The first three games this season between the 76ers and Atlantic Division rival Boston were bitterly close.
Why should anything less have been expected from their final meeting of the year?
Sunday afternoon, though, it was the Sixers that finally broke through, calling upon stingy defense down the stretch to edge the Celtics, 105-99, in front of an enthusiastic matinee crowd of 19,446 at The Center.
The Sixers limited Boston to 20 points in the fourth quarter, and forced five turnovers during the decisive segment of the game.
Brett Brown felt Sunday’s outcome was firmly rooted in a trait that has ultimately become one of the defining characteristics of his upstart club—its effort.
“It’s a team that keeps reminding us of the importance of being a team,” said Brown, who directed the Sixers to a two-game sweep of their weekend homestand. “They truly get along, they play together. The toughness and determination they just repetitively show. It isn’t a fluke. It’s who they are. It’s how we’re playing. I think there are enough examples of that for me to say that with confidence.”
In what should now come as no surprise, Dario Saric was right in the thick of another encouraging showing from the Sixers. The rookie paced his squad with 23 points, helping it snap an 11-game losing streak to Boston. In the final three minutes of regulation, he delivered a pair of tough, crucial layups that preserved the Sixers’ lead.
“Finally we beat them,” Saric said. “I’m so happy because I want to beat them so, so, so bad. In three games, we were so close, and we gave all the games a 100 percent, and we lost. Today, finally we won. We deserved that, and the better team won today.”
Heading into Sunday’s bout, the first three matchups of the season between the Sixers and Celtics were decided by a combined total of 13 points.
The efforts of the Sixers’ reserve corps were also pivotal in Sunday’s come-from-behind triumph. The group combined to account for 43 points, 22 rebounds and 17 assists, and was largely responsible for the Sixers erasing multiple double-digit deficits.
“Our bench deserves a lot of credit, where we set the table, especially at the end of the third period,” said Brown.
The way the quarter closed, however, was far different from how it started.
At the outset of Sunday’s second half, Boston appeared to be on the verge of running away with the game, due mostly to Al Horford. The All-Star big man burst for 13 of his season-high 27 points in the opening four-and-a-half minutes of the third frame, twice depositing buckets that bolstered the Cs’ margin to a game-high 13 points.
Late in the third, with Sergio Rodriguez at the controls, the Sixers managed to charge back. The veteran second-string point guard got the offensive into a groove, and sparked a needed 6-0 spurt over the final 66 seconds of the quarter.
The modest, yet momentum-changing run was capped by Rodriguez snagging a steal in transition, then spinning home a reverse layup to beat the horn. The sequence whittled Boston’s lead to three points, 79-76.
“I thought it was one of Sergio’s best games,” Brown said.
The Spaniard posted nine points, three rebounds and seven assists in 20 minutes.
“He really jumpstarted a lot,” Brown continued. “He had a bounce, he had a swagger, had a steal, made a shot at the end of the buzzer—the mood of the gym changed.”
It very much did.
After Boston quickly went up five points, 81-76, to open the fourth quarter, the Sixers turned to the long ball to forge ahead. Nik Stauskas, who’s alternated seamlessly this season between reserve and starting assignments (he was used as a backup Sunday to great impact), canned a triple to lock the game at 81-81. On the Sixers’ next trip down the floor, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, logging his fifth straight start, buried his own 3-pointer to flip the Sixers in front, 84-83.
Although the Sixers wouldn’t trail again the rest of the afternoon, the Celtics, owners of the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, refused to go quietly. Each time they threatened, the Sixers responded.
After a Jae Crowder three evened the score at 89-89 midway through the fourth, Saric answered with a vicious one-handed jam, with Rodriguez playing the part of set-up man.
Moments later, with the Sixers and Celts even at 91-91, Richaun Holmes manufactured a key steal, which paved the way for a timely 3-point basket from Robert Covington, making it 94-91.
“On defense, we were able to force some turnovers, get some run-outs, and just feel the rest of the game for us and be able to ride it to the end,” said Holmes. “As a team, we did a good job, I feel, in the fourth of rebounding and guarding them down the stretch.”
In a one possession game, Saric supplied an impressive layup with 59.6 seconds to go, bodying up on the seasoned Horford to muscle out important insurance points that widened the Sixers’ gap to five, 100-95.
Marcus Smart raced in for a layup that brought the Celtics back within three, but Stauskas summoned up clutch touch from beyond the arc once more. His trey from the corner, with 38.8 seconds left, essentially ensured the Sixers a second straight victory.
Boston missed their final five shots of the day, and was kept in check for a mere 6-for-24 shooting in the fourth quarter. The Sixers’ defense, one game removed from surrendering a season-low 74 points to Dallas, again stood tall. The result was the Sixers’ first triumph over the Celtics since November 2014.
Covington offered a solid two-way showing, producing 16 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
The Sixers’ bench contributions, meanwhile, were numerous. Stauskas manufactured a plus-20 rating, stuffing the stat sheet with nine points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Holmes finished with eight points, seven rebounds, a personal-best five assists and four blocked shots.
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“It’s a great win,” said Holmes. “For us to band together, and be able to get a win like that, it means a lot.”
The ‘team’ theme that made such an impression on Brown was certainly ever present.
The Celtics were without All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas Sunday. He sat out his second consecutive contest with a right-knee bone bruise. For the Sixers, Jahlil Okafor scored the team’s first four points Sunday, but was held out after halftime due to soreness in his right knee. Justin Anderson was sidelined with gastroenteritis.
Over the course of his fourth season as a pro, and third with the Sixers, Robert Covington has increasingly strengthened his reputation as one of the top two-way wingmen in the NBA. For one of his highlights, Covington relied on his reach to poke the ball free from a driving Jonas Jerebko. The rock then bounced to Nik Stauskas, who flung the outlet pass down the court. TJ McConnell and Covington took care of the rest.
As the number of games left on the Sixers’ schedule begin to dwindle, so too do the back-to-back sets remaining on the slate. For the second-to-last time this season, the club will play twice in as many nights, doing so Monday at Orlando. Not only will the contest represent the continuation of a road-heavy stretch for the Sixers, but the start of their longest trek of the campaign (five games in nine days). The Sixers have prevailed in two of three prior meetings with the Magic this season, including a 112-111 triumph on 9 February the last time the Eastern Conference foes met. TJ McConnell clinched the dramatic victory on a nine-footer with six seconds to go.
By Brian Seltzer for sixers.com
First appeared on NBA.com Global