The Celtics are the upscale team here, as demonstrated by their recovery from a 77-67 deficit over the final 10:53 of the game. They have four stars who are superior to anyone on Philadelphia's roster. Rajon Rondo had his eighth career triple-double and Kevin Garnett (29 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks) played as if it was 2008 all over again. "We are going to ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off," said Paul Pierce, whose own play down the stretch transcended his 3-for-11 night.
Boston's fourth-quarter dominance made it easy to neglect the injuries that worried coach Doc Rivers before this series began. Pierce wore a brace on his left knee and walked with a subtle limp in between plays. Ray Allen (12 points) overcame an ankle injury that Rivers worried he had aggravated "10 different times" throughout his 33 minutes. Avery Bradley is shooting 37.0 percent in the playoffs while wearing a sleeve over his injured left shoulder, and Mickael Pietrus (0-for-2 in 11 minutes) is dealing with a knee injury of his own.
None of these problems are likely to improve over the course of the second round. Rivers can only hope that none of them degrades, because maintaining the status quo would be the best news he could receive. He was already disappointed when he saw this series was opening two days after his team survived a six-game threat against the Hawks, and that Boston's first four games against Philadelphia would be played every other day. "I couldn't have prescribed a worse situation for us," he said.
The Sixers are in the unique position of not having to pull themselves to pieces over a hard loss like this one. There are going to be two types of pressure exerted in this series, and it remains uncertain which will be most important. The Celtics are trying to pressure their eighth-seeded opponent to make plays when it matters most. The Sixers are trying to pressure No. 4 Boston physically in order to make the Celtics prove they can play all-out without breaking down.
Will this series be decided by talent or by health? The pressure point of the latter worked to Philadelphia's advantage in the opening round when Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah of the No. 1 Bulls were injured, and now the Sixers are positioned to use the same formula to reach the conference final. It has nothing to do with playing dirty or wishing injury upon Pierce or Allen or Bradley or Pietrus. It has everything to do with playing to exhaustion with the patience of tenacity and waiting to see what will happen. Philadelphia's job is to keep pressuring the Celtics and forcing them to extend themselves. The Sixers are like an underdog boxer hoping to survive the early rounds and win the fight by decision.
"If you followed our team all year, that's who we are," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "We aren't going to drop our heads. We don't do that. We live to come back and we'll fight just as hard in Game 2."
In the fifth and final year of what was originally viewed as a three-year window of contention, the Celtics have become especially resourceful. Over the final six minutes Pierce turned into Rondo while Rondo performed a remarkable impression of Allen. Three times down the stretch Pierce fed Rondo flashing out for crucial jumpers that he never would have been expected to take or make in prior years. "He wanted those shots," Rivers said of Rondo, whose shooting has always been his most obvious weakness. "We were going to switch Ray and put him in that spot where the guy curls back up, and Rondo wanted that play. He wanted the shot and he took it. That has to be great for his confidence."
After Iguodala and Jrue Holiday hit jumpers to keep the Sixers within three points in the final seconds, Rondo fouled Holiday to prevent Philadelphia from attempting an overtime-forcing three. Then Rondo took the final inbound pass sprinting toward his own basket and dribbling out the clock beyond the reach of Evan Turner, who punched the stanchion in frustration, a choice that made him look wiser than Amar'e Stoudemire.
If every game is played on terms of Boston's making, then this is going to be a short series. The biggest surprise of all is that Garnett, at 35, is dominating. Since his knee injury of 2009, he has been the vulnerable one while Pierce and Allen have been reliable. Now it's the other way around. When the Celtics were horrible early, it was Garnett who kept them in the game. His turnaround jumper shaved what had been a 13-point deficit down to 47-42 going into the half, and his protection of the rim and defensive leadership over 38 minutes was inspirational. "I've never seen him play better," Collins said.
Rivers managed Garnett's minutes in order to keep him in play for the entire fourth quarter. "It's so hard when he's off the floor for those 12 minutes or 10 minutes. I mean you're in a panic right now," Rivers said. "Our plus/minus with him off the floor right now is horrendous, so that's an area we have to improve on."
Allen had an impact of plus-17 points on this game, even as Rivers watched with dread. During the pre-game ceremonies, Allen abruptly left the huddle and ran down the hallway as team president Danny Ainge followed to make sure everything was all right.
"He's so smart," Ainge said as he returned to his courtside seat while the arena went dark for the starter introductions. "If you're coming off the bench, you want to stay loose and sweaty instead of sitting through all of this. I used to do the same kind of thing when I was playing in Phoenix -- I'd go to that practice court and shoot to keep warm during the introductions."
It's easy to make too much of one game for the winner at the expense of the loser. In this case, the losers established the confidence of small forward Iguodala (19 points and six assists), Turner (16 points, 10 rebounds and four steals) and centers Spencer Hawes (who ran hard for his 15 points) and Lavoy Allen (12 points on seven shots off the bench). They can anticipate better production from Holiday (3-of-13), the point guard who was a leader at both ends of the court throughout their first-round upset.
The statistic that should give Philadelphia the most hope involves the wear-and-tear that is likely to weigh on the elderly Celtics, who will be playing their 10th playoff game in 20 days by the time Game 4 comes along next week. If this was a hard opener for them to win, will Games 2, 3 and 4 grow harder as the mileage builds up?
Maybe the Celtics will win going away. Maybe they should, but their opponents will spend the next couple of games telling themselves they can survive so long as they've earned a single victory going into Game 4. It is a great thing to be young, without expectation or pressure, and no other goal than to play at full blast and hope that's enough. That formula worked for them in Round 1, and who's to say it won't work again?