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Fast Break: Listless C’s can’t find touch, 76ers force Game 7 05.23.12 at 10:48 pm ET
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The Sixers and Celtics will need a seventh game to determine which team will earn the right to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals after the C’s fell to Philly in Game 6, 82-75.  The Celtics seemed out of sorts the whole game and shot just 33.3 percent from the field. Jrue Holiday continued to be a thorn in Boston’s side, scoring 18 points (7-of-15 shooting) for the Sixers. Paul Pierce scored 24 points in defeat.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Missed Opportunity: The C’s actually won the rebounding battle, 48-37, and even doubled up Philly on the offensive glass, 14-7. However, every other facet of the game seemed to go the 76ers way as the game progressed. Boston will look back at this game with regret, not because it lost, but because the way it lost. The C’s shooting percentage floated around 30 percent for the majority of the night and their 16 turnovers were debilitating. In a weird way, the Game 6 loss was almost as damning as the Celtics’ Game 4 loss when they blew an 18-point second half lead. At least in Game 4 the C’s played one good half; Game 5′s performance was brutal for a full 48 minutes.

Gamma Rays: Ray Allen only took one shot in Game 3. He was just 2-of-6 in Game 4. And Monday night he finished 2-of-7 in Game 5. Obviously, his ankle’s stability and amount of pain he is experiencing fluctuates on a day-to-day basis. It appeared Wednesday night he was laboring. His two early fouls in the first quarter didn’t help, but there was one play where Allen visibly struggled while trying to get separation from Jodie Meeks. Allen was 2-0f-8 going into the fourth quarter, playing just 17 minutes. With Avery Bradley‘s status questionable for the rest of the playoffs, Doc Rivers is undoubtedly hoping Allen’s health and play improves.

Held at bay: After Game 5, Allen said this was a “Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass series” because Philly’s defense was predicated on stopping Pierce and himself on the perimeter. Bass had six first quarter points which sounds nice, until you realize it was on eight shot attempts.  His shot selection was fine, but the same shots that fell for Bass in his 27-point Game 5 performance weren’t dropping at the Wells Fargo Center in Game 6. Kevin Garnett wasn’t much better. Sure, he finished with 20 points, but he took 20 shots to reach that output.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Follow the leader: Pierce may have had four turnovers and an average night from the field, but The Truth did what he’s been doing the entire playoff run: Attacking the basket and helping rebound. Pierce grabbed 10 boards and went to the line early and often, finishing the game with 13 free throw attempts. An underrated part of this is that Pierce converted all his attempts. This is especially noteworthy when looking at Philly, who as a team took 28 free throws … but hit just 17 of those opportunities.

Hangin’ around: This is tough. On one hand, the Sixers were shooting 60% in the opening stages of the second quarter, yet the Celtics only trailed by three, 28-25, even though they were shooting just 31 percent. The C’s tightened up defensively and the 76ers went on a scoring drought from the 8:19 mark to the 3:02 mark of the quarter. In fact, Philly would only score six points in eight minutes of action through the second quarter, leading to a comeback from the Celtics.

After holding the 76ers to an eleven point quarter, Boston took a three-point lead into halftime, despite shooting only 37 percent.  Now, this falls under “What Went Right” because the C’s ended up with the lead while on the road, but their 17-point second quarter didn’t exactly allot them any breathing room.

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Veteran Celtics win with old reliable: Defense 05.22.12 at 1:50 pm ET
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As 76ers center Spencer Hawes discovered Monday night, the Celtics can be intimidating when playing their usual solid team defense. (AP)

In the new Big Three era, when the moon is large, the food is prepared properly, and whatever other wacky Kevin Garnett-ism you want to use to describe the Celtics playing to their potential, there has been one constant. If unsure of the answer, let Mickael Pietrus spell it out for you:

“D-E-F-E-N-S-E,” Pietrus said. “That’s the key. When offensively things aren’t going well, you can always count on everybody to play great defense. That’s our coach’s mentality. That’s the Celtics’ mentality.”

The Celtics have finished in the top five in points allowed every year since the 2007-08 season. This year has been no different. During the regular season opponents scored 89.3 points per game against the C’s, good for second-fewest in the NBA. Through 11 games of the playoffs, Boston has allowed just 84.9 points per game. But in the first half of the pivotal Game 5 Monday night, the Celtics struggled to execute defensively and the 76ers took advantage, shooting 54.8 percent while taking a three-point lead at halftime.

