There are going to be nights like this, where the Celtics aren’t quite themselves, where the defense gets shredded, where Jayson Tatum appears unable to dribble to the basket without losing his handle.
They should have known the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t lay down, despite Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey sitting out with illnesses. Philadelphia showed up, pushed the mistake-ridden Celtics to the brink, and then an irritated Tatum got ejected.
Quality teams still win games like these, despite players such as Patrick Beverley looking unstoppable offensively or Paul Reed hitting a panicked turnaround jumper in the face of Al Horford, who walked back down the floor shaking his head.
Maybe in previous years this was one of those nights where the Celtics let down, lost to an inferior opponent and then went into a tailspin. On Friday, it was their 15th victory in 19 games to begin the season.
Tatum, tossed with two seconds left in the third quarter after arguing that he was fouled before he committed a flagrant foul, watched the Celtics pull away for a 125-119 win from the locker room.
It was a frustrating night for Tatum, who looked out of sorts, committed seven turnovers and never got into a rhythm. On the play he was ejected because of his second technical foul, he was stripped by Robert Covington and then made contact with Covington’s face trying to retrieve the ball. Tatum them was whistled for his second technical for chiding officials Nick Buchert and Phenizee Ransom, despite pleas from lead official Bill Kennedy to get back to his bench.
Tatum can get hotheaded at times with officials. Early in his career, he didn’t get many calls in his favor. That has changed over the years, but he still chirps at officials, especially when opposing players make contact during drives. He was chirping most of the night, and the frustration built until he was tossed.
“Was I surprised? Yeah, I was extremely surprised,” he said. “Y’all saw what happened. Might not know what I said. I guess whatever I said doesn’t matter at this point. I don’t agree with that, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s like the refs word against ours.
“Even if I was right, they can go back and talk about it after the game. It’s not like we get that game back. I don’t get that time back. They was ready to throw me out.”
The Celtics displayed their depth in the pivotal final period without Tatum and with Jaylen Brown making just one field goal. Payton Pritchard scored 10 of Boston’s 30 points. Meanwhile Al Horford and Brown each blocked Tobias Harris on back-to-back chances at the rim with 7:21 left and the 76ers up 2.
Jrue Holiday followed with a go-ahead 3-pointer, and the Celtics never trailed again. They won this game with depth, not star power. The reserves combined for 30 points, Derrick White returned for the final 6:34 and hit a key jumper.
“I thought everybody stepped up, and that’s just kind of the team that we have,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I thought the guys did what they had to do to win.
“Games like that, everyone has the expectation of the game is supposed to go a certain way, and that’s not how the NBA works. The game wasn’t supposed to go a certain way. It went how it went and it was tough. I thought we did a great job making plays when it was necessary.”
As for Tatum, he maintains he wasn’t that upset after the ejection. He claims he did not curse any of the officials to get his second technical. He said he didn’t storm into the locker room and start throwing bubble gum packs into the middle of the floor. He iced up and watched the fourth quarter.
And it has to be a relief that the Celtics don’t need a premium Tatum every night in order to win. He’s been careless with the ball of late — 17 turnovers in the past three games — but the Celtics have enough talent and enough of a supporting cast to prevail when in the past they would have lost this one.
“Throughout the game, we didn’t necessarily play well, up to our standards,” Tatum said. “But I love the way that we still figured out a way to win the game. I was frustrated. I hate not being out there to help the team win. And I hate for all the people that came, maybe it was some people’s first game to come see me play and didn’t get to see me play the entire game.
“But we still won. There’s some positive that came out of it.”
This is one of those nights where, after the win, the Celtics should put the ball on center court and walk off the floor fortunate enough to survive — knowing they can play better, and be relieved that their shortcomings didn’t cost them.