BOSTON - Sixers coach Brett Brown relayed to his team early in the day that the strategy against the surging Celtics was to get back on defense and limit how fast they play the game.
So it was a bad sign last night when just 5 minutes and 2 seconds into the game, Brown was calling a timeout after 7-footer Tyler Zeller beat everyone down the floor and deposited an easy layup that upped the Celtics' lead to eight in what eventually became a 108-89 yawner.
It was the 14th consecutive road loss for the Sixers (15-52). Boston improved to 30-36 in sweeping its four games against the Sixers this season.
The Celtics have now won seven of their last eight games, including five in a row, as they have put themselves in the playoff hunt.
It didn't take long for them to take command. Boston had a nearly flawless first quarter at the offensive end in building a 38-18 lead. It shot 16-for-24 (67 percent) from the floor, including 4-for-5 on threes, and didn't turn the ball over.
"The game was determined in the first period," Brown said. "It almost starts and stops there. I didn't feel like we competed in the first period. I thought that they did whatever they wanted offensively. We were screened easily. They got free looks easily. They didn't feel us. They just didn't feel us. They made shots and we missed an abundance of layups and open looks. You credit them, closing out the three-point line."
And while Boston did run and play fast, just as Brown suspected, it was the Sixers' play on the other end of the floor that made the game the blowout it was. The Sixers shot only 40.5 percent (34-for-84) and never seemed to find an offensive rhythm.
The Celtics have allowed just 91.6 points per game over their last eight, quite impressive when you consider they allowed 102.8 points in their first 58 games.
"We give them a lot of credit defensively," Brown said. "I think they've improved defensively since the last time we played them. They've always had that firepower and the ability to score. But you can see a team that feels like they're right there to slide into the playoffs."
How bad was this one? Consider Boston made just six of its 23 shots in the second quarter, yet upped its lead by three points. Yes, it was that bad for the Sixers.
"A 20-point deficit in the first quarter, that's a pretty big hole to try to dig out of," said Nerlens Noel, who led the team with 18 points and seven rebounds. "We have to do a better job defensively of starting out games."
The Celtics were again playing without guard Isaiah Thomas, who missed his fourth consecutive game with a bruised lower back. Since being acquired from Phoenix on Feb. 19, Thomas has averaged 21.4 points and 5.4 assists in 10 games. He didn't appear to be too missed last night as Zeller scored a career-high 26 points and Avery Bradley added 20. Boston had seven players reach double figures.
"We won four out of five before the All-Star break," said Boston coach Brad Stevens. "It wasn't the same guys, but we had figured out a way to win some close ones before that, too. These guys have played, and I trust the guys will be ready to play.
"We need Isaiah. There's no question that we're a better team with Isaiah. Every team is going through injuries and every team has to fill the gaps when their best players aren't available."
Brett Brown said before the game that he would be giving Furkan Aldemir more time, probably ahead of Henry Sims. Aldemir, however, did not play, while Sims got a little more than 14 minutes . . . JaKarr Sampson stayed in his hotel room during the morning shootaround, nursing a stomach virus that he caught on Sunday. He was dressed to play but did not . . . The Sixers host Detroit tomorrow and the Knicks on Friday before heading out west for games against the Lakers, Sacramento and Denver.