PHILADELPHIA — This was like spotting Tom Brady and the Patriots two quick touchdowns in the opening minutes, then spending the rest of the half doing everything else wrong. You just don’t recover from something like that.
Unless, apparently, you’re the Philadelphia 76ers and the game is basketball rather than football. And your opponent isn’t Bill Belichick’s team, but Massachusetts’ other fabled team, the Celtics; a franchise that used to define winning.
My, how times have changed. Yes, the Celtics are still proud, aging warriors. But they no longer have the same killer instinct as their Bill Russell/John Havlicek/Dave Cowens/Larry Bird/Kevin McHale-bred ancestors.
Those guys would’ve never allowed the Sixers, who missed an unfathomable 34 of their first 43 shots, to squirm off the hook and rally from 18 points down for a shocking 92-83 victory. Those Celtics would’ve squeezed the life out of a team that didn’t even look like it belonged on the same court with them, rather than commit needless fouls, turn the ball over consistently, give up 17 offensive rebounds and get outhustled and outmuscled when it counted most.
Instead of taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, with a chance to close things out Monday in Boston, the Sixers and Celtics are now dead even. Regardless of what happens Monday, they’ll be back here for Game 6 Wednesday. Should it come down to a decisive seventh game—and that seems like a distinct possibility now–that would be in Boston next Saturday.
So much for any thoughts the Celts could finish this thing off early, then rest up for the Eastern Conference finals. “We just lost our composure,’’ said Doc Rivers, after his team surrendered 61 second-half points, with Philadelphia hitting 22 of its last 39 tries (56.4%), including five 3-pointers. ”Once we did, we never really returned to playing basketball the way we did in the first half.’’
On the other hand, the Sixers, who were fortunate the game was as close (46-31) at intermission as poorly as they shot not only from the field (9-for-39, 23.1%) but from the line (13-21, 69.1%), were a completely different team after the break. “I kept telling our guys, ‘We have to keep battling. Something good’s going to happen,’ ’’ said coach/head cheerleader Doug Collins, whose club pounded the bigger, stronger Celtics on the boards, 52-38. ”That’s what we do.
“It ain’t pretty. We just keep grinding. Now we have a chance to go to Game 5 with the series even, and we’ll see where we go from there.’’
Aside from sheer persistence, there’s really not much to like about these Sixers. They can fire up bricks with the best of them, Evan Turner being the prime example in Game 4, shooting an abysmal 5-for-22, many from close range. They’re not particularly big or physical, which became an issue in the first round vs. the Bulls and would again come into play should they somehow make it past the Celtics and perhaps go even further.
And there’s no one guy they can count on every night to come up big in the clutch, unlike virtually any team with championship aspirations.
Yet here they are, two games away from taking on either the struggling Chris Bosh-less Heat or the fellow upstart Pacers for a shot at the NBA Finals. Before the game, Doug Collins kept repeating how the Celtics could see the unexpected lay of the NBA playoff land and visualize themselves getting out of the East.
Based on what’s transpired in a series that has gone completely against form, it looks like his No. 8 seeded team is getting the same message.
“Being down 3-1 is a whole different mentality than being at 2-2,”’ said Iguodala, who broke an 83-83 tie with a step-back jumper with 1:22 left, then buried a 3-point dagger on the Sixers’ next possession. “Our psyche is a little different now, but we have to stay humble.
“I feel like they gave us their best shot in the first half, but we crawled back and got in it. We’ve been down before and gotten back. We’ve been in a lot of different situations and learned from them. We even talked about our growth throughout these playoffs and we’re starting to get consistent with growing up.
“Our young guys are doing better in certain situations.’’
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ old guys seem to be forgetting what it takes to put a team away. It happened to them in the first round vs. Atlanta, where the Celts let the Hawks force it to a seventh game after grabbing a 3-1 series lead. They survived that time, but what about now?.
“We know we let this one slip away,’’’ admitted Rajon Rondo, who matched his 15 points with 15 assists but also committed four turnovers. They feel they let a couple slip away earlier.
“Regardless how each team feels you still have to go out there and play the game. We’ll ready come Game 5.’’
Undoubtedly, so will the Sixers, who know they weren’t supposed to be here—except they are. Now, having overcome that early two “touchdown’” deficit they’re exactly halfway to the NBA Finals, believing more and more by the day they might be that proverbial team of destiny in a postseason which hasn’t made much sense from the beginning.
Laugh at them at your own peril, which was easy to do while they were tossing up all those bricks the first half, especially if you were dressed in green.
Because it might be time to start wondering who’ll be laughing last.
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.