The Atlantic division lead was within grasp Friday night in Philadelphia. With a win the Celtics would usurp the 76ers for first place in the standings. Through 18 minutes, it appeared the C’s were well on their way to that goal as they took a 10 point lead.
Then Mickael Pietrus suffered a jarring injury when he drove to the middle of the paint and awkwardly hit the floor after being fouled. It appeared Pietrus landed on the small of his back. He was taken out on a stretcher and to the nearest hospital.
Boston displayed strong fortitude and gave an admirable effort. But coming into the second night of a back-to-back and with Ray Allen was already unavailable due to an ankle injury, the Celtics simply did not have enough firepower to keep up with the 76ers, falling 99-86.
The 76ers had six players score in double figures. After being held quiet in the first half, Elton Brand (20 points, 10-of-15 shooting) and Lou Williams (19 points) exploded to help lead Philly to victory. For the Celtics, Paul Pierce (20 points, 7-of-11 shooting) and Kevin Garnett (20 points) helped shoulder the scoring load early and Rajon Rondo had a spectacular game setting teammates up with 17 assists, but was held to only six points on a night where they needed him to take more than just five shots that he attempted.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Starting on the right foot: Earlier this month when the Celtics visited the city of brotherly love they were blown out of the gym. With the lead in the Atlantic division hanging in the balance, the C’s came out swinging. Pierce had 11 points in the first six minutes of the game. Bass and Garnett each chipped in eight points in a first quarter that saw Boston shoot 65 percent.
Midway through the second quarter, admist a 76ers’ run, Pietrus violently hit the floor, rendering his night over. Given the nature of the injury, it would be difficult to fault the Celtics for struggling, but the veteran squad regained their composure after being aided by a Doug Collins technical foul, taking a 49-43 lead into halftime. A key to all of this was the Celtics’ efficiency. They did a great job limiting the 76ers opportunities in transition, and only committed five first half turnovers.
Core Performance: With Allen unavailable because of an ankle injury and Pietrus injured in the second quarter, the Celtics needed the rest of their starters to pick up the slack. And they did. Bass, Garnett, and Pierce accounted for 37 of Boston’s 49 first half points, and Rondo distributed the ball extremely well.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Usual Suspects: The Celtics did well in the first half to impose their will and style of play, but they allowed nine offensive rebounds in the first 24 minutes, and 14 total in the game. On the other end, Boston only corralled three offensive boards.
The 46-35 overall rebounding disadvantage accentuates a season-long issue for Boston. The six-point halftime advantage was largely due to holding the 76ers to just 35 percent shooting from the field. But the margin could have been higher for the C’s had they not relented so many offensive boards and second chances.
Another consistent issue for Boston has been both manufacturing and preventing fast break points. Friday night was no different, as the 76ers held an 18-3 advantage
Third Quarter Meltdown: For the second Friday night game in a row, the C’s were dreadful in the third quarter after competing well in the first half. Last week against the Kings, the Celtics only trailed by one at halftime, but then gave up 41 third quarter points. Friday night, Boston actually led by six at halftime, but gave up 37 points, and only scored 17. Brand, in particular, was dominant, scoring 14 points in the quarter.
Injury Bug: Perhaps the weirdest aspect of these fluke injuries to Boston is that they occur as the player begins to flourish in his role. By all accounts, Jeff Green came into camp early and was excited to contribute. His heart condition found in the preseason dismissed those ambitions before he even participated in practice. Chris Wilcox was having a productive season coming off the bench and proving to be a valuable acquisition late in training camp after struggling with minor injuries initially. But just before this eight-game road trip, his season was ended when team doctors discovered he had a heart condition as well.
Finally, Pietrus’ injury tonight came just minutes after a highlight reel dunk. The affable swingman has been a stalwart for Doc Rivers’ bench and a positive influence in the locker room. In addition to Pietrus going down, Avery Bradley, who has also played well of late, hobbled off the court just before halftime and did not return to the lineup. If either Pietrus or Bradley is ruled out for an elongated period of time, one wonders if it will be the final straw which breaks the Celtics’ back.