We’re not gonna get excited about Melo cracking open a 40 and the Knicks fighting off elimination, OK?
Win again Wednesday night in Miami. That will make you the lead of the playoffs roundup.
Here’s what everyone should be excited about: the 76ers and Celtics look like they will be playing each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Thirty years ago, this was the best rivalry in all of sports. Here’s all you need to know about how much these teams hated each other: During a skirmish on the court, Celtics GM Red Auerbach came out of his seat at Boston Garden and onto the court to challenge 76ers center Moses Malone to a fight.
During an exhibition game.
From 1980-85, the teams met four times in the Eastern Conference finals. Each team won twice, once in five games and once in seven. In 1981, the Celtics rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Sixers, winning the last three games by a combined five points. The following year, the Sixers again built a 3-1 lead, lost the next two games and faced the specter of a repeat collapse with Game Seven at Boston Garden.
I was at that game as a fan. It began with a half-dozen fans parading around the lower level wearing white sheets that read, “Ghosts of Celtics Past.” It ended with the Garden crowd originating the chant “Beat LA!” for the Sixers, who rode 34 points from “Boston Strangler” Andrew Toney to a 120-106 win.
But the teams have met in the playoffs just once since – a best-of-five first-round set in 2002 that went the limit with the home team winning every game and Boston taking the finale by 33 points, firing 3-pointers until the final horn.
Philadelphia and Boston both won Sunday and moved within one win of reprising their rivalry for the first time in 10 years. If you have any appreciation for the history of this game, you should be rooting for the Sixers and Celtics to win their next games.
First, the Sixers, who have the top-seeded Chicago Bulls on the ropes after Sunday’s 89-82 win. Since losing the opener, they have won three straight games, a streak certainly helped along by a certain reigning MVP not playing for the Bulls.
But it also has been helped by the play of center Spencer Hawes, who is having his way at the offensive end since being moved into the starting lineup after Game 1.
From Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Center Spencer Hawes learned to slow down in order to pick up his offensive game. To do that, he spent time with the 76ers second unit and had plenty of conversations with his family and coaches. It was obvious on Sunday that Hawes has learned his lesson. For the second straight home game, Hawes was a major offensive factor as he scored 22 points in the Sixers’ 89-82 win over the Chicago Bulls. That left the Sixers just one game away from closing out the Bulls in the series and provided Hawes with a needed jolt of confidence. Sunday’s game came on the heels of his performance on Friday when Hawes scored 21 points in the Sixers 79-74 win. How rare are back-to-back games of 20 or more points for Hawes? Before these two he had never scored more than 19 points in a game in his two seasons with the Sixers. And the last time he had consecutive 20-point games was in 2009 as a member of the Sacramento Kings. On Oct. 31, 2009, he scored 22 points in a loss to San Antonio. On Nov. 2, 2009, he scored 21 points in a win over Memphis. And it’s all about slowing down. “It is something my dad has been telling me since high school, to slow down, and you don’t have to play as fast,” Hawes said, referring to his father, Jeff, a former University of Washington player. “It is finally starting to resonate, and I kind of figured it out, and it took me a while.”
Hawes is the first Philly center since the aforementioned Malone in 1985 to score at least 20 points in back-to-back playoff games. He had some help as Jrue Holiday shook off a horrible first half to drain consecutive 3-pointers down the stretch.
The Sixers had been in this spot before. In 2008, they held a 2-1 lead and a 16-point advantage on the Pistons in Game 4 before totally collapsing and losing in six. In 2010, they held a 2-1 lead on the Magic and were tied in the final seconds of Game 4 before Hedo Turkoglu’s 3-pointer swung the entire series.
Philadelphia needed to hold serve and try to be something more than a first-round out, and it did.
From Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News: “The Bulls lost their heart when Derrick Rose ruined his knee in Game 1. The Bulls lost their soul when Joakim Noah turned his ankle in Game 3. Sunday, the 76ers stepped on their necks. As a franchise, the Sixers took a giant step forward. Their 89-82 win gave them a 3-1 first-round lead over the top seed in the Eastern Conference. As an emerging franchise, anything but a win would have created a different image; one having to do with the Sixers’ throats, and their inability to breathe and swallow. As it stands, to borrow and to alter a phrase, this is not a choking situation. That was averted.
“Absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate,” said veteran Elton Brand, who in his reconstructed career has turned into Dennis Rodman. “If we lost today, it would affect our mentality. Our organization. Our franchise. Our talent level. Just all we’re doing here. We still have to fight to win this series. But this game, at home, to really take the driver’s seat – we had to have this. For the growth of the young guys.”
Since Rose went down, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has said his team “has more than enough to win with.” He has maintained that stance even as Joakim Noah went down with a badly sprained ankle in Game 3 and Luol Deng tries to play through a left wrist ligament injury. But the words are starting to ring hollow.
Instead, the Bulls complained about the officiating, which awarded 31 free throws to Philadelphia and just 14 to Chicago.
From Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com: “Carlos Boozer tried his best to ignore the fact that his Chicago Bulls went to the free throw line 17 fewer times than the Philadelphia 76ers in Sunday afternoon’s 89-82 Game 4 loss, but he couldn’t help himself when the topic came up. “It’s crazy,” Boozer said of the 31-14 disparity. “I thought we were driving. I thought Luol [Deng] was driving almost every time he got the ball. He was getting contact on a lot of his shots. I thought C.J. [Watson] was driving the ball. There was one play at the end of the game [when] he got hit right in the face. I saw the whole play and he didn’t get that call.” But then Boozer channeled his inner Tom Thibodeau. As much he would like to blame the officials for the fact that his team is now down 3-1 in its Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, he knows better. “Listen, we’re not going to sit here and blame the referees for our loss,” Boozer said. “It was our fault we lost the game. We gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter. There were too many points in the fourth quarter. We didn’t lose the game because of the refs, but the discrepancy was huge. And I thought we were being pretty aggressive, we got in the penalty early, but we didn’t get as many free throws as they did. That’s tough, but at the same time that’s not why we lost. We lost because we didn’t contain their guards in the fourth quarter.”
