PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics shot 64.7 percent from the field and committed just one turnover in the fourth quarter Friday, helping them rebound from a sloppy start to take a 102-92 win over the 76ers. As forward Al Horford stood in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center afterward, he was asked if Boston had played like the team that knows how to find its way around dicey predicaments, a team that had been there before.
“I don’t think we’ve really been there before with this group,” he said.
Horford was referring to the patchwork unit the Celtics put on the floor out of necessity.
Rookie guard Jabari Bird, who is expected to spend most of the season with the Celtics’ G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, was home in California watching the Celtics’ season-opener on television on Tuesday. And on Friday, there he was in the second half, being called upon to defend one of the game’s most lethal shooters, JJ Redick.
Guard Shane Larkin played in Europe last season and played a total of five minutes in Boston’s first two games, and there he was pouring in jumpers and running smooth pick-and-roll sets with Horford in the second half, despite the fact that they’d never worked on them before.
These are not the Celtics anyone envisioned one week ago. But Gordon Hayward’s likely season-ending ankle injury, Marcus Morris’s lingering absence due to knee soreness, and Marcus Smart being sidelined Friday with a sprained ankle dramatically shifted this team’s composition.
So they came here to Philadelphia in front of a raucous crowd and faced the very real possibility of falling to 0-3. And for a time, it looked like they would. Instead, though, the Celtics overcame a 9-point third-quarter deficit and grabbed a surprisingly important win.
They had found a way, and there is value in that, even now. Larkin said when he left the court after the game, he saw Horford smile bigger than he has ever seen him smile. In the locker room afterward point guard Kyrie Irving told his young teammates that the flight home would have been much different if the Celtics had not found a way, especially with three long days to wait until they play again.
Given all the Celtics have been through this week, coach Brad Stevens understood the significance of it, too.
“This is a great win,” he said. “This is a really hard win. This is a really good one to build off of.”
Often, Celtics’ practices are focused on preparing for the next opponent. But given their sudden restructuring, Stevens said the Celtics focused on themselves the past two days. In earlier losses to the Cavs and Bucks, they became a bit unglued in the fourth quarter, a rarity for recent Boston teams. That was not an issue Friday.
“I was more pleased with how we played in that fourth quarter,” Stevens said. “Sometimes your shots go down and sometimes they don’t, but we played with a better purpose than we did in the other two fourth quarters.”
For long stretches Friday, the Celtics appeared discombobulated. They consistently missed free throws, turned the ball over, and jhad no noticeable rhythm. But the good news was that the 76ers also appeared in disarray. Philadelphia committed 30 fouls, shot 38 percent from the field, and committed 16 turnovers.
Irving led the Celtics with 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. In the second half Larkin made all three of his field-goal attempts and scored 8 of his 10 points. The undermanned Celtics outrebounded the 76ers, 55-47.
Boston led by as many as 8 points in the second quarter, as the 76ers in one stretch went 7 minutes, 12 seconds without a made field goal. But Philadelphia took the lead when it closed the half with a 21-9 burst that was capped by a Dario Saric putback in the final second of the second quarter that made it 50-46.
The 76ers led by as many as 9 points in the third quarter but were unable to pull away. Stevens turned to Larkin and Bird, two unlikely contributors, to help steer the Celtics in critical moments.
He said that Bird had shown himself to be an excellent perimeter defender ever since summer league play, so he dispatched him to guard Redick, who’d scored 17 points through the first three quarters. Redick managed just 2 in the fourth.
“To go in there and have to guard one of the better shooters in the entire NBA and try to slow him down, I take pride in that, too,” Bird said. “The fact that coach trusts me to do that, that means a lot to my confidence.”
With 8:03 left in regulation Horford gave the Celtics their first lead since the second quarter when he hit a three to make it 82-80. Irving then stretched the advantage by creating space and drilling a pair of jumpers. With 3:26 left Larkin drilled a 3-pointer from the right arc to make it 95-88.
“It was a gutsy win,” Irving said. “It wasn’t the prettiest. A lot of turnovers — 19 of them on our end. But once we got dialed in I thought we were pretty good. We’ll just continue to get better.”