By shutting down Embiid again, Celtics show their best selves

Joel Embiid during a game between his Philadelphia 76ers and the San Antonio Spurs. (Matt Slocum/AP)

It was supposed to be the return of one of the NBA’s great rivalries. Boston and Philly, two talented teams who’d grow to hate each other, just like the old days.

Sure, the Raptors had won more games than any other team in the East last year, and added two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard too. Yes, the young Bucks were dangerous, led by force of nature Giannis Antetokounmpo. But with LeBron James off to sunnier pastures in L.A., Boston and Philly had the young stars to battle for Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come.

But not so fast, my friends.

Heading into Tuesday night’s tilt in Philadelphia, the Celtics and 76ers weren’t duking it out for first. They were scratching and clawing just to salvage home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series — against each other. Whatever happened, you knew the results would be…complicated.

The Celtics squeaked out a 112-109 win Tuesday night, in one of the most entertaining games of the season.

Boston swung out to an early lead, with the two members of Boston’s revamped Big 3 doing much of the damage. With Kyrie Irving out with a knee injury, Al Horford opened the game with a layup, then launched into another round of Torture-Joel-Embiid. The Sixers centre would go an ugly nine for 22 from the floor in this game, settling far too often for shots too far from the basket. He didn’t make his first three-pointer of the game until under the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, going two for eight behind the arc overall.

Embiid’s struggles continued a trend. The cagey veteran Horford goaded Embiid into bad shots throughout last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinals, a big reason Boston prevailed in five games. Add the three times these two teams have met this season, and according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, Embiid has shot a brutal 25 for 70 (36 per cent) with Horford guarding him, including an ugly 5 for 16 (31 per cent) on Tuesday night. That’s a far cry from his overall field-goal percentage of 48.1 per cent this season.

Horford’s efforts were hardly one-sided too. He shot a sizzling nine for 16 from the field, including three for five from three-point range. Late in the third quarter, with the game in one of its many neck-and-neck stages, Horford nailed a three from the top of the key to put the Celtics up four, then canned another one a minute later to stretch the lead to seven. The mere act of standing beyond the arc helped the Celtics draw one of the league’s most fearsome shot blockers out of the paint. Attempting threes kept Embiid honest.

Actually drilling them forced Philly’s big man to engage defensively 23 feet from the basket, clearing up Horford’s teammates for some unfettered drives to the rim.

Drives like this one, by Boston’s young and talented wing Jayson Tatum:

That mesmerizing flush gave Tatum two of his 20 points on the night, fuelling a double-double that also included 10 rebounds. Four Celtics scored in double figures, with the most welcome contribution coming from Gordon Hayward.

Five minutes into his first game as a Celtic last season, Hayward shattered his leg. For much of this season, Hayward has looked like a player trying to heal from a major injury, rather than the bouncy all-around threat he was in Utah.

Meanwhile, Boston has had its own issues sharing the ball. Though Irving sat out Tuesday’s tilt and has missed a handful of games this season with various injuries, he’s a ball-dominant point guard who sometimes leaves teammates scrambling for scraps. As a result, several Celtics have tried to force the issue when the ball does land in their hands. Last season’s playoff hero, Terry Rozier, has shot an abysmal 38.5 per cent from the field. Tatum’s down to 45.3 per cent this season after hitting 47.5 per cent in his stellar rookie campaign. Jaylen Brown has been wildly inconsistent in a reduced role that’s seen him play five fewer minutes per game. And Hayward has tried to navigate his injury recovery with a new role as something less than the No.1 threat banner that he carried while in Utah.

Even with Irving out Tuesday, Hayward found another way to contribute: He shot the lights out. In 28 minutes off the bench, Hayward scorched the nets for 26 points, going eight for 11 overall and draining a ridiculous six for seven from downtown. Time after time, Hayward curled around screens and snuffed out open spaces on the floor, then buried catch-and-shoot threes. Though Hayward owns the all-around game to do far more than become a rich man’s version of C.J. Miles, the threat of him going nuclear from deep could ease the pressure on him to make a big play whenever Irving gives up the ball, knowing that the Celtics can either run the offense through him, or simply use him as a long-distance specialist in spots.

Three days ago, veteran forward Marcus Morris lamented Boston’s recent rough stretch with some harsh words.

After the Celtics ripped off 10 wins in 11 games in the latter half of January and into February, they blew 18- and 28-(!!!)point leads at home, against the Lakers and Clippers. That prompted Morris to sound off:

“We don’t have no attitude,” he told reporters after the heartbreaker against the Clippers. “We don’t have no toughness. We ain’t having fun. It’s going to be a long season.”

Coming off those two back-breaking losses, with Hayward and Horford looking a step slow, Boston’s young guys scuffling, and Irving possibly reneging on his ironclad commitment to re-sign with the Celtics, you could understand Morris’s frustrations.

But for one night, Boston showed it was good enough to beat a formidable rival on the road, with Irving out and those two humiliating defeats just over their shoulders. Hayward played as well as he has all season. Tatum pulled out a personal highlight reel. And Horford played well enough to frustrate Embiid and the Sixers, to the point that Embiid blurted after the game, “The referees f—— suck.”

All those Celtics good tidings also backed up Sixer coach Brett Brown’s comments before the game. Asked to assess Boston with the season nearing its home stretch, Brown looked past the conference-leading Bucks, the fortified and formidable Raptors, the red-hot Pacers, and his own Sixers, and said the Celtics, “are still maybe the team to beat” in the East.

Leonard and his beefed-up roster of rugged teammates might beg to differ. So might Giannis and his hyper-efficient crew. And even Embiid and company would be nowhere near conceding that point, not when Philly found itself tied for the fourth spot in the conference even after getting nipped at home by its old/new arch rival.

Still, if Horford and Hayward can replicate their Philly heroics and give the Celtics what GM Danny Ainge hoped for when he paired them with Irving and a phalanx of youth, Boston might finally get its shot in the LeBron-less East.

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