On Tuesday, the Bulls will try to avoid becoming the fifth top seed – and second in as many years – to lose in the first round. That same night, the Atlanta Hawks will try to do the same against the Celtics, who also have won three in a row in their first-round series.
Boston absolutely annihilated Atlanta in a 101-79 home win, trailing for just 15 seconds and leading 80-43 less than four minutes into the second half. The Celtics could have gone scoreless over the final 20 minutes and still won.
From Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: “The C’s own a 3-1 Eastern Conference quarterfinals lead, and they can close out the series in Atlanta tomorrow night. As Paul Pierce said with a laugh after the Celtics’ grinding Game 3 overtime win, there’s nothing wrong with ugly. There’s also nothing wrong with 60 percent of your shots falling — which is how well the Celtics shot over the first three quarters last night, before garbage time lowered that number to a more earthly 51.2 percent. It’s a far cry from the Celtics’ Game 1 loss in Atlanta, when they shot 39 percent and scored 74 points. Garnett called for better offense after that game, and his gift finally arrived last night. “We were all locked in. Sometimes individually we get a little dysfunctional at times, but (last night) everybody was very communicative,” Garnett said. “Guys were giving tips. I don’t like to bring up the past, but these were some of the things we’ve done in the past. There was a lot of dialogue (yesterday). You could tell in the layup lines how guys were focused in. We could feel it. And we carried that onto the court. That was big.” The result was an extension of the tone set by Paul Pierce, and his 36-point Game 2 performance.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Celtics win without another injury. This time it was captain Paul Pierce, who had 24 points in just 18 minutes before departing, returning and leaving again with a left knee ailment. He joins walking wounded Ray Allen (bone spurs in ankle) and Avery Bradley (dislocated shoulder) as celtics playing through injuries.
The Hawks aren’t playing any violins for the Celtics. They had control of the series until losing Josh Smith to a sprained knee late in Game 2, losing Game 3 in overtime without him. Trying to avoid a 3-1 deficit, Atlanta started both Smith and center Al Horford, who was playing for the first time since tearing a pectoral muscle in early January. Smith led the Hawks with 15 points and Horford added an equally empty 12 off the bench.
From Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “If the Hawks weren’t in such desperate need of a victory against the Celtics Sunday, forward Josh Smith might have sat this one out. “I would probably be more cautious with the decision but this is a must-win game for us,” Smith said before Game 4. So Smith played with a sore left knee and center Al Horford returned after four months out following pectoral surgery. The Hawks were healthier than they’d been in a long time and encouraged by pushing Boston to overtime in Game 3. It took a little more than 18 minutes for the Celtics to make all of that irrelevant and send the Hawks to the brink of playoff elimination. Boston jumped the Hawks early and rolled to a 101-79 victory. The score only hints at the beating delivered by the Celtics, who led by 37 points less than halfway through the third quarter. “Their aggressiveness just totally took us out of our game,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “We didn’t respond to it all. We didn’t have the zap, we didn’t have the speed. We were doing everything at about 60 percent. This is the playoffs. How can you not have it?”
Good question. Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets had it. But the Lakers also had clutch shooting down the stretch from a couple of unlikely sources, which spelled a 92-88 victory that gave Los Angeles a 3-1 series lead as it heads home for Game 5.
In the final minute, the biggest shots were not taken by Kobe Bryant. Or Andrew Bynum. Or even Pau Gasol. They were 3-pointers by Ramon Sessions, who snapped an 86-86 tie with 48 seconds left, and Steve Blake, who stuck in the dagger with 18 seconds to go.
From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: “In a frantic game with 18 lead changes and 16 ties, Sessions’ shot from the right wing, after a rock-solid screen by Gasol floored Danilo Gallinari, gave the Lakers an 89-86 lead with 48.1 seconds left. Not to be outdone, Blake drilled a three-pointer from the left corner with 18.9 seconds left. Make that the much-maligned Blake. He came into Sunday with 26.7% accuracy in the series and exactly three points since the second quarter of Game 1. Bryant’s biggest play was a pass to Blake, not a shot, another surprise for the Lakers in a season teeming with them. Bryant passing to Blake? Even Blake couldn’t stifle a laugh. “Yeah, I was ready,” he said. “Those [other] guys are so good at drawing double teams. They trust us. That’s what it’s going to take to be a really good team is to trust each other.” Bryant grabbed Blake after the shot and threw his arms around him. “It’s always a good moment when you get a hug from Kobe,” Blake said. “You know you did something right.” Blake deserved similar recognition a few minutes earlier, coming from behind to block Gallinari’s layup attempt. Gallinari is 6 feet 10. Blake is 6 feet 3. “I don’t think he saw me,” Blake said. “Probably my first or second of the year.” It was actually his third blocked shot. Even he was trying to shortchange his accomplishments.
There was a bizarre moment in the first half when a female fan ran out onto the floor while the ball was in play. TNT’s Craig Sager reported that the woman has a history of stalking at least one Nuggets player and had been banned from the Pepsi Center but apparently found a way to get into Game 4 – literally.
Two games tonight, as the Spurs look to break out the brooms for the Jazz in Salt Lake City and the Grizzlies try to even matters with the Clippers in Los Angeles. We will have previews of both games later today.