record of 40-112. But this Boston team does not need to be concerned by the strength of its recent schedule.
This group has been picked apart by trades, and it has left current players wondering if they might be next, and through it all, coach Brad Stevens has been intent on assembling random pieces into a cohesive unit. And right now, the development is apparent.
“We’re getting better,” forward Jae Crowder said. “We’re learning. That’s steps in the right direction for us as a unit. We’re trying. From the coaching staff to the players, we’re trying to play basketball the right way. That’s what’s gotten us these past few wins.”
Jared Sullinger had 22 points, 8 rebounds, and a career-high 7 assists to lead the Celtics. Six players reached double figures, and 27 of the 39 baskets were assisted, indicating that lines about teamwork and cohesiveness are not just lip service.
The Celtics (19-30) are just two games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot — with the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons in their way, too. If the surge continues, it will probably leave the fan base conflicted, as the chase for a high draft pick is weighed against the chase to most likely become an irrelevant playoff team.
Those discussions remain far away, of course, but there is no question that this young team is simply focused on collecting victories where it can find them.
“A lot of people counted us out,” Crowder said. “So we have a lot of pride in this locker room. The city has a lot of pride. So we want to keep playing for those guys and playing for ourselves.”
Even at full strength, the 76ers are hardly menacing. But on Friday they were without guard Tony Wroten, who underwent knee surgery this week, and Michael Carter-Williams, who sat out because of a strained toe. The situation was so dire that the team signed guard Tim Frazier, a former Celtics training camp player, to a 10-day contract from the Maine Red Claws. And he played 35 minutes.
For the first half, Philadelphia looked pretty much as you would expect. The Celtics scored the game’s first 9 points, and a basket by Crowder with 7:32 left in the second quarter gave them a 45-19 edge.
Then the 76ers began to spread the ball and attack the rim, and their shots began to fall. At the other end, the Celtics were stagnant.
With 8:14 left in the fourth quarter, a 3-pointer by Hollis Thompson actually cut the deficit to 80-77. The lead was almost gone. The doubts were almost back.
Fortunately for the Celtics, the lapse did not turn into a disaster. And fortunately for the Celtics, the 76ers are still the 76ers.
Over the next 5:22, Thornton drilled a pair of 3-pointers during a 19-7 run. While coach Brad Stevens would have been fine with his team maintaining its 26-point lead and coasting, he also realized there was value in being tested, even against the lowly 76ers.
“I thought we responded really well,” Stevens said. “I mean, we went right back up 15, and that’s hard to do, especially when things just aren’t going in your direction.”
For the Celtics, it was another sign of growth during this surprisingly productive week.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam. email@example.com