The severely shorthanded Sixers came just short of stunning the Celtics on Friday night.
The Celtics were superior down the stretch at TD Garden and earned a 125-119 victory. They improved to 9-0 at home and 15-4 overall.
Derrick White and Jayson Tatum each scored 21 points. Jaylen Brown and Al Horford both had 20.
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In his 612th NBA game, 35-year-old Sixers guard Patrick Beverley tied his career high with 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting. He also tallied eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
De'Anthony Melton added 21 points and Robert Covington posted a season-high 18.
The 12-7 Sixers were down five players. Stars Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey both missed the game because of an illness. Nicolas Batum (right index finger soreness), Kelly Oubre Jr. (fractured rib) and Danuel House Jr. (left quad contusion) were out as well.
Boston’s Kristaps Porzingis sat with a left calf strain.
The Celtics now hold a 2-1 lead over the Sixers in the regular-season series. The teams will meet again on Feb. 27 in Boston.
The Sixers will have a brief break before their next game, which is next Wednesday against the Wizards. Here are observations on their narrow loss in Boston:
C’s set a daunting scoring pace
The Sixers used a lineup of Beverley, Melton, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris Sr. and Paul Reed to begin the night.
That unit didn’t get many first-quarter stops; Horford and Jrue Holiday each made two long-range jumpers and Boston started hot. The Sixers often answered the Celtics’ shotmaking, though. Harris opened 3 for 3 from the floor. Reed hit a three-pointer and scored a tricky and-one, left-handed hoop inside vs. Horford.
The Celtics then increased their defensive aggression, pressuring Sixers like Melton and Furkan Korkmaz who don’t usually need to initiate many half-court possessions. Korkmaz re-entered the Sixers’ rotation and was actually their first player in off the bench.
Although Boston started 11 for 14 from floor, the Sixers did well to force six turnovers within the first eight minutes. Beverley, Melton and Covington had active hands and picked the right moments to poke at the ball on the Celtics’ drives. Covington was the standout Sixer in the first period, swiping three steals and sinking two three-pointers. Beverley also had a strong quarter offensively, posting nine points on 4-for-5 shooting. After 16 consecutive single-figure scoring games, Beverley has reached double digits three times in a row.
Boston just kept on scoring, though, and Sam Hauser’s second three gave the Celtics a 44-36 edge with 0.7 seconds left in the first quarter. Without their extremely productive top duo — the Embiid-Maxey pair has averaged 59.0 points and 13.3 assists — it appeared that the Sixers needed the complexion of the game to dramatically change.
Melton-Beverley backcourt in attack mode
The Sixers were surprisingly excellent to start the second quarter.
Morris took a steal coast to coast for a layup and Melton canned two threes. Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla called timeout after Beverley led a fast break and dished to Harris for a hoop that improbably put the Sixers ahead.
The Celtics continued to help the Sixers with a few sloppy turnovers and lax transition defense. Their shooting was bound to cool off a bit, too. Still, the undermanned Sixers’ effort was outstanding against the Eastern Conference’s top seed. The Sixers’ two prior performances without Embiid included stretches in which their intensity and focus clearly lapsed, but they were full of self-belief in Boston. A short Reed jumper over Horford extended the team's lead to 61-54.
Melton and Beverley each scored 16 first-half points, which was more than any Celtics player. The Sixers spaced the floor well in the half court and attacked decisively in the open floor. They seized chances to drive hard toward the rim, fired threes with no hesitation and showed Boston that a win was not at all guaranteed.
Beverley said a few words to Brown after draining a three over him late in the second quarter. Melton assisted a Morris corner three on the first half’s final play, sending the Sixers to intermission with a 72-69 advantage.
Not quite enough good fortune on Sixers' side
At times, the Sixers missed Maxey’s exceptionally fast-paced, low-turnover game.
Reed committed a turnover early in the third quarter on an ill-advised drive into traffic and the Celtics turned the giveaway into a Brown corner three. The shot gave Boston an 80-77 lead and prompted Sixers head coach Nick Nurse to ask for a timeout. Going into Friday night, the Sixers had conceded 15.8 points off turnovers per game. The Celtics scored 26.
Even with Melton on the bench after being assessed his fourth foul and Korkmaz misfiring from long distance, the Sixers stayed pesky. Backup big man Mo Bamba stepped up, drilling two three-pointers and converting a put-back layup that tied the game at 89-all.
Bamba, who played late in the fourth quarter over Reed, posted a season-high 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting and six rebounds. Reed had 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting and four boards. It'll be interesting to see if Bamba's now in the mix on some nights when Embiid's available. Though he hasn't been able to establish himself as a rotation member yet for a full-strength version of the Sixers, Bamba's size, shot blocking and shooting all still look to be useful tools when he's on his game.
With 1.1 seconds left in the third quarter, the Celtics abruptly lost one of their stars.
Tatum was called for an offensive foul when he struck Covington in the face and vehemently disputed the call. That foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 1 upon review, and the technical Tatum picked up for arguing — his second of the night — resulted in the All-Star forward's ejection.
The Tatum-less Celtics were good to open the fourth quarter. On a crowd-thrilling sequence, Horford twice blocked his former teammate Harris and then assisted a Holiday three that put Boston up 107-106. Harris shot 0 for 5 from the field in a frustrating fourth quarter. His last points came with 11:24 left in the third.
The Sixers' luck soured a bit in the closing minutes. After Melton and Covington both missed layups, Melton was whistled for his sixth foul with 5:08 to go.
Beverley nailed a three-pointer over Celtics center Luke Kornet that knotted the contest at 113 apiece and hit the 26-point mark for the second time in his career. He'd last scored 26 back on April 2, 2017 in a Rockets win over the Suns.
However, the Sixers simply had too many empty offensive possessions late. Covington missed a corner three and got called for a charge, Beverley couldn't connect on a step-back jumper, and all of the Sixers' impressive shorthanded work didn't wind up being sufficient for a win.