Celtics’ lead vanishes as Sixers even the series
PHILADELPHIA - Withstanding figurative punches and fighting back against the 76ers has been a Celtic theme during the Eastern Conference semifinals. And with former light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins sitting courtside, Game 4 turned into a brawl, Philadelphia rallying for a 92-83 victory, evening the series going into Monday’s Game 5.
The Celtics rode the momentum of their Game 3 victory. But after getting off to an 18-3 start and leading by as many as 18 points early in the second half, the Celtics collapsed.
“We had the lead, we had a chance to go up, 3-1,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I really didn’t think from the first quarter on we played with the same discipline we played with in the first quarter. We started turning the ball over and we started making home run passes and, even though we had the lead, that allowed them to chip into the lead and allowed them to hang around.’’
The Celtics did almost everything right early and seemed poised to turn this into a blowout. But they did not count on Philadelphia’s persistence and resilience.
After holding a 49-31 advantage, the Celtics were outscored, 61-34, over the final 22:50. The Sixers went from shooting 9 for 39 (23.1 percent) in the opening half to 22 for 43 (51.2 percent) in the second.
Philadelphia also shot 25 for 36 from the foul line, its aggressiveness leading to three Celtic starters committing four fouls and a fourth with five.
“I thought coming out at halftime they became more physical and I thought we got into that instead of playing basketball,’’ Rivers said. “I thought we lost our composure and, once we did, I thought we never really returned to playing basketball the way we did in the first half.
“I thought in the first half, execution was beautiful. We did all the right things. In the second half, we just didn’t do it.’’
Most of the opening quarter was a triumph of execution over the Executioner’s (Hopkins’s) home team.
After that, a combination of the Celtics’ complacency and the Sixers’ scrappiness changed the complexion of the contest.
It was 14-0 before the Sixers broke up the shutout as Jrue Holiday hit a jumper off an inbounds pass. Then, Brandon Bass drained a 15-footer after Rajon Rondo faked a behind-the-back pass, and Paul Pierce made the score 18-3 with a lefthander with 6:29 remaining in the first quarter.
An Avery Bradley free throw gave the Celtics a 49-31 advantage 1:10 into the second half.
The Sixers then upped the intensity.
“When you have a chance to go up, 3-1, in a series, what else are they going to do?’’ Rivers said. “That’s what they should do. That’s what was so disappointing - they’re going to get into you, they’re going to grab your hands, and they’re going to foul you. To me, that’s what they should do. But we acted like we were surprised by it. So, I was disappointed in that.
“The free throw line tells the story, that’s tough to win that way. If you turn the ball over against the 76ers, everything we did was the prescription that you don’t do to beat them - 17-5 offensive rebounds, 17 turnovers, 36 free throws. You would have thought we were down the whole game if you looked at those numbers, yet we had the lead.’’
Jodie Meeks’s 3-pointer gave the Sixers their first lead, 66-65, 2:11 into the final quarter. Evan Turner dunked off a steal, then Pierce’s 3-point play off an inbounds play tied it, 68-68, and Rondo drove for a 70-68 lead with 7:58 left.
Ray Allen made it 77-76 with a 3-pointer with 4:51 remaining and Kevin Garnett’s free throws gave the Celtics a 3-point edge with 3:34 remaining.
But the Sixers concluded the game with a 16-4 run.
Andre Iguodala’s 3-pointer tied it with 3:11 left. Rondo hit a jumper and Lou Williams countered out of a timeout. But with the score tied, 81-81, Pierce missed a layup with 2:15 on the clock. That would turn out to be the Celtics’ last chance to regain the advantage, the Sixers taking the lead, 83-81, on Lavoy Allen’s dunk with 1:53 left.
Rondo tied the score on a drive, but Iguodala restored the Sixers’ edge with 1:22 to go, then upped it to 88-83 with 36 seconds left with a 3-pointer in transition after a Rondo drive had been blocked. A Ray Allen airballed 3-point attempt gave the Sixers possession with 33.7 on the clock. Meeks finished things with four foul shots.
“We’re a strong-minded team, a veteran team,’’ Rondo said. “We know we let this one slip away. They feel like they let a couple slip away early, so regardless of how each team feels you still have to go out and play the game. So, we’ll be ready for Game 5.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.