Three games in, the Celtics and 76ers are beginning to separate. And that’s not just a reference to the blowout. A win like Wednesday night’s 107-91 drubbing in Game 3 will bring about that conclusion, but it’s about more than the score. Little, pointed details about how both sides approach the game of basketball are starting to emerge.
We’re beginning to understand just who the Celtics, and the Sixers, really are.
The series is the ultimate study in contrasts. The Celtics are old; the Sixers are young. The Celtics have stars; the Sixers have a team concept. But the main difference that’s emerged is that the Celtics are trying to prove to others that they can win the championship. The Sixers are trying to prove it to themselves.
On the surface, both teams are fighting for the same thing. It’s a second-round playoff series, with a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and meet the winner of the Heat and Pacers. Most teams don’t make it this far. Which is exactly what Sixers coach Doug Collins mentioned to his team during the third quarter of Game 3 Wednesday night.
“There are a lot of teams not playing right now,” said Collins, the audio captured by TNT’s cameras. “I don’t want anybody to put their head down. Everybody put their heads up.”
Philadelphia was being blitzed with a run that would span the second and third quarters, a run where the Celtics would ultimately put 61 points on the scoreboard to Philadelphia’s 34. The game was slipping away from Collins’s team, and he knew he needed to give them an encouraging talk. Despite the pep rally feel of the thing, heads remained down and effort remained a problem for Philadelphia players.
Doc Rivers rarely has that problem with his team. The Celtics haven’t faced the kind of deficit in the playoffs that the Sixers faced Wednesday night, but Rivers’s huddle, also mic’d up by TNT, provided a total contrast in approach. With his team leading by double-digits, Rivers calmly urged his team to do one thing.
“Rondo, defense,” Rivers said. “Paul, defense now.”
While Collins is faced with the task of appealing to his young team’s psyche on a nightly basis, Rivers is allowed to just coach. The Celtics have very few guys who need to be coached up. Of the ones they do have, only Avery Bradley plays crucial minutes. JaJuan Johnson has been inactive, and fellow rookie E’Twaun Moore has only seen garbage time. In a private moment after Game 3, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge took Bradley aside and explained to him the ebbs and flows of playoff basketball, urging Bradley not to be too down on himself after a performance where he failed to score in 20 minutes of play.
Bradley could have been emotional after a sub-par game, but he was one player of 15. Philadelphia has a roster of players who have alternated between tight, down, carefree, and careless in three games. Twice their unpredictability got them to within a point of the favored Celtics. Wednesday night, it got them nowhere.
“Right now this is all new for us,” said Collins. “We’re going to learn from this and hopefully be better in Game 4.”
Of course it doesn’t hurt the Celtics that in addition to having emotional maturity, they have legitimate stars. Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Garnett combined for 74 points in Game 3. It was the first time all year those three stars each scored more than 20 points in a game, and it highlighted just how much a game and a series can be swayed by the great play of a few players.
It’s no secret the Sixers don’t have that one big player, and that’s led some pundits to dismiss Philadelphia. With that doubt comes the question about whether or not the Celtics and Sixers themselves believe Philly has a chance.
Collins didn’t help subdue that theory in his postgame press conference.
“You can tell with them,” said Collins. ” I think they’re looking at the other series a little bit, seeing Chris Bosh being out. I think they see a tremendous opportunity for themselves.”
Rivers denied that his team wasn’t giving the proper respect to their opponent.
“Well that’s not true, obviously,” said Rivers. “They’re a young team, they are an athletic team, and they create really tough matchups. And I think that is overlooked with this team. I think it’s easier to look at the Miamis and the Oklahoma Citys, and you see the Durants and LeBrons and you see the star power. And so you immediately give that team respect. Not the players, but the media, everyone. When you don’t see the All-Stars, a la the Detroit Pistons, you tend to think they aren’t as good. And that isn’t true.”
Public perception doesn’t matter in the series, but internal perception does. And after three games, it’s clear that these two teams have vastly different views of themselves.
“I mean we’re chasing something special,” said Celtics guard Keyon Dooling, who has become the unofficial team spokesman after Pierce. “We’re all extremely motivated to win. This season, with the short season, the lockout season, it was kind of a build-up process for us. The younger athletic teams started a lot faster than us. We heard the old comments. But we stayed the course.”
The Sixers are younger and more athletic. They’re experiencing the process for the first time, and it’s begun to show. They’re doing their learning on the fly, and they’re going to live and die by how quickly they absorb it all.
After the game, Rondo walked through the locker room with a boom box. He didn’t blare the music for long, but he made it clear that the Celtics were OK with celebrating, for a time. And then the music stopped, and Celtics players went about their business of talking to the media, packing up, and going home.