BOSTON — In sports, every game tells a story, and Sixers head coach Brett Brown can weave quite a yarn on short notice.
Thursday night in Boston was slated to be Al Horford’s return to TD Garden, but that didn’t totally end up being the case. Brown found out about 20 minutes before tip that Horford wasn’t able to go, and the welcome back party from the crowd in Boston was limited to a big ovation when he was shown on the Philly bench moments before the second quarter started. Horford stood in his warmups, waved, and that was that.
Instead, Mike Scott started in his place and shot the hell out of the ball, scoring 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting from three in a 115-109 win on the banks of the Charles. Brown said he went with Scott in the starting lineup because he’s an “adult,” something Scott certainly appreciated when told of the compliment after the game.
“That’s dope he said that,” Scott said. “I got kids.”
Brown meant something far less patronizing, much closer to a phrase he’s particularly fond of when fighting Eagles fans, one that Joel Embiid has embraced in hashtag form. Because according to the Sixers coach, Thursday night’s TNT showdown was an important one.
No one wants to attach too much importance to a regular season game in the NBA, a landscape full of load management and the reminder that only the games in spring matter for those with championship aspirations. But Brown wasn’t afraid to say his team needed a win in Boston and saw an opportunity against a team coming off a close loss on the road in Indiana the night before.
It’s why Scott saw his second start of the season on Thursday night despite the “choices” Brown said he could have made thanks to Elton Brand’s roster flexibility.
” I just felt like this building is aggressive,” Brown said. “I knew that they really hadn’t lost on this court. I believe the Celtics have five or six days off after this. It’s really one of the more bizarre parts of any NBA fixture I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this. So you can see there’s real light at the end of this tunnel. They get some time off, they get Marcus (Smart) healthy. And I just felt like the spirit with which we needed to come back given our history in this building needed more of an adult in Mike Scott. If he is anything, he is that. He provided the physicality and he made shots.”
That’s not to say the Celtics were exactly vulnerable — they had their moments on Thursday night, too. Kemba Walker had 29 on the heels of a 44-point effort in the loss to the Pacers. Enes Kanter had 20 off the bench. But the Sixers needed a win in Boston, and Scott and Embiid made it happen on national television in a contest that felt more important to the Sixers’ season that it did Boston’s. This was especially the case for Philly’s big man on the heels of a public chewing out from two greats of the game.
Entering Thursday night, Embiid saw criticism from TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal that he addressed before tip. Teammates were supportive, even if Ben Simmons claimed he didn’t know what reporters were asking about after Thursday’s game.
“Honestly I had no idea because I don’t read what you guys put out on TV and stuff,” Simmons said. “So I try to stay away from that. But we’re all there for him. I know Joel. He’s a competitive player. I don’t really care what Shaq and Chuck say about him.”
Embiid’s monster night snapped Boston’s home win streak 💥 pic.twitter.com/0Xdn1pJXMs
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 13, 2019
Embiid, however, does. After the win, punctuated by a huge three in the final minutes that saw Embiid throwing an emphatic fist pump on the Celtics logo on Thursday, he faced the TNT crew and thanked them for their criticism.
“As a fan, that was fun to watch.” 🙌
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 13, 2019
“I like when I get criticized, and for them to say that I have the potential to be the best player in the world and I haven’t shown that and I should have shown that says a lot,” Embiid said. “They’ve been there, they’ve done it. They’re Hall of Famers. It just shows me I gotta player harder and dominate like I can.”
Embiid’s 38 points, 14 boards, and six assists are much closer to what Barkley said he expects from Embiid, and it’s a stat line that brings his season average closer to last year’s pace. It also comes in an environment Embiid claimed brings out the best in him, an opposing arena that made his ears pop in a postseason game two years ago.
“They got great fans and they talk a lot of trash and I like that, it gets me going,” Embiid said. “I had that fun mentality about me tonight, just reacting to it and playing off of it.”
Embiid admitted he was still floating on the perimeter at times on Thursday night, and that he can be more aggressive and more engaged on defense. Fortunately for him, it’s looking more and more likely that the Sixers and Celtics are destined for a few more games at the Garden once the calendar turns to 2020. And if we know anything, it’s that it only gets louder there as the season goes on.