“Understanding what got us here,” Garnett said about the keys to the Celtics’ success. “Riding out our defense. I think when we get erratic and we get away from being disciplined defensively, it makes it hard on us. When we stick to our principles and our schemes, it’s hard to score on us.”

What transpired over the course of the second half proved Garnett is absolutely right. The Celtics regained some semblance of control in a wildly unpredictable series with their 101-85 victory. Some analysts will point to the Celtics getting to the free throw line 17 more times than the Sixers; others will speak about Brandon Bass outscoring the entire Philly team, 18-16, in the third quarter. And those are valid reasons why Boston prevailed, but they also are anomalies.

However, the C’s defense binding together and holding the 76ers to just 35 second-half points on 37.1 percent shooting is hardly surprising. As Garnett said, it is what Boston is built on. The C’s active hands served as a catalyst to completely reverse the feel of the game. In the third quarter alone, the Sixers had six turnovers and the Celtics had four steals, turning what had been a three-point deficit into a nine-point lead entering the fourth quarter. From that point on, the Celtics never looked back.

“It’s due to their adjustments,” Elton Brand said. “The first two games they were playing our pick and roll and our drag screens a certain way, now they are playing it a different way, and it doesn’t always bode well for us to execute. We’ve been turning the ball over. They’re long and athletic, so we’ve been going into those traps.”

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Fast Break: Celtics collapse in second half, 76ers even series 05.18.12 at 10:53 pm ET
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The Celtics scored the first 14 points of Game 4 and had a 15-point lead at halftime, but they failed to keep that momentum in the second half, as the 76ers came back to win, 92-83, evening up the series at two games apiece. For the 76ers, Andre Iguodala scored 16 points. Paul Pierce had 24 points (8-of-13 shooting) and Rajon Rondo had 15 points to go along with 15 assists. The Celtics look to regain control of the series Game 5 on Monday night back at the Garden.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Benched: Doc Rivers looked to his bench to hold the fort after the Celtics built a 22-8 lead midway through the first quarter. Things quickly went awry — Philly went on a 10-2 run to pull within six, 24-18. Rondo stopped the bleeding with an old-fashioned three-point play, and the Celtics closed the half on a 22-13 run, taking a 15-point lead into halftime. While the lead was re-established, Rivers would have preferred not to have had the starters expend more energy.

Foul play: The 76ers should have been in contention all night with the lopsided free throw advantage they had. In the first half, Boston took five free throws to Philly’s 21, but the Sixers only hit 13 of those attempts. In the second, half Rivers was forced to go back to his bench after three starters — Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley and Rondo – had four fouls midway through the third quarter. Philly finished with a season-high 34 free throw attempts.

Board to death: The refs certainly didn’t help Boston’s cause, and the validity of the free throw differential is up for debate, but the C’s should have been more focused on the glass. Neither team had been dominant rebounding the ball until Friday night, when the Sixers had 12 offensive boards through the third quarter. This was critical because the Celtics held Philly to just 32.8 percent shooting but the 76ers were able to have multiple chances at the basket because of their rebounding advantage. Philly finished with 17 offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, the Celtics only had five.

Half the battle: As great as the Celtics were in the first half, they failed to score a field goal in the first seven minutes of the second half. To their credit, the Sixers battled and clawed their way back from an 18-point deficit to tie the game in the opening stages of the fourth quarter. From that point on, the game would be a back-and-forth battle. These scoring droughts from the C’s are nothing new but are still staggering to watch, especially after they displayed incredible efficiency in the first quarter.

Of course, it wasn’t just the offense. The aforementioned rebounding and free throw disparities hurt Boston. Additionally, the Sixers finally flexed their youth, outscoring the Celtics 27-13 in fast break points. Finally, the C’s committed 17 turnovers (including seven from Kevin Garnett alone).

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Going for the kill: What was more impressive: The C’s scoring the game’s first 14 points, or the fact they only allowed Philly eight shot attempts (the Sixers only hit one) to their 16 shot attempts through five minutes of action? It has been difficult to differentiate between good defense versus bad offense during the lockout-shortened season, but this was a case of the former. The Celtics were relentless in their defensive approach, specifically Rondo and Bradley. Offensively, Boston started the game shooting 7-of-8 from the field. It was clear, the Celtics wanted no part of coming back to Philly for a Game 6.

