Tim BontempsESPNRead for 3 minutes
PHILADELPHIA — When Jayson Tatum’s step-back 3-pointer fell through the net at Wells Fargo Center with 1.3 seconds left in Saturday night’s thriller between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, it seemed to the whole world that he had just game for the Celtics.
As it turns out, Tatum did – but barely.
Joel Embiid caught the ensuing inbound pass and his 70-foot swell hit nothing but the net on the far side – but it came a fraction of a second after the final buzzer sounded. Rather than sending this game into overtime, it somehow made what became a 110-107 loss for the 76ers even more disheartening.
“I don’t care,” said Embiid when asked if it was almost worse that his shot went too late. “It didn’t count. But I think it’s a good highlight for everyone, social media and all that stuff.
“But it didn’t count and we lost the game. It’s frustrating to lose games like this, especially when you win with so much profit. It’s frustrating.”
Embiid was spectacular, finishing with 41 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in just under 40 minutes for Philadelphia (39-20). But that didn’t stop the 76ers from losing to Boston for the third time in three games this season (44-17). That coupled with Boston holding a four-game lead in the standings with 23 games left to play seriously hurt the 76ers’ chances of catching their rivals.
The Sixers blew a 15-point lead, putting the Celtics back in the game on a 23–3 run that spanned the last few minutes of the third quarter and the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
For Boston, the memorable moment was when Tatum stepped up and buried that step back 3. It wasn’t Tatum’s finest performance, finishing with 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting to go with 13 rebounds, six assists and five turnovers in 36 minutes. But when Boston needed him to deliver, he stepped up and hit the dagger boom over the strong defense of 76ers guard De’Anthony Melton.
“Get a divorce and make a play,” Tatum said of his thoughts on the final play. “Felt [Melton] leaning in, it snatched back for the move and shot I’ve worked on a thousand times before.
Tatum’s shot came from a similar set Boston used against the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the season. It’s a game the Celtics have used over and over in recent years, originally created by current president of basketball operations Brad Stevens during his coaching days with Boston.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said afterwards that he stole the game from Stevens.
“I think it’s been read,” said Mazzulla. “You can do a lot of different things with it [that set]. So it remains to be seen where the defenders are. [Marcus] Smart played great. [Tatum] did well to make the divorce.
“In those situations, players have to play, and they did.”
The Sixers said they could accept how Boston’s final possession played out, with coach Doc Rivers praising Melton’s defense and tipping his cap to Tatum.
“I mean, he came down, they threw him the ball, he backed off… It’s probably a shot he’s working on,” Rivers said. “The best case scenario was to give him a hard time. He hit hard.
“Sometimes you have to live with that.”
Philadelphia also had to live with Embiid’s miraculous shot, not counting it. While many of the 20,993 in attendance went berserk after the shot went in, the 76ers – led by Embiid himself – didn’t need to see a replay to know it didn’t count.
PJ Tucker, who immediately took the ball after Tatum’s shot and played it in to Embiid, said Sixers players realized it was late.
“The other guys on the bench knew it right away,” he said.
“Yeah, I was pretty sure about that,” the coach said with a smile when asked if he knew it wouldn’t count. “I hoped [I was wrong]but I was pretty sure.”
Embiid gave credit to Celtics guard Derrick White for getting in his way just enough to force him to make an extra move before letting go of the shot.
“I mean I wish I had shot it sooner,” Embiid said, “but when I turned around I saw Derrick White there so I couldn’t really get it off so I had to go back to my right side to trying to get it up.”
Then Embiid added – tongue firmly in cheek – “So sadly the story of my life.”