BOSTON — Kyrie Irving is not one to let a fourth-quarter dance go to waste. So while his Boston Celtics teammates had built a comfortable eight-point cushion by the time Irving checked back in for the final 6 minutes, 35 seconds of Thursday’s game against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, Boston’s star point guard still requested a spotlight.
Irving scored nine of his game-high 36 points in the final frame. It was his fifth outing in November with at least 30 points and fourth time reaching that mark in Boston’s past seven games. His big night helped Boston run away with a 108-97 triumph over the Sixers at TD Garden.
Irving sits third in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring at 7.1 points per game behind only former teammate LeBron James (9.3) and Kristaps Porzingis (7.3). Asked about his love for the fourth quarter after Thursday’s win, Irving went on a gushing monologue about the final frame.
“It’s go-time,” Irving said. “Especially when the game’s in the balance, it’s the best time to play. Just ultimate freedom, just to really showcase what you’ve been working on because you know that you’re going to get the team’s best shot on the other end.”
Kyrie starts the second half with behind-the-back dribbling then an up-and-under layup.
Irving, who finished 12-of-21 shooting from the field, including 5 of 8 on 3-pointers, saved one of his prettiest baskets for his final field goal. With a little crossover dribble, he raced past JJ Redick into the lane. Sixers rookie Ben Simmons stepped up to contest, but Irving casually sent a floater at the basket and it barely scraped the back rim on its way through the cylinder.
Irving would finish his night to MVP chants at the free throw line.
“Some guys think a lot quicker than others. I was just fortunate enough that my mind works a lot quicker than other people in the fourth quarter,” Irving said. “So it just gets me going a little bit. Especially when it’s a close game, there’s just nothing like it. NBA, every crowd’s going, whether home or away — there’s just nothing better. I love playing in those type of situations.
“They’re always fun because there’s gotta be a winner, there’s gotta be a loser. Obviously, I would take some of the games where we’re up 20 and you can be sitting down, not playing in the fourth. But when you get in a close game like that it’s just pretty fun.”
Irving can thank his teammates for taking some of the pressure off on this night. The Joel Embiid-less 76ers had rallied ahead late in the third quarter and were up a bucket when Irving checked out with 3:37 to play in the frame.
Marcus Morris, shuffled to a reserve role with Celtics coach Brad Stevens preferring the size of Aron Baynes to start the game, produced three consecutive makes, including a driving finger roll as Boston quickly rallied back in front. From there, Boston’s bench held the Sixers at arm’s length until Irving returned.
The Celtics, with a rare two-day break after Monday’s loss to the Pistons, seemed to have a little more in the tank than the Sixers, who were playing the second night of a back-to-back (hence Embiid’s absence, for what the team dubbed, “load management”).
Morris, who has been eased back in after missing the start of the season because of knee soreness, playfully answered, “Next question” when asked if he preferred to be starting. But Morris has routinely noted his desire to be a starter and clearly he prefers that role.
Given the way Boston has struggled to generate consistent offense when Irving is not on the floor, Morris has increased value with the second unit. He showed why Thursday, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the second half. Morris missed four of his first five shots but connected on five of six after halftime.
“It feels good,” Morris said. “Every game is going to be a different player. Terry [Rozier] can come off the bench and light it up. Marcus [Smart] can come off the bench and light it up. That’s the beauty of this team, just having different guys that can fill it up and make plays.”
And yet the Celtics leaned hard on their stars, too, in Al Horford and Irving. Horford quietly produced another excellent night, putting up 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks.
But it was Irving who dazzled while putting up 20 first-half points.
“It’s tremendous,” Smart said. “Like I said about Isaiah [Thomas], sometimes you just get caught watching the way he’s able to score the ball. [Irving] came in and it is refreshing to see a guy come in and give you what you need.
“He gets to where he wants to go. He doesn’t stop until he gets there. When you’ve got a player like that, it’s hard to stop.”
Added Stevens: “I say all the time how spoiled we are to coach players at this level. [Irving is] certainly one of the most gifted scorers in the game. He can do things with just a tiny amount of space and make it look easy, and it’s really, really tough. He made a couple of one-on-one plays late where he drove it, but even the dribble handoff shot that he made in the corner, it was pretty well defended. He just has a special ability.”
Like Horford, Smart had his typical positive impact. The backup guard made just 2 of 6 shots and turned the ball over six times. But he handed out a team-high eight assists and was a team-best plus-15 in plus/minus.
“He didn’t have his best game, but you could still his presence,” Stevens said. “And I thought we were obviously better when he was out there. It’s unique. I’m trying to figure out the numbers just like you guys are. He’s just a unique player. He impacts the game in a lot of ways.”
The Sixers put six players in double figures, with Dario Saric scoring a team-high 18 points. Boston overcame some sloppy early play (12 of 17 turnovers came in first half) and shot 50.6 percent overall from the field.
Jayson Tatum, the player Boston selected with the No. 3 pick it received in a pre-draft swap with Philadelphia, scored 15 points. He again came up with key scoring plays, such as in the fourth quarter when he waved off his teammates to go isolation against former Celtics big man Amir Johnson and drove at the basket for a layup.
Though Stevens challenged the notion that his team is a contender through the first quarter of the season, Boston improved to 19-4 on the year and maintained the best record in basketball.
Sixers coach Brett Brown suggested Boston is among current NBA powers.
“I mean, we’re playing against NBA royalty right now,” Brown said.
“You’re always learning from All-Stars, really. I look at this [Boston] team and you look at what Kyrie and Horford have done with bringing some of these young guys along and they’re NBA All-Stars for a reason. I think it’s a great learning experience for us. I think this building and this city has a real pulse. It’s got a vibe to the building, as unforgiving as Philadelphia is. You go on the road and play the league’s best team and there needs to be a level of poise and confidence among our group.”
The Celtics continue their four-game homestand Saturday when they host the Phoenix Suns.