BOSTON -- When Hollis Thompson's 3-pointer ripped through the cylinder, putting the visiting -- and, more notably, winless -- Philadelphia 76ers up nine over the Boston Celtics with 9:39 to play in Wednesday's game, fans at TD Garden booed a Green squad staggering through another subpar effort and on the verge of an embarrassing defeat.
"Boston fans are pretty tough. ... They knew we were slacking in the effort division a little bit tonight," said Celtics forward Jae Crowder. "I think everyone in the arena saw that. They saw another team playing harder than us, and they wanted us to play hard, so we had to step it up."
The Celtics had endured a head-shaking loss on Sunday to the Brooklyn Nets (from whom they will receive a first-round pick in June) and were throttled by the Atlanta Hawks during a rare national TV appearance on Tuesday.
Against the 76ers, however, they rallied from an 11-point deficit over the final 6:16, and Crowder's 3-pointer with 38.5 seconds to play lifted Boston to a wipe-the-sweat-off-your-brow 84-80 triumph.
It was far from pretty, and the Celtics can thank a young 76ers squad for fumbling another victory away late (all while tying an NBA record with its 26th consecutive loss). But after Brad Stevens challenged his team to play more connected -- a word he must have repeated 452 times on Wednesday night -- the third-year Celtics coach wasn't about to nitpick on the beauty of the win in the immediate aftermath.
"It was just going to be one of those nights where you had to kind of stay together," Stevens said. "My challenge to this team [after Tuesday's loss] was, ‘We’re not connected enough.’ And they showed pretty good connectivity to win that game -- because it would have been easy to fold the tent, the way things were going."
Celtics fans were ready to invent a silver lining if Wednesday's game got away -- a Philly win improved Brooklyn's chances of delivering Boston the top overall pick! -- but were content instead to see a rare sustained rally.
Stevens elected to start Turner in place of Crowder to open the second half, noting, "Evan’s a super-reliable defender. He’s where he needs to be all the time." Turner ultimately played all but five seconds over the final two quarters, putting up 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and a block after the intermission.
That start-of-the-half switch allowed Stevens to bring Crowder off the bench and utilize him in small-ball lineups that featured Crowder at the power forward spot -- often tasked him with guarding Nerlens Noel on the defensive end.
Crowder, like his teammates, was far from crisp for much of Wednesday's game. And yet he didn't hesitate when he found himself wide open with a straightaway 3-pointer that helped Boston complete its rally.
Turner deserved the credit for getting Crowder the open look. Avery Bradley had created a turnover -- his second big strip in the final moments -- and Isaiah Thomas couldn't get to the basket in transition. Turner, trailing the play, got the kickout and dribbled to his sweet spot at the free throw line; but with three defenders directly in front of him, Turner delivered a pretty no-look reverse dish to Crowder for the triple that put Boston up 82-80.
Turner's explanation of the play might have been even better than the actual sequence.
"I had confidence [Crowder] was going to make it," Turner said. "Before [the possession] I had told Crowder, even though he’d missed a couple of shots, I said, ‘You’ve got some big shots in you.’ He was like, ‘I know.’ When I was dribbling, I was like, 'Oh snap, I’m at 15 feet, I’m about to end this.' And then I thought about [Michael Jordan] passing to Steve Kerr. And I thought, 'Well, let me add that to my legacy. I’ll pass one time.' And that was it. It was unbelievable, actually. Ingenious by me."
On paper, Stevens' decision to lean on Turner in the second half made no sense. Turner missed six of the seven shots he took over the first two quarters and had more turnovers (one) than assists (zero) before intermission.
And yet it's hard to argue with the result.
"[Turner] couldn’t get the ball to fall like he normally does, but he still made enough to kind of keep us hanging around," Stevens said. "And I just think it was one of those decisions where, again, I thought we would play small late. Because they killed us when they went small, I thought, for most of the game."
Wednesday's win is unlikely to inspire much confidence for the Celtics, but Boston took pride in pulling out a close victory -- something this season's team had not done before this rally. And it ensured things will be a little less tense at the dinner table on Turkey Day.
"I probably wouldn’t have had Thanksgiving if we lost," Thomas said.