By Ian Thomsen
May 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA -- The Celtics and the Heat are racing each other to the finish line. Each team now believes it is destined to meet the other in the Eastern Conference final. Each understands that the first team to cross the finish line -- by wrapping up its current round of play -- will hold an advantage.

That is one of many reasons why Game 6 on Wednesday is so important to the Celtics. They believe they should have swept the Sixers by now, or at least finished them off in five games. Had the Celtics completed their mission efficiently, then their injured players would be resting and rooting for the Pacers to extend Miami to a seventh game.

But it's not too late for Boston to gain an edge by avoiding a Game 7 of its own and preparing for the next challenge. Kevin Garnett took a step toward ensuring a place in the Finals after the Celtics' win in Game 5 on Monday, when he lauded the support his team receives in Boston and criticized the fans in Philadelphia as "fair-weather."

That kind of incendiary comment is usually made by a young player who gets carried away and can't handle the pressure that comes with postseason play. But Garnett, a 36-year-old headed to the Hall of Fame five years after he retires (whenever that may be), knew what he was doing. He was baiting the Philadelphia fans to boo him throughout Game 6 because he needs the added pressure.

The Celtics obviously have not felt a great deal of respect for the young 76ers, who lack the All-Star talent that defines Boston and who reached the second round by way of injuries to Chicago's Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Maybe the experience they are gaining in these playoffs will propel some of the young Sixers to a starring level as soon as next season; for now, however, the Celtics have suffered extended lapses of inspiration, as if they know they can win against the inexperienced squad anytime they put their minds to it.

It was that kind of indifference that led to their losses in the second halves of Games 2 and 4. Garnett understood the need to be aggressive, especially after his failure to attack the basket played a big part in the Celtics' surrendering of an 18-point lead last Friday. By encouraging Sixers fans to attack him and his team, he was admitting that he needs the motivation. It will surely be offered as soon as he is introduced before Game 6.

It will be up to Garnett and Rajon Rondo to drive their tired, injured team across the finish line. In recent games Paul Pierce has looked as if he has learned to manage his sprained MCL while creating free-throw opportunities against the trapping defenses led by Andre Iguodala, but Pierce remains vulnerable. So does Ray Allen, who is dealing with an ankle injury and hasn't had a breakout performance in ages. Allen has returned to the starting lineup because of injuries to both shoulders by shooting guard Avery Bradley, whose availability for Game 6 has been cited as 50-50 by coach Doc Rivers.

The Celtics would prefer to win Game 6 without Bradley in hopes that a few days of rest could prepare him for the next round. But swingman Mickael Pietrus and center Greg Stiemsma are also dealing with injuries.

"The good thing for this group, honestly -- we've done this all year," Rivers said of dealing with injuries in the absence of rest and practices. "We've kind of been a makeshift group all year. So it's not a distraction, I will tell you that. Our guys, they're very professional about it."

The 76ers are healthy, apart from power forward Elton Brand, who overcame a persistent neck injury to provide an efficient 19 points (8-for-13 shooting) in Game 5. In this series they've established a variety of scorers, including backup big man Lavoy Allen, a rookie who has consistently made mid-range jumpers and played well defensively against Garnett. Their goal, as laid out by coach Doug Collins, will be to outrebound the Celtics and dominate the third quarter while establishing a variety of scoring options among Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young.

"We've got to be strong with the ball," Collins said after watching the Celtics manhandle his Sixers in the second half of Game 5. "I told my guys that to win Game 6 we've got to be mentally and physically tougher and what we were the last eighteen minutes of the game. They knocked us on our heels."

The 76ers haven't lost consecutive games in the playoffs, and the Celtics of this Big Three era are 2-10 on the road in closeout games. But these circumstances transcend those numbers. The Celtics can't afford further lapses, not with Miami lurking.

"We've got a quick turnaround here and we're going to have to be ready," Rivers said. "I just want us to play the right way ever minute. If we do that, I don't know if we'll win or not, but we'll be good."

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