Paul Pierce waited and waited to make an impact in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s 92-91 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Kevin Garnett was a man possessed. Rajon Rondo was turning in another triple-double. Pierce was 2 of 10 from the floor, and he was a forgotten man.
The smart play — heck the only play — was to go to Garnett. But there was Pierce, with 1:18 remaining in the game, stepping up and making a step-back jumper that should have a patent number. Pierce buried the shot to put the Celtics up, 90-84, It was his only field goal of the fourth quarter. And it was so familiar, so comfortable, that it blended into the larger narrative.
There were other clutch plays, too. Rondo was 3 for 6 in the fourth quarter, taking the dare on a couple of jump shots the Celtics ended up needing. Garnett kept stepping up and nailing his 18-footers. And the game’s final play, when Rondo dribbled out the clock, was executed perfectly by an experienced team.
Experience was supposed to win out over youth and athleticism against Philadelphia, but that storyline manifested itself more strongly than could have been predicted in Game 1. The Celtics dug a hole for themselves in the first half and failed to pull themselves out of it by the end of the third quarter, trailing, 71-67, after three.
Before the game, Sixers coach Doug Collins talked about his team learning on the fly. Philadelphia went toe-to-toe with the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls and come out winners. The Bulls lost their best player and starting center, but the Sixers learned something about closing.
“My young guys are growing,” said Collins. “You can’t fake the experience that you get. The best way to evaluate players is in the playoffs.”
Doc Rivers has been evaluating his team since April, 2008, when these Celtics began their first playoff run together. Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen had never won a championship at that point. Rondo was a second-year player who hadn’t proven anything.
The Celtics won the championship that season, overachieving in the first year of what was thought to be a three-year window. A lot has happened since. The Celtics went to seven games with the Lakers during the 2010 Finals. They’ve made the second round of the playoffs every season since Garnett and Allen came to Boston.
Saturday night, their mettle was tested. The Celtics came out flat and were down, 45-32, in the second quarter. Their play was so uninspiring that the shouting of Rivers could be heard in the ninth floor press box, a sign that the fans in the building were as deflated as the team.
The Celtics fought back before halftime, and they fought back in the third quarter to trail by just four points entering the fourth. There was no panic.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know what we were down,” said Garnett. “I don’t even look at the score. No disrespect for the game or anything like that, I go off the crowd, I go off the adrenaline, the emotion. For the most part I like the feel of the game. I really feel like we have better basketball in us.”
Better basketball didn’t come until it had to. The Celtics were down six with 8:33 left when championship mode kicked in. Garnett had ninee points in the fourth quarter. Rondo scored or assisted on 11 of the Celtics final 14 baskets. He had 11 points, 9 assists, and 8 rebounds after halftime.
“They did a really good job managing the end of the game there,” said Philadelphia coach Doug Collins. “Garnett, I’ve never seen him play better. Rondo was spectacular. And when all is said and done, you know, we had a great chance to get this game.”
The Celtics didn’t let that happen. Garnett is playing out of his mind. At one point in the third quarter, he blocked a shot attempt by Spencer Hawes and then sprinted up the court, beating almost everyone else down the floor despite exerting so much effort on defense. Rondo obviously did his best work in the second half, and Pierce found a way to contribute despite a rough shooting night. Avery Bradley contributed great defense, blocking a layup attempt by Lou Williams on a superb individual effort.
Philadelphia is younger, and they will present a difficult series. But the Celtics know how to win, and experience wins games in the playoffs. During the regular season it’s called old age. This time of year, it’s called being clutch. It’s what the Celtics do best.