About an hour before the Celtics faced the 76ers on Friday night, Philadelphia announced that it would officially be without reigning MVP Joel Embiid and likely All-Star Tyrese Maxey due to illnesses.
In an instant, this bubbling rivalry involving teams expected to battle deep into spring lost some sizzle. There was a sense that the night would give the Celtics a rare respite, but coach Joe Mazzulla knew better.
“Games like that, everyone has the expectation of the game is supposed to go a certain way,” he said. “That’s not how the NBA works.”
The undermanned 76ers were scrappy, but the night also included bizarre twists and turns, the most notable coming in the final seconds of the third quarter, when Boston’s own star, Jayson Tatum, was ejected after being called for his second technical foul.
Just like that, the playing field was leveled just a bit. Tatum went to the locker room and watched the rest of the contest on the flat-screen televisions that are attached to a wall about 10 feet from his stall.
But the Celtics, who trailed by 2 points at the start of the fourth, revived themselves in time, using a late 8-0 burst sparked by Payton Pritchard to secure a 125-119 win.
The soothing ending made it easier for Tatum to laugh off his early departure, and for the Celtics to focus on how they had summoned resilience when it was needed.
“I’m glad we won,” Al Horford said, “because it would have been just awful if we would have lost this game.”
Tatum had 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 turnovers before being tossed. Derrick White also had 21 points, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford added 20 apiece, and Pritchard scored all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics made 16 of 33 3-pointers but also committed 20 turnovers.
Patrick Beverley had 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists to pace the 76ers, who were without Embiid (illness), Maxey (illness), Nicolas Batum (hand), Jaden Springer (illness), and Kelly Oubre (ribs).
After De’Anthony Melton hit a 3-pointer to pull the 76ers within 95-94 with nine seconds left in the third, Tatum calmly dribbled upcourt intending to take the last shot of the period. But soon after he crossed midcourt he was double-teamed and stripped, and as he flailed his arms he hit the 76ers’ Robert Covington in the face, resulting in an offensive foul.
Tatum, who was called for a technical foul in the first quarter for arguing a no-call, was furious about this whistle because he believed he had been fouled first. He walked over toward lead referee Bill Kennedy, who was near the scorer’s table preparing to review if Tatum’s foul should be called a flagrant.
And as he said something to Kennedy, referee Phenizee Ransom stepped in, called the second technical, and gestured to Tatum that he had been ejected. Tatum said he did not swear at either official. He said he felt as if they were ready to throw him out.
“I’ve been in the league long enough,” Tatum said. “I’ve seen a lot worse behavior and reactions get tolerated for a lot longer. So for those two to throw me out [of] the game, I was shocked.”
Following the game, Kennedy said Tatum was asked several times to return to Boston’s bench after the initial foul was called, and that he received the technical for overtly gesturing toward the officials.
Mazzulla said he was unsure what had transpired, but added that he appreciated Tatum’s fire.
“I think that type of passion and caring about it, I err on the side of I’d rather see that and then nothing at all,” Mazzulla said.
Regardless, the Celtics still had a game to win, and they were now tasked with doing it without their superstar. Of course, the fact that the 76ers’ two stars were sidelined made the task quite a bit easier.
With Philadelphia leading, 106-104, Tobias Harris had a good chance to extend the advantage from close range, but his attempt was smothered by Horford. Harris got the ball back and tried again, and a swarm of Celtics helped turn back this chance, putting a jolt into the crowd.
The defensive effort sparked a fast-break that ended with a Jrue Holiday 3-pointer that helped the Celtics push ahead, 107-106. But Beverley kept the 76ers within reach. He is known as a defensive pest, but in this game Beverley and Melton caused fits for the Celtics with their straight-line drives and timely 3-pointers.
Beverley’s floater that was followed by a 3-pointer from the right arc tied the score at 113 with 3:24 left.
The 76ers led, 116-115, when the Celtics finally put together a few stops in a row and went on the 8-point run that was capped by a Pritchard layup. An uneasy night had ended with a soft landing, and in the standings months from now it will not look any different than a blowout.
“This expectation of, ‘The game is supposed to go a certain way, and now it’s not, and how do we respond to it?’ " Mazzulla said. “And then once we were able to get past the idea of, ‘It didn’t go the way we think it should go,’ now we can adjust and play.”