Their Celtics would pull away for a 101-85 win to reclaim a lead of 3-2 in this conference semifinal. That it was generated around 18 third-quarter points by neglected power forward Brandon Bass emphasized the peculiarity of their return to form. The core of this Celtics team had gone 7-0 in Game 5s of series that were dead even, but this victory was different. It was built from a foundation of broken confidence.
The Celtics were coming off a discouraging loss in which they had surrendered a second-half lead of 18 points while enabling the 76ers to equal the series. That negative momentum combined with the absence of shooting guard Avery Bradley to create a somber mood in the not-so-new Garden. The Celtics had renewed their perimeter defense this season around the surprising emergence of Bradley, who in the last month suffered repeated dislocations of his left shoulder as well as "soreness'' in his right shoulder, coach Doc Rivers said.
"It's pretty bad,'' said Rivers, who predicted that Bradley may be available once every few games, for however long the season lasted.
It was another casualty for a team that was already playing on the margin. If things didn't go well now, the fans understood -- as expressed by the restraint of their cheers -- that this series and the era of the not-so-new Big Three could be all done by late Wednesday night in Philadelphia. They were in Year Five of the original three-year plan launched in 2007, and this was the kind of night everyone knew was coming and no one wanted to think about when Kevin Garnett arrived as a 31-year-old former MVP rejuvenated by his trade to the NBA's winningest franchise.
Now he was a 36-year-old converted center trying to fend off a younger No. 8 seed that had everything to gain at his expense. Garnett, Ray Allen, also 36, and Paul Pierce, 34, might have been playing their final game together in Boston, and throughout the first half the 76ers were able to get to the basket as they pleased. Neither the Celtics nor their supporters responded with the passion typical of a Game 5. The fans weren't invested in their team's future so much as they were paying respects to its well-celebrated past. The players could feel it. It was the first time in five years that they weren't enframed and fed back with the noisy confidence that they had grown used to generating and devouring. It sounded like any other NBA building, and they were playing like just another team.
"We weren't right in the first half, you could just feel it,'' said Rivers, who clapped his hands from the sideline as if he were slapping at the cheeks of an unresponsive patient. "You could see all our guys, they were looking at each other -- it was like the Celtic spirit wasn't there. I talked about it a couple times in the timeouts, and I told our coaches, 'We've got to get through this half and see if we can gather it back.'''
A run of four baskets by backup center Greg Stiemsma helped keep the Celtics within 50-47 at the half. Though the 76ers would have expected a bigger lead after shooting 55 percent, they were excited to be controlling play and silencing the crowd.
"I thought we had a good grip of the game, I really did,'' 76ers coach Doug Collins said. "And it went downhill quickly.''
Collins thought the game changed when Andre Iguodala missed two free throws on a clear-path foul four minutes into the third quarter. But Rivers, who understands the relationship between his eldest stars and their fans, recognized a surging of the mood when Garnett drove to the basket and was whistled for an offensive foul that should have been a no-call as Spencer Hawes jumped straight up to defend him. The unfairness of that one play woke up the crowd angrily, making them forget about the poignancy of the evening, and the Celtics woke up with them.
"We needed something to ignite us together,'' Rivers said. "Once we started playing right, then we started playing very well.''
Collins had predicted that the game would be won by the team that controlled the glass and/or played best in the third quarter. His team's halftime advantage of 19-15 rebounds would be trumped a dozen minutes later, when the Celtics finished the third with a 75-66 lead, thanks to a 6-for-7 quarter from Bass, seven assists from Rondo and six turnovers by Collins's young team.
Coming out of their own timeout with a 57-55 lead intact, Iguodala threw an entry pass to Young around his ankles. The ball was dug out by Bass, whose free throws at the other end launched the Celtics on an inspired 10-0 run that coincided with five Sixers turnovers. Along the way, Bass was finishing a couple of dunks behind the defense, and Allen was completing a three-on-one layup in transition as Iguodala argued with the referee. The crowd was back in charge with a 63-57 lead to celebrate.
Bass was averaging 10.1 points and shooting 43 percent for the playoffs -- well below his season averages of 12.5 points and 47 percent -- but studied video to help him take advantage of the 76ers' trapping defenses that were meant to diminish Pierce, who went 3 for 7 yet finished with 16 points on a night when the 76ers were outscored 26-10 from the foul line. Bass went 9 for 13 and afterward had no idea he had 18 points in the third until a reporter brought it up.
"We were swinging the ball, getting it to the open guy,'' said Pierce, who in the last two games has looked as if he has found a way to play through his sprained MCL from the previous round. "We need different guys on different nights to step up.''
The 76ers had a strong couple of minutes that encouraged Collins to believe they had absorbed the worst of it. Instead, Rondo (14 assists and 13 points) pushed the Celtics out to another extended run of 16-2 that resulted in an 81-66 advantage inside the final eight minutes.
"His will, his leadership -- we needed it, and he gave it to us,'' said Rivers of Rondo. "He played with a force, and he got us in our stuff. I can hear him barking at guys, demanding guys get into spots, and that's not something he loves doing. And so I told him that after the game, 'I thought that was as good of a leadership role that you've had with us in the playoffs.' We needed somebody to lead us.''
The Celtics also succeeded in revitalizing Garnett (20 points on a game-high 17 field goal attempts) in the post. But there is no sense in concluding that the Celtics now have command, not while the 76ers have been fighting back so stubbornly despite their inexperience and their absence of go-to scoring, and they'll be back on the floor faster than they'd like.
"Listen, this series is hard,'' Rivers said. "They're a good team, they're an athletic team. Every minute you think we're leaking oil, physically.''
The one thing they do know is that they'll be returning here, whether for a Game 7 of this series or a Game 3 of the conference final. The long farewell was extended.