PHILADELPHIA — As you would expect in this topsy-turvy season that has challenged the Celtics’ chemistry, toughness, and fortitude, they responded Tuesday night with one of their better overall efforts of the season at the most unlikely time.
With Kyrie Irving back in Boston and facing a 76ers team rejuvenated after a series of trades boosted its lineup, the Celtics posted a 112-109 victory at the Wells Fargo Center to end a loud two-game losing streak.
Gordon Hayward scored 26 points on 8-for-11 shooting and a career high six 3-pointers in his most impactful game of the season. Al Horford played with great energy and added 23, including a pair of free throws with 13.1 seconds left to give the Celtics a 3-point lead.
Marcus Morris added 17 three days after starting a firestorm by saying playing together hasn’t been “fun for a while.” It sparked chatter that the Celtics were a disjointed team and in the midst of a freefall.
Morris’s sentiments were quite different Tuesday after getting the win in his hometown.
“Did it look fun? It was fun fun,” Morris said with a smile. “Not even that we won, it was the intensity that everybody played with, the force everybody played with and we just let it go. It was very fun.”
The Celtics improved to 10-2 against the 76ers in the past two seasons, including the playoffs. Philadelphia was riding momentum after consecutive wins over Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers with a revamped lineup that included standout swingman Tobias Harris.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens responded by exploiting Harris in pick-and-rolls against Morris and it proved effective. Offensively, the Celtics went at Harris, Joel Embiid, and backup center Boban Marjanovic, as Horford was especially aggressive.
He attempted a season-high 16 shots and added 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals.
“Coming into this game, we understood that Philly’s been playing at a high level,” Horford said. “We had disappointing losses at home and I felt like our backs we’re against the wall. So we all needed to come out and set the tone and we did that. But what I’m most proud of from our group is that we were able to sustain it.”
The Celtics led by as many as 10 points in the first half and took a 52-46 advantage into the break. But again, their third-quarter woes returned as the 76ers stormed back with an 18-4 run to begin the third quarter. But instead of withering under the pressure, the Celtics chipped away, using three buckets by Hayward to take a 67-66 lead.
Hayward added another jumper to complete an 18-4 run by the Celtics. The lead stretched to 102-96 with 3:17 left before Embiid awakened, hitting a jumper, followed by a conventional 3-point play for a 103-102 lead with 2:11 left.
Hayward countered with a corner 3-pointer, his career-high sixth of the game, to give the Celtics the lead back for good.
“It was a good win for us considering the last two that we dropped and some frustrations in those,” Hayward said. “Just knocking down some shots, that was basically it.”
The key was Horford’s defense on Embiid, who finished 9-for-22 shooting and was infuriated with the officiating.
“He’s not doing anything, it’s just on me,” Embiid said of Horford’s defense. “I was sleepwalking for three quarters and that’s on me. Like I said, that’s on me. It has nothing to do with anybody.”
Jayson Tatum added 20 points for the Celtics, including an emphatic dunk on Ben Simmons in the third quarter. The Celtics were coming off two painful home losses to the Lakers and Clippers, including blowing a 28-point lead against the Clippers on Saturday night. They led most of the way on Tuesday.
Stevens called a timeout after Harris tied the game at 44 with a midrange jumper late in the shot clock with 3:09 left in the half. That sparked an 8-0 Celtics run, as Morris hit a 3-pointer off the break and Horford and Tatum added layups for a 52-44 lead.
Embiid scored on a short jumper at the 24.7 mark, but the Celtics went into the break having played one of their better defensive halves in recent memory. The 76ers shot 44.7 percent in the first two periods, with the trio of Embiid, J.J. Redick and Simmons going 5-for-17 from the field.
Hayward made three 3-pointers to help the Celtics lead most of the first half. He also took a charge from Harris on a drive and added a steal.
Without Irving, who is nursing an injured knee suffered Sunday, the Celtics were forced to share the ball and rely on multiple scorers. Horford was especially energetic, even picking up an early technical foul after Embiid backed into him several times on a post move but Horford got the foul call.
The Celtics returned to their grinding ways on defense in the first half, using an aggressive halfcourt attack to force the 76ers deep into the shot clock or to make one-on-one plays. The 76ers lineup was still good enough to score on those opportunities in some cases, but they weren’t able to match the 143 points they rolled up on the Lakers on Sunday.