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Sixers in search of closer, remain positive despite fourth-quarter collapse

05.14.12 at 10:05 am ET
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This was the script Doug Collins dreamed of — his team clinging to a six-point lead, early in the fourth quarter on the road, despite multiple runs by the Celtics. His collar loosened, ever so slightly, as Lou Williams got a hand on a Ray Allen jump shot, and then pulled up in transition to bury a long-range shot of his own. Seconds later, Lavoy Allen sank a textbook baby hook shot, and the 76ers opened up a 10-point lead.

The momentum abruptly came to a halt, however, as the Celtics went on a 12-2 run over the next five minutes. The Sixers offense proved to be non-existent at the worst possible time, and suddenly, with just under five minutes left to play, Philly was trading baskets in a one-possession game with the Celtics. The lead, the security, and hopes of catching Boston off guard and stealing home court vanished.

‘€œI’€™m proud of our guys,” Collins said. “We are off to a really good start. What we needed here, coming in today on the road, we fought on some. When it is all said and done, we had a great chance to get this game today and just had four really bad offensive possessions that really hurt us.’€

What may trouble Collins most is not how his team blew the lead, but who blew the lead. Going into the fourth quarter, everything appeared to be working for the 76ers. Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner had 16 points each, the Sixers forced Rajon Rondo into committing six turnovers, they outscored Boston’€™s bench 20-14, and they were even shooting 4-of-10 on 3-pointers.

A big question mark going into this series, though, was if Philly’€™s playmakers – Iguodala, Turner and Williams — could come through down the stretch.  Saturday night, the answer was no. The three combined to go 2-for-10 from the field in the fourth quarter. And, as their shooting touch failed them, none were able to get to the foul line. Williams had a shot blocked, Iguodala had two of his sent the other way, and both had turnovers in critical moments. Most telling is that not one 76er scored more than four points in the fourth quarter.

‘€œThat’€™s sort of the sign of a team that’€™s trying to grow and figure out what it is to play this kind of championship basketball in the NBA playoffs,’€ Collins said.

As much as the Sixers did struggle, Rondo was great when he needed to be, atoning for an uneven night. In the final frame alone, he had six points, four assists and five boards. The assists came from Rondo pushing the ball upcourt. The Celtics scored seven of their 14 fast-break points in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the scariest aspect of Rondo’s fourth-quarter performance was each of his three field goals coming from 18 feet and out.

‘€œWhen he starts making shots, you have to honor that,’€ Turner said. ‘€œThat allows the other guys to get space. It allows [Kevin Garnett] to get on the block one-on-one with a guy, or Paul [Pierce] to iso, or for Ray [Allen].’€

Said Doc Rivers: ‘€œI thought Rondo’€™s shooting, obviously, down the stretch was fantastic. He wanted those shots. We ran that play, we were going to switch Ray and put him in that spot where the guy curls back up, and Rondo wanted that play. He wanted the shot and he took it. That has to be great for his confidence.’€

While Rondo’€™s night teetered between uneven and superb, Garnett was consistently brilliant. He scored nine of his 30 points in the fourth quarter on 4-of-5 shooting to go along with a block and steal. The spacing created by Rondo’s penetration granted KG’s opportunities to finish under the basket and have space to get open looks from the perimeter. Turner’s assertion about Rondo is accurate, as three of Garnett’s four field goals came from Rondo assists.

‘€œYou have to pick your poison,’€ Collins said. ‘€œKevin is playing great. I mean, he is playing great. He’€™s hitting all these shots. He’€™s fading shots off the glass. He’€™s playing as well as I’€™ve ever seen him play. My hat’€™s off to him. But I don’€™t think there was anything we did poorly with him. I just think sometimes you get trumped.’€

Before Game 1 began, Allen said each team knew the other’€™s tendencies and there would be no surprises. Still, each of the three regular-season games were decided by at least 13 points, meaning the 76ers were introduced first-hand to Boston’€™s biggest strength during Game 1 — its will.

‘€œIt feels like a missed an opportunity because we were leading the whole game,’€ Elton Brand said. ‘€œI think their veteran leadership and battle-tested championship caliber team took over at the end.’€

Of course, this series is far from over. Both Brand and Williams alluded that Saturday night’€™s failures can be taken as a learning experience and ultimately help the young Sixers grow. Garnett, meanwhile, admitted that the Celtics came out poorly in the first half, taking a punch in the mouth, and the resiliency they displayed will need to present itself the rest of the series for Boston to advance.

‘€œYou have to understand — we’€™re playing a very good team, very young,’€ Garnett said. ‘€œI feel like for the most part, those guys hit us in the mouth in first quarter. I’€™m not going to lie.

‘€œIt’€™s an East Coast series,’€ he continued. ‘€œBoston and Philly — all the history I’€™ve read, watched, YouTubed, or whatever you want to call it — has been difficult, and I don’€™t anticipate this being less.’€

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