PHILADELPHIA -- This is the same team that barely made the playoffs, that was bullied by the Celtics six weeks ago as its coach worried whether he was too hard on his young players. This is the neglected contender that lacks a go-to scorer and meaningful playoff experience, and now these 76ers are the No. 8 seed that stands one win in Boston away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
The Sixers earned a return to the home of the 17-time champions for a Game 7 on Saturday because they held Boston to 33.3 percent shooting and 14 assists while forcing 16 turnovers. Rajon Rondo, the Celtics' point guard who has routinely distributed 14 assists all by himself over his prodigious last couple of months, was bottled up for six assists, four turnovers and nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. Confetti was shot from cannons at each corner of the court as the blue-shirted, fair-weather fans serenaded Kevin Garnett and his Celtics to their locker room following Philadelphia's 82-75 victory. Garnett, typically, did not look up.
Most of this series has been a referendum on the aged and injured Celtics, who let Game 2 slip at home and surrendered an 18-point lead in the third quarter of Game 4 here. But this outcome was different. This was about the 76ers' smothering command at the defensive end. They backed away from a hobbled Ray Allen (4-of-11 overall for nine points in 26 minutes) in order to focus on preventing Rondo from controlling the pace. It was as if they kicked out the power cord of the Celtics' offense.
Garnett, who had drawn attention to himself by condemning the fans here as "fair-weather" in apparent hope that their booing would bring out the best in him, produced a 20-point, 11-rebound performance of hollow impact. "Even though Kevin had points," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "it wasn't the type of points that we needed." They needed him to establish himself in the post, but most of his scoring came via face-up jumpers inside the three-point line.
Paul Pierce was good for 24 points and 10 rebounds, but he attempted only 11 field goals. Every starter but the ineffective Brandon Bass (2-of-12) committed at least three turnovers. "We played in 'random' a lot tonight," Rivers said of the Celtics' failure to execute set plays. "Our spacing was horrible. We were standing next to each other a lot."
The question is whether this series has reached a tipping point that can enable the 76ers to win a Game 7 on the game's most famous court. Elton Brand, at 33 the oldest Sixer, didn't appear concerned about his teammates' inexperience. "These young guys are oblivious," he said with a shrug and a smile, as Pierce approached to give him a postgame hug in the concourse outside the locker rooms.
Jrue Holiday, the Sixers' 21-year-old point guard, emerged as the best player on the floor in a game his team had to win. He scored 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting while going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line (even as his edgy teammates were missing half of their 22 free throws) and generating six assists to two turnovers. The Sixers turned the ball over three times in the second half and won the third quarter, which has been decisive in every game of this conference semifinal. True to their nature, they spread the points among a half-dozen players while shooting 58.8 percent to turn Boston's 36-33 halftime lead into a home-court advantage of 60-56 entering the fourth.
That's when Holiday emerged as their go-to man while Thaddeus Young stayed on the bench as coach Doug Collins worked the matchups. The Celtics missed the defensive leadership of off-guard Avery Bradley, who cannot be expected to play in Game 7 amid injuries to both shoulders.
"Without Avery on the floor, they went to a lot of iso's -- they were picking who they wanted," Rivers said. "We have to do a better job of covering for guys who may not be able to keep some of those in front of us."
Apart from their failure to create the big stops down the stretch, the Celtics' defense wasn't the issue, and neither was their rebounding (48-37 to their advantage). Their problems were energy and execution, which have been persistent worries against an underdog that shouldn't be able to match up in terms of talent. But the Sixers at their best have shared the ball, attacked from all corners and outworked the Celtics to swarm them defensively.
"They're young and they are very fast," Rivers said. "They play with a lot of energy and it's very difficult for our guys. They have a quickness advantage, and we understand that."
Can they overcome it? Or will the 76ers push through the exhausted Celtics on their way to the conference final? If so, it will continue the biggest run of upsets the NBA has seen in ages -- far more surprising than the Knicks' postseason climb to the '99 NBA Finals in the previous lockout year; at least that New York team had starring talent. Collins was asked if he will be proud of what his young players have given regardless of what may happen Saturday.
"No, I'm not going to give them that out," he said in refusing to answer the question. "No, I want more. I want more. We're going to get greedy, and we want more.''
They may yet get what they want.