PHILADELPHIA — After he spent a few tortured minutes at the podium inside the Wells Fargo Center interview room being asked questions about yet another loss to the Boston Celtics, as 76ers center Joel Embiid was finally granted a reprieve from talking about his team’s 112-109 defeat, he decided he had one final thing to say.
“The referees f—ing suck,” he said.
With that, he turned, walked off the stage, flung open the curtain next to it and walked out.
It was a final indignity — one that will assuredly come with a fine from the league office sometime Wednesday — on a night when Embiid finished with a gaudy stat line (23 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 37 minutes), but he and the Sixers once again found themselves on the losing end of a game against the Celtics.
Including Tuesday’s victory, Boston is 10-2 against Philadelphia since the start of last season, a record that includes the Celtics’ 4-1 series victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season and a pristine 3-0 record against the Sixers so far this season. Making matters worse for Philadelphia: Five of the past seven losses have come with Kyrie Irving sitting out after the All-Star guard sat Tuesday with a knee injury.
With the two teams tied for fourth place in the East with identical 36-21 records, the Celtics’ owning the tiebreaker could loom large down the road as they battle for playoff positioning. The final matchup between the two teams is March 20 on ESPN.
“No,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said when asked if he’s worried about his players getting into their own heads about their repeated failures against the Celtics. “Not even close.
“We’ve got a whole new team. We’ve been with each other for a minute. I don’t even think about that at all … I’m excited to play these guys.”
Brown is right in that this year’s Sixers — because of the additions of Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler in blockbuster midseason trades — are far different from the team that lost to Boston in last year’s playoffs. He even, as he pointed out before the game, has had a different roster for each of the three matchups between these teams this season.
Joel Embiid gets the ball with the 76ers down 106-104 and turns the ball over, but looks for a foul call.
One constant for all of them, though — going back to last season — is Embiid vs. Al Horford. On Tuesday, like just about every other time these teams have faced each other, Horford got the better of that matchup.
Horford finished the game with a similarly gaudy stat line — 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals in 35 minutes — but anyone watching the game would have little doubt deciding who had the edge in Horford’s and Embiid’s head-to-head battle.
“He’s not doing anything,” Embiid said when asked about being guarded by Horford. “I was sleep-walking for three quarters, and that’s on me.
“Like I said, that’s on me. It had nothing to do with anybody.”
The numbers tell a different story. In the eight games these two teams have played since the start of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid has shot just 25-for-70 (36 percent) against Horford, including 5-for-16 (31 percent) Tuesday, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Against all other defenders, Embiid has gone 48-for-52 (52 percent), including 4-for-6 Tuesday.
Embiid has also taken 12 of his 16 3-point attempts against the Celtics this season when Horford was guarding him — perhaps a sign of his frustration at the way he’s unable to move Horford inside the way he does against just about any other defender thrown his way.
“Al’s a smart defender,” said Gordon Hayward, who had 26 points to lead all scorers off the bench for the Celtics, “so I think he’s able to use spacing and angles and really kind of knows when to gap and when to get up to him. He’s also just a tough defender, like taking bumps, not getting backed all the way down and then still being long enough to contest his jump shots.
“Embiid’s a monster, so for Al to play like that is really encouraging. We’ve seen him do it in the past, too, so it was a good job by Al.”
While Embiid’s comment about the referees was unprompted, it likely was in reference to one play late in regulation. He got the ball in the post with Philadelphia trailing by two with less than 40 seconds remaining and tried to back Horford down. But when Embiid went up for a shot, he was clearly hit across the arms by Horford and lost the ball — but no foul was called.
Embiid then took his time getting back to the other end of the court, where Marcus Smart eventually got an uncontested dunk at the rim — in part because Embiid, who had five fouls, didn’t make an attempt to stop him from scoring. The Sixers bench collectively reacted to the lack of a call at the other end after the ensuing timeout, but by then, the damage was done.
Adding salt to Embiid’s wounds was his decision, with 2.9 seconds left, to put back an offensive rebound for a layup with the Sixers trailing by three and no timeouts left.
“I’m an idiot,” Embiid said. “I should’ve kicked it out or took it out and shot it. I didn’t think about the situation and us not having a timeout. I thought we had one, and as soon as I shot it, I looked and said, ‘I’m stupid.’
“But, like I said, that’s on me. I need to do a better job.”