PHILADELPHIA — When it was over, the 76ers celebrated, having beaten the Celtics for just the third time in the past 13 meetings. They put so much emphasis on this game, aware the Celtics had dominated the season series, contained Joel Embiid, and made late-game plays to seal three victories.
When it counted Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center, the Celtics ran out of those heroics. They led by 6 points with six minutes left, having spent most of the evening building leads and successfully fighting off Philadelphia rallies.
The significance of the game was apparent for 76ers coach Brett Brown, who nearly exhausted his starters with extensive minutes on a back-to-back. Jimmy Butler, who looked fried for the first three quarters, delivered big down the stretch.
His pair of 3-pointers tied the game at 105 and he followed later with a clinching jumper, while the Celtics couldn’t get stops. The result was an emotional 118-115 loss for the Celtics that all but eliminated them from the No. 3 seed.
The Celtics led by as many as 15 and had their chances to extend the lead late in the fourth before Butler’s heroics, but Kyrie Irving had an uncharacteristically erratic fourth quarter in which he missed 5 of 6 shots while the defense made key mistakes.
Philadelphia ended its misery against the Celtics with a 19-10 game-ending run.
The Celtics were upset about the free throw disparity (43-16, including 21 attempts by Embiid) and their lack of execution.
“We had the game pretty well managed, but for the most part I missed some easy ones,” Irving said. “We were going back and forth but the little plays, rebounding, fouling, me backing off Jimmy for that three that tied it at 105. It was a great game, the type of game you don’t get too often during the regular season.”
The Celtics ended the night without three rotation players. Gordon Hayward didn’t make the trip and remained in concussion protocol; Aron Baynes suffered a grade 2 right ankle sprain in the second quarter and didn’t return; and Marcus Smart was ejected with 11:06 left in the third quarter in perhaps the biggest sequence of the game.
After getting into a couple of physical exchanges with the 7-foot Embiid, Smart then ran into an Embiid screen that included some shoulder and elbow. Smart rose from the floor and then pushed Embiid down as his back was turned.
Both players had to be restrained and Smart was motioning with his index finger for Embiid to come on and fight. Smart was assessed a flagrant 2 and the Celtics’ 12-point lead soon shrank as the momentum swung. Without Smart, the Celtics missed their primary defender against Butler and it cost them.
“I’m disappointed in Marcus; we need you,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Baynes is already out. We need him to be in the game. No matter what happens, we need that to happen.”
Said Irving: “He knows. He took responsibility for it. We need him out there in terms of his smarts and being aggressive on the defensive end. And with Baynes going down against Joel, those are big parts of the game.”
The Celtics shot nearly 47 percent and held the 76ers to 37.8 percent shooting. Boston made 11 more field goals but was outscored, 39-13, at the free throw line.
Philadelphia stayed in the game with 24 first-half free throws and then made its third-quarter runs fueled by free throws.
“I came to the bench and I think the free throw disparity was like 36 to 12,” Irving said. “But the game is going to feel like that sometimes. This one for me, I’ll just look at all the shots that I could have probably kicked out or made an adjustment on my jump shot and I’ll be better for it.”
The consensus in the locker room was that the game was much more significant for the 76ers because of their struggles in recent years against the Celtics. Embiid sat out Tuesday’s win over Charlotte so he could be fresh for the game. The crowd celebrated vigorously after the victory, likely because there was a sense of relief.
The Celtics players thought it was a little overblown.
“They got one. It sounded like the Super Bowl when they won,” Philadelphia native Marcus Morris said. “I’m happy they can get a win and be as happy as possible for one game, but we still won the season series. It’s about time they got a win.”
For the 76ers, there was glee. Embiid finally put together a dominant performance against the Celtics and center Al Horford, who has defended him well in the past. He played 41 minutes, eight over his season average, and was visibly tired in the fourth quarter. That’s when Butler took over
“I told [Butler] that I needed him tonight, that I needed this win and he told me to get him to the fourth and he was going to take over,” Embiid said. “That’s all I tried to do and obviously in the fourth, he’s our best closer. [We’ve] got to put the ball in his hands in the fourth and I’m going to do my thing whenever I have the ball. But that was my job tonight and he showed up and in the fourth, he was fantastic.”