PHILADELPHIA — Things fall apart. A big first-half lead and the Celtics’ hopes of an easy series fell hard Friday night with an 92-83 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. There will be a Game 6 next week in Philadelphia. Talk of a potential Celtics-Pacers Conference Finals turned out to be premature.
With a towel wrapped around his head, Kevin Garnett sat and stared at the box score in one corner of the Celtics locker room after Game 4. He’s accustomed to staring at his numbers after each game, but he usually does it while taking questions at the podium. This time, the Celtics center stared and stared, then threw the piece of paper down with disgust. Garnett left the arena Friday night without answering questions from reporters.
The numbers he was looking at were indeed dreadful: 9 points, 3 of 12 shooting, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 7 turnovers in 40 minutes. The seven turnovers tied his Celtics career-high, set in the season-opener against Miami in 2010.
Garnett came to Wells Fargo Center by himself to get some shots up on his team’s day off Thursday, but Friday night’s game proved that Garnett can’t win this series by himself. If the superhero Garnett from Games 1 and 3 of the series doesn’t show up, the Celtics can’t feel sorry for themselves.
“I don’t know [what happened with Garnett],” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Friday night. “I never thought we established him. I thought he was a passer tonight, a lot. We’ve got to get him back in the middle of the paint.”
Garnett was a passer who threw the ball to the other team seven times, a disastrous portion of 17 Celtics turnovers that led directly to the team’s downfall. After leading all players in plus/minus rating during the first three games of the series with a plus-47, Garnett was a minus-2 in Game 4.
The numbers are discouraging, and it highlights the fact that the Celtics center, who turns 36 years old Saturday, should not be expected to be a dominant force every night. For every two or three good games, he’s going to throw in a clunker.
Other players have to step in. For a good portion of Friday’s game the would-be hero was Pierce. The Celtics captain made 8 of 13 shots for 24 points, and he almost willed the Celtics to the win despite their poor second half. But in the playoffs it takes more than one. Rajon Rondo can sometimes be that guy, but he went through cold stretches in Game 4 that contrasted the brilliance of his 15 assists.
“I’ve got to do a better job of slowing us down, getting us in the right sets, and getting guys to execute offensively,” said Rondo.
Those sets usually involve Garnett, but the Celtics were unable to find their big man in the right places. Garnett’s shot chart looked like a cartoon-character’s eyes after he’s expired; “X” marked the spot in nine places. He took just two shots in the paint.
Garnett’s expiration date has clearly been extended by his brilliant play this postseason, but the Celtics need to equip themselves for success when Garnett has an off night. Pierce did his job, and for the most part Rondo did his, but Ray Allen was virtually invisible again with five points. The Celtics didn’t score for a stretch of six minutes in the second quarter because their bench didn’t score. Instead of building on a 20-5 lead, Celtics reserves allowed Philadelphia to hang around long enough to eventually take it. With Michael Pietrus, Ryan Hollins, and Keyon Dooling playing most of the reserve minutes in addition to Allen, it’s not clear where the extra production will come from. Brandon Bass had a nice game with 15 points in 22 minutes. More playing time may be in his future.
Garnett will take this loss hard, like always. It might not be a very happy birthday. But relying on a 36-year-old player to score 25 points or more every night is a flawed approach to begin with, no matter how spectacular that player is. Garnett needs help. Only then will the Celtics have a real shot at a title.