The maestro: The C’s early dominance was largely because of Rondo’s performance. For the second straight game, Rondo played in complete control, dominating all facets of the contest. He had four assists in the first four minutes, took wise risks defensively, and controlled the pacing. He finished the first half scoring nine points (4-of-6 shooting) to go along with nine assists.

Gone fishin’: Bass had a great regular season for the C’s — first as a reserve off the bench, then as a starter — but he has had an uneven playoffs. In Game 3, Bass showed signs of coming to life, scoring 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting. That confidence carried over into Game 4. In the first half, the 27 year-old scored 13 points, only one point shy of his previous playoff high, knocking down five of the seven shots he took. Bass only had one basket in the second half, however, and finished with 15 points.

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Fast Break: Celtics find offense, take 2-1 series lead 05.16.12 at 9:27 pm ET
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The Celtics followed up their lackluster Game 2 performance by putting together perhaps their best game so far in the playoffs, beating the 76ers 107-91, taking back homecourt advantage and holding a 2-1 series lead. Rajon Rondo scored 23 points to go along with his 14 assists.  Kevin Garnett continued his impressive postseason run, scoring 27 points (12-of-17 shooting) and grabbing 13 rebounds. Thaddeus Young scored 22 points off the bench, leading all Philadelphia scorers.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

The Ticket to the Swag Show: The first quarter was the Rondo (or, as KG calls him, “Swag”)  show. He scored 13 of the Celtics 28 first-quarter points.  Rondo watched from the bench as Garnett went 8-of-9 from the field in the second quarter on his way to 17 points. KG abused Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand in the post after Lavoy Allen picked up his third foul midway through the second quarter.

The C’s outscored the Sixers 32-14 while shooting 13-of-19 (68 percent) in the second quarter to take control of the game.  The Celtics scored 60 first-half points, for some perspective, Boston only scored 49 points through the third quarter of Game 2.

Doin’ Philly Better Than Philly: The 76ers turned the ball over the fewest times per game in the regular season and also in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics were fantastic Wednesday night, only committing two turnovers in the first half of Game 2. The 60-point offensive display put on in the first half was predicated on meticulous execution.

While the efficiency was evident through the lack of turnovers, Rondo’s decision making was superb. He pushed the ball at the right times and knew when to pull up into a half court set. The Celtics turned their five steals in the first half into 12 fast break points, and held the younger 76ers to only seven.

Loose Balls: Essentially everything the Celtics did wrong in the first two games of the series was remedied on the road in Game 3.

  • Unlike in Game 2, the Celtics stepped on the Sixers throat when they had the chance, extending their 11-point halftime lead to 23 by the end of the third quarter.
  • Boston was a combined 10-of-36 from 3-point territory in Games 1 and 2. On Wednesday night they weren’t great from beyond the arc, but weren’t woeful either, finishing 5-of-11 from 3-point land.
  • The Celtics played the aggressor while getting to the line 28 times, when in Game 2, they settled for jump shots and only got to the line nine times.
  • Finally, the Celtics held a 44-37 rebounding advantage, which has been by far their biggest vice this season.

The Truth Isn’t in the Numbers: Paul Pierce started 2-of-9 shooting. While that certainly isn’t solid start, his two baskets were on emphatic dunks that enlivened his teammates. Pierce, along with Rondo, kept Boston in contention early, keeping the deficit to just five at the end of the first quarter, before the C’s exploded in the second and third quarter. Pierce also was engaged down low battling for 12 rebounds. And although The Truth’s shot wasn’t falling Wednesday night, he earned 14 trips to the foul line, converting 11.

WHAT WENT WRONG

That Was New: More of a commentary on the lack of investigative reporting on my part, but is the phenomenal “Flexing” celebration by Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, and Ryan Hollins new? If not, how did we miss it?

Kidding aside, this was really all that could be expected from the C’s in Game 3. They took the first punch, giving up 33 first-quarter points, but only trailed by five, and dismantled the Sixers the rest of the way to regain control of the series.

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Sixers come of age, steal home court from Celtics 05.15.12 at 10:16 am ET
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Doug Collins was happy with his young Sixers after they stole Game 2. (AP)

The 76ers came into Game 2 of their second-round series against the Celtics knowing they had let Game 1 slip through their fingers after blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. Following the disappointing loss, Doug Collins said he liked his team’s effort, remaining optimistic that the Sixers still had the chance to steal Game 2, so long as they made the appropriate adjustments in their execution down the stretch.

