PHILADELPHIA — There aren’t many categories where the Philadelphia 76ers can say they are a top-five team.
The exception is their status as start-to-finish pests, with an ability to pressure just about any team into mindless, hurried mistakes. That’s the trap the Celtics fell into during yesterday’s 105-99 loss to the Sixers.
While it’s true that, deprived of the injured Isaiah Thomas (knee) for the second straight game, the Celtics lost their offensive compass, especially once the game entered the point guard’s fourth-quarter realm. The C’s are now 2-4 in his absence, without a guarantee he will return for tonight’s game against Washington in the Garden.
But even more than the need to find better shots, the Celtics took their eyes off the ball after building to a 13-point lead in the third quarter.
“They do some of that (disruptive) stuff, but we also had some unforced turnovers — didn’t make the smartest plays at times,” Al Horford said. “We did a good job building the lead, but we have to do a better job closing out quarters. Coach has done a good job of that. He’s been on us about that all year. We’re not very consistent with it, and tonight it affected the outcome.”
Indeed, late mistakes destroyed the outcome, not to mention Horford’s best scoring effort as a Celtic with 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal.
The Celtics’ best moment came early in the third quarter in the form of a 13-5 run, which included eight points from Horford, to give the visitors a 67-54 lead.
That’s when Philly’s role players got the better of the C’s. The just-signed Shawn Long and Sergio Rodriguez combined to score the last six points of the third quarter — Rodriguez with a layup with a second on the clock after stealing an inbounds pass from Terry Rozier.
Their lead down to 79-76, the Celtics lurched into a fourth quarter where they committed five turnovers and made just 6-of-24 shots (2-of-10 from downtown). Jae Crowder, who saved the Celtics with late offense in Friday’s narrow win against the Brooklyn Nets, had both of the their fourth-quarter 3-pointers, too.
Without Thomas on the floor to stabilize the offense, the Celtics bounced from one bad decision to the next.
“It’s definitely a little different (without Thomas),” Crowder said. “We’re more than capable of getting over that hump, but he is a great force for us in the fourth quarter.”
The Sixers turned up the heat in the fourth quarter with hot hands on offense, shooting 55 percent from the field and making 5-of-9 on 3-pointers.
Nik Stauskas had two of those Philadelphia 3-pointers, including a killer with :38.8 left for a 103-97 lead.
Perhaps the two biggest baskets for the Sixers came from their new rookie-of-the-year candidate, Dario Saric. He scored six points in the last 5:26, including a layup in traffic for a 100-95 lead with 59.5 seconds left.
“I wanted to beat them you know, they are a hell of a team,” Saric said. “We had the opportunity to beat them three times, and they are a legendary team. Boston is one of the most famous names in the world and we beat them on our homecourt in front of our fans. I am so proud of my teammates.”
Though the Celtics’ Marcus Smart scored twice in the last two minutes, the his day (eight points, 3-for-12 shooting, three turnovers) typified the team’s troubles.
“They’re very good at (disruption) — one of the better teams in the NBA at getting deflections, pressuring the basketball and playing hard the entire game,” Avery Bradley said. “That’s what happened, and we were just kind of careless with the ball. It didn’t help that we couldn’t make shots.
“We stopped playing the way that got us the lead. It’s like we were playing one-on-one basketball. We stopped playing the right way, and they came back — started hitting shots.”