When the Celtics faced the 76ers on Oct. 20, their outlook was much more unsettled. They were just three days removed from losing Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury, they were 0-2, and for long stretches of their game in front of a rowdy Philadelphia crowd, they appeared to be reeling.
An 0-3 start would not have been devastating, but with this young, inexperienced team looking to find its way amid a tumultuous beginning, it felt like a rare regular-season game in which a loss could have had lingering effects.
“I do think that we needed [a win], just because it was a tough week in a lot of ways,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
But the Celtics received an important lift from their bench and rallied by outscoring the 76ers by 13 points in the fourth quarter to grab a 102-92 win. That victory, of course, was the start of the dominant 16-game winning streak that catapulted Boston to the top of the NBA standings.
“It was one of those games where it showed some character for all of us, and collectively as a group we stayed together, we stayed the course, and we came out with a win,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. “So I guess you could say we learned a little bit about ourselves and we made some steps in the right direction in game three of the season.”
Stevens said that the 76ers actually let that game slip away with some untimely shooting. Forward Jaylen Brown said they “gave” the win to the Celtics.
“We played really poorly in that game and we still ended up finding a way to win, and that was the first win of the streak that we went on,” Brown said. “And I think Philly remembers that. I think they think they can beat us.”
While that game sparked some momentum for Boston, the loss did not really wobble the 76ers. They beat Washington, 118-113, Wednesday night to improve to 12-8 — fifth best in the Eastern Conference — despite No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s month-long absence with a shoulder injury.
The 76ers have been led by center Joel Embiid (22.9 points, 11.3 rebounds per game) and rookie Ben Simmons (18.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists). But there is a chance one or both of them could miss Thursday’s game against the Celtics at TD Garden.
Embiid’s career has been slowed by foot and knee injuries, and when the 76ers have had games on back-to-back nights this season, he has played on just one of them. Embiid played 32 minutes against the Wizards. Simmons, meanwhile, is recovering from a sprained right ankle, although it seems likely that he will be available barring an aggravation of the injury. Simmons played 41 minutes Wednesday. Regardless, the Celtics have taken notice of Philadelphia’s ascension.
“You have a guy like Joel Embiid, you have Ben Simmons, you have a lot of great players over there,” Al Horford said. “Then you bring in some veterans — JJ Redick, Amir Johnson — and all of a sudden you’re a playoff team. The future is very bright for them.”
Prior to Wednesday, the Celtics had not had more than one day between games since they had three days off following the Oct. 20 game against the 76ers. The players said they were thankful for this two-day break. They were off on Tuesday and held a practice on Wednesday, just their second official session during this grueling stretch.
“The most important thing for me was just dialing back in with the coaching staff, paying attention to the minute details that we need in order to go forward,” Irving said. “And our coaching staff does a great job of that.”
Also, Thursday’s game will be the second in a five-game homestand for Boston.
“It does make a difference,” Horford said. “We’re happy to get off the road a little bit, get some practice time in —much needed— and just playing in front of our fans.”