Game 2 on Monday night was an ugly affair, but it unfolded the same way as the series opener as the 76ers clawed their way to an eight-point advantage, 59-51, with just over 10 minutes left in regulation. Then Mickael Pietrus — who was just 2-of-15 from long distance in the playoffs going into Monday night’s game — drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to pull the Celtics within a basket.

Philly could have turtled under the pressure, but instead it flipped the script. It was the Celtics who committed consecutive turnovers, and shortly after, Andre Iguodala reversed the momentum with a mid-range jumper.

“Our young guys just keep growing and they’re really becoming men,” Collins said. “I’m so proud of them. We just found a way. … Our guys are believing they can do it, and it is pretty special to watch.”

The Sixers allowed 32 fourth-quarter points, including six 3-pointers, but their poise was noticeably different in Game 2. Philly converted all eight of its free throws in the fourth quarter, while Kevin Garnett missed the Celtics’ only attempt. Although the C’s shot 65 percent from the field in the quarter, they committed four costly turnovers, the 76ers on the other hand, only committed one.

What was most encouraging for the Sixers in their 82-81 victory was that all eight of the players who saw action in the fourth quarter scored. So much of the discussion of this series has been predicated on the lack of a pure offensive threat on the Philadelphia side, as opposed to the Celtics, who boast four perennial All-Stars on their roster. For the Sixers, there was strength in numbers.

Though, it should be noted, a few breaks seemed to go the Sixers way, including Lavoy Allen‘s 22-foot bank shot as the 24-second shot clock was expiring to break a tie with just over four minutes left. Evan Turner also hit an impressive driving layup that would prove to be the game-winning basket. Finally, Garnett was called for a moving screen with 10 seconds left that took the ball out of the C’s hands with a chance to tie, essentially sealing the game for the 76ers.

“They made some tough shots when we needed to get some stops,” Paul Pierce said. “The made a shot with [less than a second] left on the shot clock. Turner made a couple difficult layups. That’s the part of the game where we’ve really got to make stops.”

Said Doc Rivers: “We put ourselves in that position. And when you do that, if you win the game, great, you won the game. If you lose the game, you deserve to lose the game, too, because you put yourself in that position.”

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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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Andre Iguodala and the 76ers weren't able to close out Paul Pierce and the Celtics in Saturday's Game 1. (AP)

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.

“I’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.

“That’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.

“When he starts making shots, you have to honor that,” Turner said. “That 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: “I 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.”

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By the numbers: Seven points to watch for during 76ers vs. Celtics 05.12.12 at 9:05 am ET
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Can Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala be the 76ers closer against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics? (AP)

Sometimes results in regular season matchups translate to the playoffs. For instance, it wasn’t as shocking when the top-seeded Mavericks were upset by the eighth-seeded Warriors in the 2006-07 playoffs, because their regular season meetings gave an indication Dallas would have issues with Don Nelson’s small-ball lineups.

The lockout shortened 2011-12 season doesn’t offer the same insights. Celtics coach Doc Rivers feels there isn’t much to take away from the three regular season match-ups between his team and the 76ers.

“The two [games] in Philly we didn’t learn much,” Rivers said at practice Friday. “We got blasted in the first game especially. Regular season games, both of them are coming off back-to-backs and stuff like that. Those are tough games to gauge. We know how they want to play, they know how we want to play. It’s going to be a battle of that, who can establish the pace.”

Rivers is right. Philly handled Boston twice at home. The first game saw the Sixers thump the C’s, 103-71. The 32-point defeat was the worst loss suffered in the new Big Three era.

The second game in Philadelphia was played without Ray Allen and, to make matters worse for Boston, both Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus sustained injuries in the first half, keeping each out of action in the final 24 minutes. Following a competitive first half, the Celtics didn’t have enough firepower to keep up with the 76ers.

The final game, played in Boston, was the sole meeting the Celtics won and could be the best indication of what may transpire between the two teams since it was most recent. Still, even that game was played after both squads competed the night before.

With all those disclaimers and caveats laid out, there is still some merit to how the 76ers and Celtics played in their first round series. So let’s take a peek at seven playoff trends from each side. Read the rest of this entry »

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