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Celtics aren't victims of mistaken identity

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  May 15, 2012 12:15 PM

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A team that is in this position because they heeded the words of Al Green at the trade deadline -- "Let's Stay Together" -- was singing a different tune Monday night. This time the Green's mien was best summed up by channeling Denny Green.

After the Philadelphia 76ers evened this throwback Eastern Conference semifinals series at a game a piece with an 82-81 victory Monday evening at TD Garden, Paul Pierce was asked if the youthful 76ers had taken the Celtics by surprise with their fortitude and fearlessness in the first two games, a pair of one-point affairs on the parquet.

The suggestion of the Celtics underestimating the Sixers had Pierce parroting the infamous words Green, then coach of the Arizona Cardinals, uttered after his team squandered a 23-3 second-half lead to Celtics coach Doc Rivers's beloved Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in 2006.

"They are who we thought they are," said Pierce, who after a 2 for 9, 7-point performance last night is 5 for 20 in the series. "They are a tough defensive team. They grind it out defensively. They try to fast break, and they're not going to give in. They have a good coach over there who instills his mentality into his players. So, nothing surprising, they are what we expected them to be."

What they are is a team that isn't going to beat the Celtics in a seven-game series, unless Boston decides to make some charitable donations as they did in Game 2. That's not to discredit the 76ers, but this was a game played on their terms -- muddy, ugly, and without a lot of redeeming qualities until the denouement of the fourth quarter.

The danger is not that the 76ers are being underestimated by the Celtics. It's that we're overestimating them now heading into Wednesday's Game 3 in Philadelphia. The 76ers are balanced and very well-coached, but not better than the Celtics, even if Pierce is performing at 70 percent because of a sprained MCL in his left knee.

Two months ago if you had told Celtics fan that the path to the Eastern Conference final wouldn't include a matchup with either Chicago or Miami then they would have been doing cartwheels down Causeway Street. Much of the season was spent fussing over the Celtics escaping having to face Miami or Chicago in the first round.

The idea of dismantling the Big Three at the trade deadline was based in part on the predication that even if the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and ended up in the top four seeds it would be awfully difficult for the Celtics to beat both the Bulls and the Heat to reach a third NBA Final in five seasons.

They don't have to.

All that stands between Boston and the Eastern Conference final is eighth-seeded Philadelphia, a team that went 10-14 in its final 24 games. Yes, they upset a hollowed-out Chicago club in the first round, but the battered Bulls would have forced a decisive Game 7 on their own court if not for a situational basketball brain cramp by C.J. Watson.

If the Celtics blow this series to the upstart Sixers then -- sorry, Paul -- they're not the team we thought they were, plain and simple, injuries or not. (Ray Allen, bad ankle and all, still gave you 17 points in Game 2).

I know Philly won two of three from the Celtics in the regular season, but was anyone really predicting that the New Big Three era would end at the hands of the...76ers?

That doesn't mean this is going to be an easy series. Philadelphia is a gritty, grinding team. During the regular season, it set an NBA record for fewest turnovers per game (11.2). The Sixers were third in both opponent points per game (89.4) and field goal percentage (42.7).

The Sixers are so quick and athletic that at times is appears they derive their abbreviated nickname from how many guys they have on the court.

But the 76ers can only win the series if these games devolve into Philly Frenetic scrums. The Celtics don't need to oblige them by losing their basketball bearings, as they did Monday night.

The Green did what the Sixers couldn't in Game 1 -- stop Kevin Garnett.

Inexplicably, KG took just five shots through the first three quarters, or a third the total of Brandon Bass, who was tossing up shots like they were part of a 2-for-1 special at his local supermarket. Bass was 5 of 15 for the game, despite not playing the final 16:58 of the contest.

Boston shot 9 of 37 in the second and third quarters and trailed, 57-49, at the end of the third.

The Celtics finally went to Garnett in the fourth quarter, and he delivered, going 5 of 7 for 11 points -- as many as the entire team had in the third quarter. KG finished with 15 points (on 7 of 12 shooting), 12 rebounds, one costly illegal screen call and no real explanation for why he didn't get the ball more.

"I don't call the plays," said KG, adding he plays whatever role the team asks.

One of the men who determined the plays, Rivers, said his charges took the offensive blueprint for the game and threw it in the trash.

"We didn't go to him. It's plain and simple," said Rivers. "My thought: We never established the post. ...I really thought we started out the first four minutes of the game moving the ball, playing the right way, and then I thought, honestly, we chased shots as a group."

The Sixers aren't afraid of the Celtics. "We like playing against Boston. We feel like we match up well with them," said Jrue Holiday, who had a game-high 18 points.

The feeling should be mutual.

The 76ers remain who we thought they were, a team the Celtics should beat in a playoff series.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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