The Celtics were up by 15 in the sixth minute. The 76ers were shooting 23.1 percent at halftime. And yet Boston lost going away, 92-83, as Philadelphia evened this East semifinal at 2-2.
This game promised to say a lot about the Celtics, and this result fulfilled that promise in the worst way. They wanted and needed to go up 3-1 to close the series in five games Monday and earn extended rest for an East final against Miami or Indiana. Injuries suffered by the conference's top two seeds -- sidelining Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh -- opened a path for the Celtics to reach the NBA Finals for the third time in five years in what figures to be their farewell together. Now they face the strong possibility of a seventh game against the No. 8 seed Sixers. The elderly, injured and altogether vulnerable Celtics can't assume they will prevail, not after a severely inconsistent postseason in which they've wasted opportunities to win Games 2 and 4 this week.
"I thought we lost composure,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "It was that simple: We had the lead, we had a chance to go up 3-1. We didn't play with the same intensity we played the first quarter.''
The possibility of reaching the Finals without having to deal with Chicago or Miami created an opportunity for the Celtics to take charge of the conference. That surely appeared to be their intent when they made their first five shots while holding the Sixers to a 3-for-16 opening quarter.
"I worry about our young guys here at home,'' coach Doug Collins said a couple of days ago, in anticipation of the booing from their own fans that would exaggerate the impact of a cold spell. His worst fears were coming true Friday. They were a poor perimeter-shooting team to begin with, and now they were settling for errant jumpers because they were unable to enter the ball inside or finish in the paint, where they were a preposterous 6 for 21 in the first half.
The Celtics held every advantage they could want but one, and that was the advantage they had been receiving in recent weeks from Garnett. They didn't get it this time, and maybe the defense of 76ers rookie Lavoy Allen had something to do with it. But it was more to the point that they didn't go to Garnett nearly enough in the early going, and when he did get the ball he wasn't looking to score. It was a bad sign in the sixth minute when Garnett fired a pass out of bounds that was too high for Rondo to handle. The ball was still being retrieved when Garnett looked up at the basket and made a shooting motion, as if to admit that he should have taken the shot instead of sharing the ball. But he didn't learn from that experience.
Rivers was asked about Garnett's disappearance.
"I don't know,'' he said. "I'm going to have to go look at that and figure that out myself. We never established him. He was a passer tonight; we have to get him back into the middle of the paint and being more aggressive.''
Garnett was 3 for 12 from the field for nine points with an uncharacteristic seven turnovers. Those numbers were offset by his interior defense (three blocks) and rebounding (11), but this game was lost to the surges of Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala (13 points each in the second half) because the Celtics failed to finish off the 76ers in the second quarter. They meandered when they needed to play mean.
They wasted a strong 24-point night from Paul Pierce, who was left to almost single-handedly hold off Philadelphia's comeback after Boston missed its first nine shots of the second quarter. Rajon Rondo (15 points and 15 assists) would admit that he should have slowed down his teammates and forced them into their proper spots as the game tightened. The Celtics wound up being outscored 34-26 in the paint and outrebounded 52-38 (including 17-5 on the offensive glass). They committed six more turnovers than the 76ers. They were outscored 25-16 at the foul line while attempting 11 fewer shots than their opponents, which is a tough trick to pull off in a close game.
"Everything we did was the prescription that you don't do to beat them,'' Rivers said. "You would have thought that we were down the whole game if you looked at those numbers.''
The 76ers are pursuing another upset that after surprising the Rose-less Bulls in the first round. Their attacks gained momentum as they sensed an opportunity to recover from their third-quarter deficit of 18 points.
"When you have a chance to go up 3-1 in a series, and you're up (on the scoreboard) and you're on the road, what else are they going to do?'' said Rivers of the 76ers' aggressions. "That's what they should do. That's what was so disappointing. They are going to get into you, they're going to grab your hands, they're going to foul you. That's what they should do. And we act like we're surprised by it.''
This is a resilient and stubborn Celtics team. But it's also a team that is nearing its end and not nearly so sharp as it was three or four years ago. Would the Spurs or Thunder have lost a game like this, with so much at stake? Would the Bulls have wasted this kind of opportunity if they'd had access to their entire playoff roster as the Celtics had for this lost Game 4? The Celtics will carry on, and they may yet reach the NBA Finals. But their chances have decreased notably, not only because they've added to their own burden, but also because this game revealed the kinds of weaknesses that don't normally lead to championships. They could not get out of their own way.