Those two storied rivals, the Sixers and Celtics, had waged playoff war for two games up in Boston, with literally nothing foreshadowing what happened here Wednesday night. The Celts had rallied from 10 points down in the 4th quarter of Game 1 to pull out a one-point victory. Philadelphia had countered in Game 2 by hitting their last five shots from the field and going 6-for-6 at the line in the last 12 seconds to also win by one on the road and even the series.
There was every reason to expect more of the same when the scene shifted for Game 3 here last night. Another barn burner. Another gut-wrenching defensive battle which would come down to the final possessions.
No, not another.
Instead, it was a game completely unlike the first two.
“We had two close games at home and wanted to show these guys and send a message to them,’’ said Rajon Rondo after the Celts overpowered the Sixers in an 107-91 domination where they led by as much as 27 points. “I’d say we did a pretty good job of that.’’
There is still plenty of fight left in the men in green, especially old war horses Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who simply willed the NBA’s winningest franchise to a critical victory. After looking a step or two slower, at times simply incapable of staying with the quicker, more athletic Sixers, suddenly all was right in the Celtics’ world.
And it didn’t require Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to walk through that door, to steal a line from Rick Pitino.
Garnett (27 points—15 coming in a dominant second quarter—and 13 rebounds), Pierce (24 and 12 boards) and Rondo (23 and 14 assists) did quite nicely on their own.
“Those guys stepped up tonight,’’ said reserve Mickael Pietrus of the trio. “That’s what we need from them.’’
And there was little the Sixers, who had just set an NBA record by playing three straight one-point games–winning two of them–could do about it. “We ran into a Celtic team that had a real sense of purpose about them tonight,’’ said Philadelphia’s Doug Collins, who’ll now try to get his team to bounce back from this disappointment tomorrow and square the series. ”My hat’s off to them, they played great.
“You can see from their game tonight this is a much different team than we saw in Boston.’’
Different Sixers, too.
Perhaps they thought simply being at home, where the fan support and media recognition has been growing every day, would be enough to carry them through. Maybe they figured that Pierce, who had shot a dismal 5-for-20 the first two games, had become a shell of his former self and wouldn’t be a factor. Or that their shots, which hadn’t been falling with any regularity on the road, would start to drop now that they were firing at those familiar rims.
Certainly they weren’t expecting this.
“I told our guys ‘In the NBA playoffs it’s about the ebb and flow of emotion,’ ’’ said Collins, who probably would’ve eagerly signed on for 91 points before the game, never expecting his defense to surrender 107 — 89 in the first three quarters alone. “You’ve got to navigate that.
“This is a new experience for us. Boston has been through that. It’s not like they haven’t seen everything. But it’s all new for us and that’s good,
“It’s good that we’re going through this and learning from this. Hopefully we’re going to be a lot better in Game 4.’’
Or else there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be going home for good after Game 5.
The Celtics, sensing they have the Sixers down, don’t want to let them off the mat the way they did in the first round vs. Atlanta.
“When you have somebody down you want to try to keep “em down.’’ said forward Brandon Bass, who scored 10 while pulling down five rebounds. ”We know this (Sixers) team has played pretty well. We wanted to try to slow them down and play Celtics basketball.’’
Mission accomplished, as the new “Big Three”’ — safe to say Ray Allen has been replaced by Rondo in that trio — turned the raucous Wells Fargo Center into a morgue by the midway point of the third quarter.
After starting out shooting 6-for-18, Boston proceeded to go an obscene 26-for-34 (76.5%) from the end of the first period to late in the third. Essentially that’s what turned a 35-28 Philadelphia lead early in the second quarter into a rout, the Celtics not only shooting the lights out but limiting the Sixers to just 33 points in the second and third periods combined. That matched what Philly scored in the first.
“Our offense was fueled by our defense,’’ said Garnett, who burned the Sixers with an array of low-post moves in addition to consistently knocking down his jumper. ”I had to remind the guys—both the older guys and the newer ones—that’s how we succeed.”
The Sixers got the message loud and clear. Now it’s up to them to make this a blip on their radar screen, while Boston will attempt to take a stranglehold in the series, setting up a potential Game 5 clincher back at TD Garden.
“Our offense finally came alive tonight,’’ said Pierce, who continued to struggle with his shot but managed to get to the line 14 times, sinking 11. “We really moved the ball.
“We came out well in the third quarter and established ourselves early. We haven’t really put together a good third quarter.
“That’s key on the road. That third quarter they wanted to come back out and get the crowd into it. We were able to silence them.’’
That silence meant the Celtics were golden, as Boston regained control in a way no one expected. Tomorrow night it’s up to the Sixers to get the crowd’s juices flowing again, defend the way they’ve done throughout the postseason and let the Celtics know in no uncertain terms this series ain’t over yet.
Can they do it? Following Game 3, you have to have your doubts.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known no as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.