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Weary Celtics pushed through

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 13, 2012
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There was nothing scribbled on the Celtics’ greaseboard after Saturday night’s 92-91 Game 1 playoff win at TD Garden. That meant no practice, a break, a chance to rest.

The Celtics came into their Eastern Conference semifinal opener against the Philadelphia 76ers exhausted after a rugged six-game series with the Atlanta Hawks and less than two days to rest. Coach Doc Rivers was angry that the NBA decided to give the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat - who finished their first-round series Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively - an extra day of rest while forcing the Celtics and Sixers to begin their series after just one day off.

So it was expected the Celtics would enter Saturday ragged and slow, and they played lethargic and trailed by 13 points with 3:44 left in the second quarter. The TD Garden crowd, rather muted by the lack of villains in this series, was growing impatient for a rally.

The youthful 76ers played nearly perfect and massaged the game into 10-point lead with 10:53 left and if there were a night when the Celtics would get caught off guard, their slower legs unable to muster a rally, Saturday would have been it. Yet they responded from Philadelphia’s sparkling three quarters with 10 stellar minutes of their own, proving even in this lackadaisical and sluggish state, they were capable of greatness when it truly matters.

Perhaps during the regular season the Celtics lose this game, unable to respond when a healthier, more active, and more passionate team makes a statement. The 76ers made one in Game 1 as the team that finished the regular season 22d in scoring and 15th in shooting percentage made 15 of its first 26 shots and was punishing the Celtics offensively.

The problem was the Sixers couldn’t make those same shots when the Celtics increased their defensive intensity in the fourth quarter, when suddenly they received a surge of energy. Saturday was a stark example of a team playing with little playoff experience against a team that drips in it.

“We didn’t have it early. I tell you I just thought they came out and they attacked us,’’ Rivers said. “I thought they played harder, quite honestly, the first 10 minutes of the game. You know, I told them at halftime, ‘Listen, they can’t be more athletic and play harder [than you]. That combination will never work for us.’ We had to at least match their intensity and I thought we did that.’’

The Celtics can’t get away with this often, but they have twice so far in the playoffs. They practically sleepwalked through Game 2 in Atlanta until suddenly Paul Pierce turned into Elgin Baylor and the defense stifled the Hawks’ shooters and pulled away for an 87-80 win.

With the lockout season draining veteran teams, especially the Celtics, playoff basketball is going to be far from crisp. The Celtics took the eighth-seeded 76ers as a serious threat because they knew injuries and fatigue would play a factor.

Kevin Garnett (29 points, 11 rebounds) is darn near the oldest player on the floor and again he carried the Celtics - was he swimming in that Cocoon pool next to Don Ameche? - but there are going to be games where not even his passion and desire will allow him to clear the fatigue wall. If the Celtics are going to whisk away the pesky 76ers and ready themselves for a potential conference finals showdown with the Miami Heat, then they need relief from their reserves and younger players.

Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass are each struggling in the postseason. Bass missed his first five open jumpers Saturday while Bradley is shooting 37 percent and has missed 12 of 14 3-pointers in the playoffs. Celtics were able to win with the brilliance of Rajon Rondo and the dominant post play of Garnett.

There was a perception that this Celtics crew was destined for a quick playoff elimination after their putrid start, but this team has regained its savvy and ability to turn a shabby performance into a winning one with a good stretch. The Celtics are good enough to save themselves from themselves, and that is a rare quality.

The players realize they won’t be able to escape often but when the NBA forces them to play less than 48 hours after an emotional win and injuries are a factor, they may have no other choice. They are experienced enough to know when to turn up the intensity, and the 76ers couldn’t create enough space between them and the Celtics to survive.

“We definitely didn’t play our best ball, definitely a slow start,’’ said Pierce, who is 15-for-39 shooting the past three games. “This is a grind team. I’m hearing rumblings in Memphis that they’re trying to take our motto, but they know where they got that from. We figure out ways to win. This team has tons of experience and we got the veteran ways to find savvy and we just keep doing it.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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