BOSTON -- One month ago the inexperienced 76ers were so anemic offensively that they routinely lost close games, couldn't win on the road and were in danger of missing the playoffs. Now all of those trends are uncoiling inexplicably. Here on Monday they outshot the Celtics down the stretch to move within three wins of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics had every reason to be confident when Kevin Garnett (15 points and 12 rebounds) canned a turnaround jumper to bring them even at 65-65 with 4:33 remaining. After three futile quarters they had reverted to their brilliant form of sharing the ball and playing through Garnett in the post. They would shoot 65 percent in the fourth (13-of-20 from the field, including 6 of 7 threes) and yet would be stunned to realize it wasn't enough to hold home court against a No. 8 seed that had come this far by way of first-round injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah that ruined top-seeded Chicago.
Now the Celtics have compounded Philadelphia's fortune by encouraging the younger and healthier Sixers to keep attacking when they return to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4. "All season long we couldn't win these games," said 76ers coach Doug Collins, "and now our guys are believing they can do it. It is pretty special to watch."
The Celtics didn't appear old so much as they looked clumsy and uncharacteristically inept. Coach Doc Rivers assailed them for trying to win their matchups individually while "chasing shots" over the first three quarters on their way to 19 turnovers overall. Following a 5-for-5 start in which they appeared likely to doom the Sixers to an 0-2 deficit, the Celtics would go 15-of-54 from the floor to trail 57-49 entering the fourth.
Paul Pierce was 2-of-9 with five turnovers and is now shooting 25 percent for the series while playing through a sprained MCL in his left knee. Brandon Bass was hopeless for much of the game, and Garnett was 2 of 5 before dominating the fourth. "We didn't go to him -- we never established the post," said Rivers of Garnett. "We knew the blueprint before the game and it took us three quarters to get into it."
When Ray Allen (7-of-14 for 17 points) knocked down a typical three from Rajon Rondo (13 assists and just one turnover) to give them a 75-74 lead and then watched 21-year-old Jrue Holiday respond by dribbling out the shot clock with 1:16 left, the Celtics thought they were on their way to a third straight playoff win in tight circumstances. But they were being hustled.
They failed to extend their lead when Allen flashed baseline only to find Avery Bradley occupying the left corner. Allen yelled at him to vacate but by then it was too late, and Rondo (4-of-12 from the floor) missed an afterthought jumper. The Sixers' lead was restored on a drive by Evan Turner, the second-year guard who had six points in the final three minutes after being scolded by Collins for playing out of control and too fast earlier in the game.
When Allen missed a jumper, the Sixers could have run down the clock while yielding a four-second differential. But they also had a foul to give, which they could have committed pre-emptively to leave Boston with little time. Rivers was left with the awkward choice of fouling twice and inbounding after using his final timeout with 12.0 seconds. They needed a three to tie but never got off a shot after Garnett was called for a moving screen with 10 seconds left.
"I wasn't fond of it -- at all," said Rivers of the call against Garnett. "I think Kevin got three off-the-ball offensive fouls. So, clearly it looked like (the officials) were looking for it all night, and they got three of them. If you're going to tell me that Kevin was the only one moving in picks tonight, then I'll live with that. But he clearly was not the only one. But he was the one who got the calls tonight.
"Listen, we put ourselves in that position. I say it all the time, if you put yourself in a position to let someone else do something, then you can lose games. And that's what happened."
If the end game for the Celtics was to finish this series quickly in order to rest and recuperate for a likely conference final against Miami, then this outcome was a disaster. Not only have they emboldened the Sixers to build on their opening-round success against Chicago, but they've also brought out confidence in the likes of rookie big man Lavoy Allen, who is 9-of-14 in the series. Close to four minutes remained when Allen banked in a long catch-and-shoot jumper following an inbound with 0.9 seconds on the shot clock. "That was a long 0.9, I must say," said Rivers, adding to the likelihood that he'll be fined by the league office.
Iguodala, Turner and Holiday all hit enormous shots down the stretch for a team that had grown used to failing in these situations all season. It wasn't so long ago that the Sixers were defined by the absence of a go-to scorer, but in the playoffs they've turned their balance into a strength while winning five of their last seven against Chicago and Boston.
"We want to keep the pace up," said Collins.
The Celtics lost Bradley briefly in the second quarter when his left shoulder popped out of place for the third time in two weeks. He bravely returned to play the fourth, but the Sixers will pursue an optimistic strategy as they return to Philadelphia, where in March they beat the Celtics twice by a combined 45 points. The Sixers' goal will be to continue exploiting the tiring every-other-day schedule of this series by attacking the Celtics and finding out whether Bradley, Pierce, Allen and Mickael Pietrus (whose back-to-back threes early in the fourth instantly shot Boston within reach) can survive their lingering injuries without breaking down.
Rivers has seen enough from his team over the last five years to maintain faith and common sense. "I just think we've got to play right," he said. "We've got to move the ball. We have to do that first, and then we'll find out if somebody else has to step up."