BOSTON — This was far from an ordinary Thursday for the 76ers.
Despite not being cleared to play, talk of Markelle Fultz’s shot and practice performances dominated the morning shootaround media session at Equinox. Then during pregame, all the hoopla surrounded Joel Embiid being voted an All-Star Game starter. And the Sixers finished the night by holding on to an 89-80 victory over the Boston Celtics at T.D. Garden.
The victory improved their record to 21-20 at the halfway point of the season. It also snapped a three-game skid to the Celtics (34-12), the Eastern Conference’s best team. It also marked just the Sixers’ second win in the teams’ last 16 series meetings, dating back Nov. 19, 2014.
The win was their second straight over one of the conference’s top teams, after defeating the East’s second-ranked Toronto Raptors, 117-111, on Monday.
In Thursday’s ugly, but interesting game, the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics were held to a season-low in points. It was first time they tallied 80 points or fewer since being held to 77 against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 15, 2015.
The Sixers had a commanding 21-point fourth-quarter cushion that was cut to seven points (86-79) with 2 minutes, 1 second remaining. But T.J. McConnell sank a pair of foul shots with make it a 88-79 game with 31.7 seconds left.
“We are just staying calm,” said Embiid, whose squad also didn’t let the lead slip away versus the Raptors. “We had to stay calm and keep moving the ball. We made a couple of mistakes, but everything was fine and we got the win.”
Embiid showed why he was voted an all-star starter.
The center had game highs of 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists to go with a team-high two blocks. Power forward Dario Saric added 16 points, while reserve point guard T.J. McConnell had 15. Ben Simmons had eight points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Sixers were without two key players in starting shooting guard JJ Redick and reserve post player Richaun Holmes.
Redick is out with a partial fracture in the fibular head of his left leg. Meanwhile, Holmes missed his second straight game with gastroenteritis.
Irving, who was voted an all-star starter, missed the game with a sore left shoulder.
Al Horford and Marcus Morris paced Boston with 14 points each.
However, the teams combined for 44 turnovers, 25 by the Sixers.
“I place a lot of stock in it,” coach Brett Brown said of beating the undermanned Celtics. “I know that they didn’t have Kyrie. We didn’t have JJ. Let’s just call that almost a wash. And they’re still a great team.”
Fultz’s practice performances get glowing reviews
Around 10:45 am, Sixers coach Brett Brown spoke glowingly about Markelle Fultz, the first overall pick in June’s NBA. Fultz missed his 37th consecutive game on Thursday due to what the Sixers are labeling right shoulder rehabilitation. The Sixers announced back on Dec. 9 that the 19-year-old was no longer experiencing soreness in his right shoulder and the scapular imbalance was resolved.
Brown has been adamant that Fultz won’t play until his shot passes the eye test.
“He looked good [on Wednesday],” Brown said. “If you came from inside a box, and you didn’t know what was going on, you’d walk into a gym and say ‘He’s pretty [darn] good.’ You wouldn’t know [he had a shooting problem.]”
Fultz shot rise-up jumpers and free throws in Wednesday’s practice at the team’s practice facility. He also made his free throws. Those are the two areas Brown wants the Upper Marlboro, Md. native to focus on.
“It’s not about the three-point shot,” he said. “It’s a little bit like Ben Simmons. I don’t care about that right now. I care about him feeling confident and going up to a line and feeling good about his free throw and feeling good about his rise up.”
That’s a little different from how the Sixers felt early on. They drafted Fultz, in large part, because he had a complete game. In addition to scoring in traffic, he was a solid three-point shooter in college.
But the thing that amazed teammate Joel Embiid on Wednesday was how Fultz performed in the pick-and-roll.
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about it,” Embiid said. “I actually don’t think he needs a jump shot. That’s how good he is. That’s how good he’s going to be. I can’t wait to start with him.”