PHILADELPHIA — When Jayson Tatum‘s step-back 3-pointer fell through the net at Wells Fargo Center with 1.3 seconds to go in Saturday night’s thriller between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, it looked to all the world like he’d just won the game for the Celtics.
As it turned out, Tatum did — but just barely.
Joel Embiid caught the ensuing inbounds pass, and his 70-foot heave hit nothing but net at the other end — yet it came a split second after the final buzzer sounded. Instead of sending this game to overtime, it somehow made what became a 110-107 loss for the 76ers even more discouraging.
“I don’t care,” Embiid said when asked if it was almost worse that his shot went in late. “It didn’t count. But I guess it’s a good highlight for everybody, social media and all that stuff.
“But it didn’t count, and we lost the game. It’s frustrating losing these types of games, especially when you’re winning by so much. 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 for a third time in three meetings with Boston (44-17) this season. That coupled with Boston holding a four-game lead in the standings with 23 games to play severely hurt the 76ers’ chances of catching their rivals.
The Sixers blew a 15-point lead, letting the Celtics back in the game during a 23-3 run that spanned the final few minutes of the third quarter and the opening minutes of the fourth.
For Boston, the memorable moment was Tatum stepping up and burying that step-back 3. It wasn’t the prettiest of performances overall from Tatum, who finished 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, hitting the dagger trey over the strong defense of 76ers guard De’Anthony Melton.
“Get separation and make a play,” Tatum said of his thoughts on the final play. “Felt [Melton] leaning, snatched it back for the move and shot I worked on a thousand times before.”
Tatum’s shot came out of a similar set Boston used against the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this season. It’s a play the Celtics have employed time and again over the past several years, initially created by current president of basketball operations Brad Stevens during his coaching days with Boston.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said afterward that he stole the play from Stevens.
“I think it’s a read,” Mazzulla said. “You can do a bunch of different stuff out of [that set]. So it’s just a matter of reading where the defenders are. [Marcus] Smart made a great play. [Tatum] did a good job making separation.
“Situations like that, players have to make plays, 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 pulled back. … It’s probably a shot he works on,” Rivers said. “Best-case scenario was to make it hard on him. He hit a tough one.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to live with those.”
Philadelphia also had to live with Embiid’s miraculous shot not counting. 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.
P.J. Tucker, who immediately grabbed the ball after Tatum’s shot and inbounded it to Embiid, said Sixers players realized it was late.
“The other guys on the bench knew right away,” he said.
“Yeah, I was pretty sure of it,” the coach said with a smile when asked if he knew it wouldn’t count. “I was hoping [I was wrong], but I was pretty sure.”
Embiid credited Celtics guard Derrick White for getting in his way just enough to force him to make an extra move before letting the shot go.
“I mean, I wish I would have shot it sooner,” Embiid said, “but when I turned, I saw Derrick White there, so I couldn’t really get it off, so I had to kind of go back to my right side to try to get it up.”
Then Embiid — tongue firmly in cheek — added: “So, unfortunately, the story of my life.”