The Celtics got their wish.
Playing like the regular season cannot end soon enough, Boston ensured its big game against Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia was over almost as soon as it began. Inexplicably and inexcusably flat when the much-hyped contest tipped off before a sold-out FleetCenter yesterday, the Celtics fell behind by 26 points in the first quarter. It proved too difficult to overcome what is believed to be the biggest first-quarter deficit in franchise history, especially with the indefatigable Allen Iverson (38 points, 9 assists, 6 steals) hitting clutch late baskets. Playing with urgency befitting a team fighting for a postseason berth, Philadelphia beat Boston, 97-93, and closed within three games of the division lead.
"We have to come together and talk about what are we doing to get off to these bad starts or why we are losing these games at this point in the season," said Paul Pierce. "We're not acting like we're a playoff team. We're acting like we're ready for the season to be over and we're ready to go home for the summer. We have to have a better sense of urgency and play like our backs are against the wall . . ."
The Celtics (39-34) remain the favorite for the division title and No. 3 seed in the East with nine games remaining. But Boston has dropped five of its last six, losing momentum down the stretch. And in another troubling development, Boston could be without Antoine Walker for some time. The power forward missed the game with a severe left knee bruise that could sideline him until the end of the week, if not longer. Philadelphia played without Chris Webber, who is recovering from a sprained left shoulder.
With or without Walker, the Celtics need to understand how to play in big games before the playoffs start. If they don't, the postseason will be a lot like yesterday. Over almost as soon as it begins.
"The problem is our players don't get it," said coach Doc Rivers. "I've been telling you all along, we don't get it. [The Sixers] get it. You could see it. We talked about it. We warned them. The playoffs have started for a lot of teams, but we haven't joined in the fray yet. We need more energy and effort.
"Throw out the X's and O's. Throw out everything. Energy. Effort. [The coaching staff told the players] that will be the difference in this game. [The Sixers] had it and we didn't. They had it from the start. Iverson was driving them from the start of the game. At halftime, you could hear him yelling at his guys. We come in the first quarter and at the beginning of the third quarter and give them a cushion."
With Pierce hitting a 3-pointer 0.7 seconds before halftime, Philadelphia's lead was reduced to 55-45. The visitors were chastised during the break by coach Jim O'Brien. He challenged Philadelphia to play with composure and stay aggressive on defense. The Sixers did just that, finishing with a season-high 19 steals and holding the Celtics below 40 percent from the floor. Iverson led the way, even with the athletic Ricky Davis guarding him. The MVP candidate disrupted the Celtics' rhythm with his steals and his drives.
Pierce opened the third with an 18-footer and Boston knocked its deficit down to single digits. The home team appeared ready to make a run, but Iverson would not let that happen. A pair of jumpers from Iverson kept the Sixers comfortably ahead in the third. Kyle Korver stretched the Philadelphia lead to 17 (66-49), sinking a 3-pointer with 7 minutes 25 seconds remaining. Boston battled back behind a 14-3 run. An 18-footer by Davis with 1.2 seconds left made it 73-70.
The Celtics appeared in perfect position for a record-setting comeback in the fourth, but carelessness cost them. They turned the ball over five times in the first five minutes of the quarter. As a result, a layup by Samuel Dalembert pushed Philadelphia ahead, 83-72, with 6:55 remaining. The Celtics made another run, cutting their deficit to 4 (83-79), but they never could summon enough energy and effort to go ahead. The Sixers proved a tougher group down the stretch, even though the Celtics closed within 3 on a couple of occasions with layups.
Iverson nailed a 19-footer with 22.7 seconds left that gave Philadelphia a 95-90 lead and proved a demoralizing blow. The Celtics finished the game yelling at the officials in frustration. Boston was finally fired up, though it was too late. Davis picked up a technical. Iverson made good on three free throw attempts in the closing seconds.
"It was very embarrassing," said Davis. "Maybe guys are too relaxed. I don't know what we need to do. Shake a couple guys up. Make them eat some glass or something, maybe they'll wake up."
Rivers sees it as his responsibility to make the Celtics understand the intensity necessary to win big games. He raised the prospect of some lineup changes, though passed on the eating glass proposal.
"In my opinion, it's my job to get through to them," said Rivers. "Somehow."
And hopefully, sometime soon.