For the first two quarters and 54 seconds of the Sixers' game against the Celtics on Wednesday night, logic and reason apparently left the Wells Fargo Center.
Just about everything Terry Rozier put up went in; Brett Brown got a technical foul in the second quarter for arguing a dubious foul call on Joel Embiid; outside of Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers shot 9 for 36 in the first half. The Sixers, on paper, had the more talented team, but the Celtics were going to sweep the season series.
Then, less than a minute into the third quarter, with Boston leading, 69-58, the bizarre fog broke. Marcus Smart took objection to a screen by Embiid, got up from the floor, and shoved Embiid in the back. He got a Flagrant 2 foul and was ejected. As he exited down the tunnel, Smart asked for louder boos from a crowd incredulous that someone had just taken a cheap shot at their superstar but, more than anything, angry.
It would be a stretch to say everything made sense after Smart's ejection. But, from that point, the notion of the Celtics being in the Sixers' heads or having some sort of mystical hold over them dissolved. The Sixers beat the Celtics, 118-115 (see observations), their sixth straight win and the team's first vs. Boston since Game 4 of their second-round series last year against the Celtics, on May 7 - the T.J. McConnell Game.
Though his teammates generally stayed away from the topic of Smart's ejection, Embiid - who received a technical foul on the play - said it motivated him.
"For sure," he said. "Stuff like that, it gets me going, it gets the crowd going and everybody knows that I play better when the crowd is involved. That energy was definitely good for us."
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Tobias Harris could sense, in just his second game as a Sixer vs. the Celtics, how much it meant to overcome Boston.
"You could feel it in the arena from the fans once the game was over," Harris said. "And throughout the game, you could feel the passion from the fans of how much they wanted the win, how much we wanted to win. Any time you're faced against another really good team and a team that's kind of had their number for some time now, it's always going to be an intense environment and intense game all around."
There are tangible, basketball reasons the Sixers overcame a deficit as large as 15 points in the second period. Embiid was incredible, scoring 37 points, pulling down a career-high 22 rebounds, and getting to the foul line 21 times, missing only once. Jimmy Butler (22 points) made clutch shots in isolation and pick-and-rolls situations in the fourth quarter. The Sixers' defensive communication was much improved in the second half.
But beating Boston was always going to be about more than following schemes and executing game plans.
"I think that the spirit of the group, the tenacity of that team, where they didn't waver in belief, was as much of an important factor to me as when I look down and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we won,'" Brown said.
But yes, the Sixers did win Wednesday, and Butler admitted the obvious - it was more important than an ordinary victory.
"Hell yeah," he said. "I haven't beat these guys yet while I've been here. Jo was so excited to be able to compete against these guys tonight saying how much this game meant to him. But like I said earlier, in order to consider yourself a really good team you got to beat those really good teams. I got a really good feeling we'll probably see those guys some time down the road."
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