PHILADELPHIA -- The Boston Celtics found out about two hours before Wednesday night's Eastern Conference showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers that they would be without both Jaylen Brown (illness) and Kristaps Porzingis (right knee contusion).
For most teams, missing their second- and third-leading scorers in a road matchup against another high-level opponent would spell doom. But the Celtics are not most teams.
Instead, it simply offered them an opportunity to remind the world of their impressive depth. While Jayson Tatum led the team with 29 points, Derrick White had 27, including 14 in the fourth quarter, and Al Horford had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 5 blocks and also helped force Joel Embiid into being a minus-25 on the night. The Celtics went on to win 117-107.
"That's the luxury that we have on our team," Tatum said afterward. "We have so many talented guys."
The two who stood out Wednesday were White and Horford, whose prominence on the Celtics' roster took a step back after the team's two signature moves over the past several months. When Porzingis was acquired in June, Horford suddenly wasn't the top big on Boston's roster. After Jrue Holiday was acquired on the day before training camp started, White's position as the team's point guard was called into question, and either White or Horford was expected to make way for Holiday in the eventual starting lineup.
But their importance to this group came to the fore Wednesday. As Philadelphia (8-3) kept making runs to get back in front in the fourth quarter, it was White who repeatedly stemmed the tide. In one stretch midway through the quarter, he hit a 3-pointer, made a running floater and then laid off a perfect pass to center Luke Kornet, leading to a pair of free throws.
"[Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla] drew up the first play for me and then after that he just kind of said stay aggressive," White said. "I was able to get to my spots and make the right play."
Horford, meanwhile, was repeatedly in the right place at the right time all night. He gave Embiid fits, along with the rest of the 76ers. He also made four 3-pointers and didn't commit a turnover.
Horford's triple from the corner with 2:32 remaining, over an Embiid closeout, all but put the game away and put an exclamation point on his impressive performance in a rare start.
"The only difference is really just the starting and not starting," Horford said. "Besides that, I feel like that's kind of been what I do most of my career. If I have the guard in the perimeter, if I have the guard in the post, create energy in different ways, shoot 3s, get to about just different things.
"So I'm trying to do whatever I can to help our group."
For Philadelphia, it was a night of frustration. Embiid struggled, the 76ers continued to miss both Kelly Oubre Jr. (rib) and Nicolas Batum (personal reasons), and the entire group looked exhausted after enduring an absolute track meet here 24 hours earlier at the hands of Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia's lack of a backup point guard was glaring behind Embiid, as well, and the minutes he was on the court without rising star Tyrese Maxey at the end of the first and third quarters did not go well.
Still, Embiid was not making any excuses for his performance or the team's, saying he simply has to be better to help his team beat high-level opponents like Boston.
"Tough game," said Embiid, who had 20 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in just under 34 minutes. "They got off to a good start. And then the game was really lost in the second half of the first quarter and third quarter.
"We just, you know, we just couldn't get anything going, especially offensively, especially off the doubles. We didn't take advantage of it, and they made a run, made a couple of shots, and that was probably where the game was lost."
The mood was far different in the other locker room. Boston had managed to not only avenge last week's loss in this building, but also moved back into the top spot in the East. By beating the Sixers on the road and with two top players sitting out, the Celtics sent a loud and clear reminder to the rest of the league why they are firmly in the inner circle of title contenders this season.
"I think it just speaks to the culture of our team and the organization." Tatum said. "How it's just like a next-man-up mentality. There's going to be nights throughout the season or certain guys might be out. We don't make excuses.
"We just find ways to try to win. I think how tough we are as a team and how hard we play, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win every game regardless of who's in and who's out."