The Celtics lost to Doc Rivers and his Sixers, 117-109, Wednesday night. On the surface, that wasn't a step in the right direction for Brad Stevens' club. There are no moral victories, particularly when you are playing for the right to sit atop the Eastern Conference standings.
It surely stung to watch Joel Embiid offer images that the Celtics don't have any immediate answers for. That was obvious in taking in Marcus Smart's postgame complaints regarding the Philadelphia's 21 trips to the foul line.
But make no mistake about it, this was absolutely a means to an end.
The Celtics desperately are going to need Kemba Walker, and judging by the guard's second game back they are going to get him.
Walker scored 19 points in 22 minutes, offering the kind of scoring option that is going to be the be-all, end-all when it comes to the C's competing with the best of the best.
The naysayers will point to the end result. It still wasn't good enough (even with Daniel Theis netting 23 points). But siphoning some optimism from this night in Philadelphia still isn't a difficult task. The easiest explanation? It is that the Celtics were playing without the player former Celt Dino Radja recently identified as the best player in the NBA, Jayson Tatum.
These sort of losses come and go. It's the same narrative those in Brooklyn are screaming Thursday morning after the best team ever lost to the Cavaliers. And, yes, the night left Celtics' followers with some uneasiness.
Can they stop Embiid when it counts? Is Walker's return going to continue the devaluing of Payton Pritchard (3 points in 19 minutes)? Was this another reminder regarding the looming concern over bench scoring, especially after watching the momentum of Semi Ojeleye come to a screeching halt (0 points in 22 points)?
Kemba and his knee were the key here, and they will be going forward. No matter what the final score, the Celtics came away with a bit more hope ... and a pretty big piece of the puzzle.