LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Jimmy Butler led a fourth quarter comeback as the Philadelphia 76ers overpowered the Boston Celtics, 118-115, in a stormy Eastern Conference duel on Wednesday.
Butler scored 15 points in the final period as the Sixers overturned a nine-point deficit to seal their first win of the season against Boston while extending their winning streak to six games.
Butler, who was slow to settle in Philadelphia following his acrimonious move from the Minnesota Timberwolves in November, finished with 22 points including a decisive jump shot late in the fourth quarter.
Center Joel Embiid also delivered a towering performance for the Sixers, finishing with 37 points, a career-high 22 rebounds and four assists.
Embiid was also at the center of the bruising encounter’s flashpoint in the third quarter which led to Celtics star Marcus Smart being ejected.
Replays appeared to show Embiid obstruct Smart with an elbow, prompting a furious reaction from the Celtics guard. Smart shoved Embiid forcefully to the floor after their collision, triggering a melee.
Embiid refused to react, and officials wasted no time in tossing Smart from the contest.
Boston was left to reflect on a frustrating evening which saw them fail to capitalize on a big early lead of 60-46 in the second quarter.
Kyrie Irving led the scoring with 36 points for the Celtics, who fell to 43-28 with the loss. The 76ers improved to 46-25 to keep a firm grip on third place in the Eastern Conference table.
Embiid, meanwhile, said he had been determined to produce a big performance after being riled by suggestions that the Celtics defense had his measure.
“I’ve been hearing that these guys can guard me better than anyone else, so I just had to come out and show that I’m the most unstoppable player in the league,’’ the 7ft tall Cameroonian said.
Embiid meanwhile had special praise for Butler’s decisive fourth quarter contribution.
“He’s a closer,” Embiid said. ‘’My job is to get him in the forecourt and let him do his thing. The last few games he’s been fantastic.’’
Meantime, James Harden exploded for 57 points but could not prevent the Houston Rockets stumbling to a shock 125-126 overtime defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Harden’s half-century led the scoring but Memphis grabbed victory courtesy of 35 points from Mike Conley and 33 points from Jonas Valanciunas.
It was a similar story in Oklahoma City, where Russell Westbrook delivered a virtuoso display which ultimately proved to be in vain as the Thunder fell 123-114 in overtime to the Toronto Raptors.
Westbrook finished with 42 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists while Paul George had 19 points.