BOSTON – This was far from another game for Brett Brown and the 76ers.
The Sixers coach grew up two hours north of Beantown, in South Portland, Maine. He played basketball at Boston University. His father, Bob Brown, would bring him to see the Sixers play the Celtics.
But aside from the sentimental stuff, facing the Celtics on Thursday night was a barometer for the Sixers. After quality home wins over the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets, Philly looked to get a solid victory on the road.
That they did, prevailing, 115-109, in a matchup of Atlantic Division rivals at T.D. Garden. The victory moved the Sixers (19-7) into third place in the Eastern Conference. It also marked the first time since 2007 that Philly has won three straight games against the Celtics (17-7).
The Sixers have also won three of their last five road games after losing five straight.
Joel Embiid took to heart the criticism that Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal offered about his play.
The center agreed with the TV analysts and former stars following the morning shootaround.
Then he went out and played with high energy, finishing with 38 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 block. Embiid made 12 of 14 foul shots while scoring the Sixers’ final five points from the line.
The Cameroonian was back to having fun, extending his arms and doing a fist pump after clutch fourth-quarter baskets.
“To me, the way he handled it personally, I’m proud of him," Brown said of Embiid’s reaction to the comments. “He handled it as an adult. ... The numbers speak pretty much for themselves.”
With the game on the line, Embiid scored the night’s final five points from the foul line. He also came up with a huge block.
The critiques came after Embiid had 22 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday night during a 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center. The game was televised by TNT, where Hall of Famers Barkley and O’Neal are pregame and postgame analysts.
Barkley, a Sixers legend, said Embiid’s performance didn’t qualify as “great.” O’Neal said that Embiid could be great, but that he’s not playing hard enough.
“You know I like it,” Embiid said. "I like when I get criticized. For them to say that I have to potential to be the best player in the world, and I haven’t shown that, and I already should be showing that, that’s says a lot.
“They’ve been there. They’ve do that. They’re Hall of Famers. So it just shows me that I got to play harder, and I got to dominate like I can.”
Embiid called O’Neal on Wednesday. He said the former thought he was mad at him.
“I was like, ‘nah,’” Embiid said. “I understand what he was saying. I had a down year so far. I just wanted to talk to him."
He had been frustrated because he wasn’t playing the same way he’d played in previous season and was trying to fit in with his new teammates.
“He was just telling that, 'You are aggressive,” Embiid said. “You are the guy. So just go out there and just dominate. And him and Charles, whatever they say, I think it was great for me.”
The former Kansas standout believes he could have been more aggressive Thursday night. He pointed out there were times he just stood around in the perimeter.
“Coach [Brett Brown] is always talking about the amount of post-up I get is still the best in the league,” Embiid said. "I think it’s still not enough. They always talk is the best in the league when we play that way.
“So I average about 10. He’s always talking about I need to 20, 25. It’s also on me, I got to go down there."
At the same time, he wants to find a balance due to the Sixers having other solid post-up players.
On this night, Embiid’s energy level was solid from the start.
“His interaction in timeouts and dead balls, he was a man today,” Tobias Harris said. “I thought overall we battled through.”
Harris added that Embiid was very impressive all around with his interaction offensively and defensively. He even was a vocal leader in the locker room at halftime.
Harris also had a solid game. The small forward scored 23 points, with 16 coming after intermission.
Mike Scott, who started in place of Al Horford, added 15 points while going 5-for-7 shooting, all three-pointers. Josh Richardson added 14 points, two blocks and two steals.
Rookie guard Matisse Thybulle (two blocks and a steal) helped to hold All-Star point guard Kemba Walker to three points in the fourth quarter, all from the foul line. Walker shot 0-for-4 in the quarter, missing three three-pointers. He finished with 29 points.
Ben Simmons hit a pair of foul shots with 34.6 seconds left to put the Sixers up, 110-106. But Jayson Tatum responded with a 26-foot three-pointer to close the gap to one point 5 seconds later.
After the Sixers called a timeout, Embiid was fouled by Tatum. The center responded by making a pair of foul shots with 25.7 seconds left to put the Sixers up four. The Celtics turned the ball over on the ensuing possession before fouling Embiid, again.
He went on to make 1 of 2 foul shots to make it 113-109. Then he blocked Daniel Theis’ shot at the other end with 14.8 seconds remaining.
Simmons grabbed the defensive rebound and passed the ball to Embiid, who was fouled once more. He converted two foul shots with 10.,1 seconds left to give the Sixers a 115-109 lead.
The Sixers were without Horford, who was sidelined with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness. This would have marked the power forward’s first game back here since leaving the Celtics in the summer to sign a free-agent deal with Philly.
The Boston crowd acknowledged him before the start of the second quarter. He received a standing ovation and got up on the visiting team’s bench to acknowledge the crowd.
The 33-year-old spent three seasons with the Celtics, averaging 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.2 blocks. He garnered his fifth All-Star selection in Boston during the 2017-18 season. His other four selections came as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.