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On basketball

A propensity for intensity would help

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 23, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA - The Celtics should enter Wednesday night’s Game 6 showdown with the 76ers feeling somewhat embarrassed for allowing the series to last this long. They have dominated the five games, only to have Philadelphia steal two games with better fourth-quarter execution.

Wednesday night’s game at the Wells Fargo Center will be the most difficult of the season for the Celtics, because this is a team that has not shown the ability to close out opponents with ease. It has been a struggle in recent years for them to win the final games of series, except for Game 6 of the 2008 Finals against the Lakers.

Are the Celtics capable of concentrating fully for two consecutive games, because when they do, they have proven to be two or three levels above the upstart 76ers.

During Monday’s 101-85 victory, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had rather mellow games. Pierce attempted just seven shots while Allen continued to struggle from the 3-point line and scored 5 points.

While Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma were stellar in Game 5, the difference in the game was the Celtics’ defensive intensity in the second half. But the most frustrating thing about this edition is that they seemingly turn that intensity off and on at will.

Increased defensive intensity and concentration could have earned the Celtics a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference, but what is frustrating - and captivating - about this team for fans and for coach Doc Rivers is its unpredictability.

Rivers would like to think the Celtics will finally choke the life out of the 76ers Wednesday night, but he had those same thoughts in Game 4, when his players lost focus and complained too much about the officiating.

While the Celtics and Spurs are the two most experienced teams in the playoffs, the Celtics lack San Antonio’s poise in stretches. When the Spurs trailed by 10 at halftime in Game 3 against the Clippers, coach Gregg Popovich, point guard Tony Parker, and center Tim Duncan were on the sideline before the second half, talking calmly and even joking.

There are times when Rivers has to plead with his team to stick together and play with cohesion, and that is stunning considering their experience over the past five years. The Spurs have been the model of consistency in this postseason, while their Boston peers have essentially given away three games because of botched execution down the stretch.

What separates the Celtics and Spurs is the teammates’ confidence and comfort with each other. There is complete trust in San Antonio, while the Celtics are still working on that. They are talented enough to get away with such a flaw, but that has to change if they are to win Wednesday and succeed in a potential Eastern Conference finals series.

“Well, it’s not going to be easy,’’ Rivers said of closing out the 76ers. “Listen, this series is hard. They’re a good team, they’re an athletic team.

“Every minute you think, like, we’re leaking oil, physically. So we’ve got a quick turnaround here and we’re going to have to be ready. But I just want us to play the right way every minute, and if we do that, I don’t know if we’ll win or not but we’ll be good.’’

That doesn’t sound like a coach certain about what he’ll see in the next game, and Rivers has dealt with that uneasy feeling all season. For the most part, the Celtics have been dominant only when they have to be. They aren’t the only team with that issue, but it is surprising that the killer instinct flutters with a group so prideful in its togetherness and chemistry.

Perhaps they lacked some respect for the 76ers at the beginning of the series, and they believed they could win games while preparing for the Pacers or Heat simultaneously. Their full concentration wasn’t on Philadelphia until Game 5, because they were so embarrassed about Game 4 and then had to endure a three-day break between games.

Uncertainty set in, and the Celtics felt queasy and insecure. Those feelings were cemented when they trailed by 3 points at halftime of Game 5. It took that adversity to motivate the Celtics for another brilliant half.

Rivers is crossing his fingers that his team can carry that momentum into Game 6 and not allow a frenzied crowd at Wells Fargo Center - spurred on by Kevin Garnett’s “fair-weather’’ comment - to have an impact.

What is alluring about this team is that it is never boring and never predictable, but this is one of those nights when they need to be focused. They have often glided by on talent alone, switching on their vise-grip defense and having Rajon Rondo push the offensive pace only when necessary.

It’s necessary now, because the Celtics have been toying with danger the entire postseason, and they are too old for such games.

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