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Celtics have kicked a bad habit

Given the chance, they no longer lose to lesser teams

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics didn’t enter last night’s game with the Philadelphia 76ers with any intentions of overlooking a 7-14 team that has yet to learn how to win tight games.

The Celtics didn’t take the 76ers lightly; they just didn’t have a lot of energy after playing the night before against the Denver Nuggets. The 76ers made it clear from the tip they would not melt under the pressure of playing on national television. They had something to prove.

Times have been difficult for the NBA fan in Philadelphia.

The 76ers haven’t mattered for years. Allen Iverson is long gone. The team lacks a legitimate star and not many people outside of Philadelphia or Tucson would recognize Andre Iguodala if he walked past.

Given that the 76ers had everything to play for, including a pressing need for respect, the Celtics could have pulled up down the stretch and allowed their eight-game winning streak to wither away. But that’s not their style. They didn’t want to play the role of heartbreaker, but the Celtics had no intention of being the Apollo Creed of Philadelphia’s feel-good story.

When the fourth quarter arrived and the Celtics appeared weary, they rallied from a 97-93 deficit with 1:58 left. And the ending was rather predictable. With an opportunity to escape with a victory, the tiring Celtics responded with a perfectly executed give-and-go with Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Garnett scored his first game-winning bucket since Nov. 22, 2009, at New York.

Since the 76ers had no timeouts, they were forced to fire an inbounds pass after Garnett’s bucket at 1.4 gave Boston a 102-101 lead. Garnett backpedaled and intercepted the pass and stood at center court, and Nate Robinson climbed his back in celebration.

Once again, the Celtics responded in the fourth quarter, unwilling to allow the 76ers to gain momentum other than a moral victory. Philadelphia might be on the rise, but the Celtics are a team that refuses to show any vulnerability this season.

Dropping games to losing teams is a habit of the past, especially with the rejuvenation of Garnett, who sparked the fourth-quarter run with his vocal presence on defense. The Celtics began getting consistent stops in the fourth quarter after the 76ers sliced their defense through the first three with open jumpers.

Garnett screamed at his teammates to increase their defensive intensity, realizing the game was slipping away. And while final plays are usually called for Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, they served as decoys while Garnett simply slipped a screen and banked home the winner.

After a shower and a few deep breaths, Garnett was able to reflect on the accomplishment of winning when the circumstances were less than optimal. The Celtics started Semih Erden because Shaquille O’Neal missed the game with a sore right calf.

“It was a grind-out win,’’ Garnett said. “The Sixers have been playing unbelievable. They play with so much confidence. And we knew that, but tonight I thought we did a good job of sustaining runs.

“This was one of those classic Boston-Philly bar fights, alley fights, whatever you call it out here. These guys are getting better and better. Their record doesn’t reflect on how good they are.’’

There was much respect handed to the 76ers, but the Celtics can walk away with the satisfaction that they took Philadelphia’s best flurry and then prevailed. Perhaps last season the Celtics drop this game. Over the course of a month last season, the Celtics dropped close road games to the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers — all lottery teams.

Great teams don’t lose those games. The Los Angeles Lakers experienced a very similar situation Wednesday on the “road’’ against the Clippers. Trailing most of the game, the Lakers responded from a 5-point deficit in the final two minutes to win on Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beater. Much props to the Clippers, who played hard and showed promise, but that means nothing in regards to playoff positioning. Moral victories are for college teams.

But this win was just as significant for the Celtics because they lost a game similar to this one a few weeks ago in Toronto. The upstart Raptors played well, the Celtics blew a last-minute lead, and Pierce missed a potential winning jumper.

The Celtics haven’t lost since.

“It was a gutsy win, it really didn’t seem like we had it all night,’’ Pierce said. “Like we’ve been saying, good teams find ways to win.

“Truthfully, I think this is one of our biggest wins of the year.

“I was kind of wondering how we were going to get through. We keep finding ways. This is the most satisfying win for us, I think, this year.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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