It’s incredible how a meaningless game can turn so quickly into one of my favorites of the season. If, in a week or so, Orlando is struggling against a quick and hungry Bulls team that takes care of its home court, while the Celtics are handling a banged-up Sixers team in the first round, remember this game. Remember when Philly torched a lazy Celtics defense for an 11-0 first half run (a run created off Celtic misses, not turnovers, and this is important). Remember when Sam Dalembert closed the first half scoring by getting so far behind the Celtics defense for an alley-oop he looked like a wide receiver sprung open on a flea-flicker.
But remember most of all when the greatest Celtic of the post-Bird era told the team, with his harsh words in the huddle and his 12-of-16 shooting on the court, that their performance in the first half was unacceptable. That it was unbecoming of a championship team.
Paul Pierce carried the team to this win, but he got major help from Glen Davis, making smart plays in the post down the stretch, and Tony Allen, scoring 18 points on aggressive and (mostly) controlled drives to the rim. Those 18 points represent TA’s second-highest total this season, and they came in a game in which he played a season-high 39 minutes–a dozen more than he’s logged in any game so far this year–and turned the ball over just twice.
With 3:56 left and the C’s down 95-93, Paul Pierce was double-teamed at the of the key and fired the ball to TA, who was behind the three-point line on the left wing. A defender rushed out to contest a possible jumper, and TA zoomed past him into the lane. The Sixers defense collapsed, and I reflexively thought, No, no, no, here comes the offensive foul or the wild pass or the lost ball. But TA came to a little jump stop and dished a lefty pass to Big Baby for the easy lay-in.
Bravo, Tony. You bring that game in the playoffs, and you might get yourself 18-20 minutes a night. Or more.
Enough hyperbole, though you really can’t say enough about Paul Pierce’s game tonight. Tonight’s win means the C’s will face the Sixers in the first round unless the Raptors beat the Bulls in Chicago tomorrow and the Sixers become the second team in the NBA this year to beat Cleveland. The scenario is possible, since Cleveland has no incentive other than the 40-1 home mark, but it’s extremely unlikely.
So what did we learn about Philly? Nothing we didn’t already know. They can’t shoot three-pointers, and they will punish teams who turn the ball over or otherwise don’t get back on defense. If you take relatively good care of the ball and make transition defense your top priority, you will beat the 76ers–just as the Celtics have all four times the teams played this season.
It’s not as simple as just avoiding turnovers, which is good, because the Celtics aren’t going to avoid turnovers. At halftime, Cheryl Miller’s brother emphasized how the Celtics’ nine turnovers had resulted in 15 Philly fast break points. But that wasn’t really accurate, and Doc Rivers knew it. If you listened carefully to Cheryl Miller’s summary of her halftime chat with Doc, you’d have heard her say Doc had chastised the C’s for blowing lay-ups on offense that led to Philly getting transition chances.
Take a closer look at the 11-0 run in the second quarter that ended with Philly up 50-42. None of those points came off Celtic turnovers, even though many of them were fast break points:
(5:09): Lou Williams makes a driving lay-up after a Paul Pierce made three-pointer. Time elapsed from change of possession: 19 seconds.
(4:43): Marreese Speights blocks a TA lay-in, igniting a fast break that ends with him getting fouled. He makes one of two from the line. Elapsed time: 5 seconds.
(4:16): Rajon Rondo misses a lay-up, the Sixers run out behind Lou Williams, who dishes to Thaddeus Young for the dunk. Elapsed time: 4 seconds.
(3:50): Paul Pierce tries a risky cross-court bounce pass to Eddie House; Williams intercepts it and passes it ahead to Young, who blows the dunk. Elapsed time: 3 seconds.
(The teams trade misses in half court sets)
(3:06): House misses a transition lay-in as Dalembert hustles back to contest the shot. Dalmebert rebounds and kicks to Andre Miller, who dribbles over midcourt and hits Williams for a lay-in. Elapsed time: 6 seconds.
(2:41): Rondo misses a floater, Iguodala rebounds and drives coast-to-coast in a three-on-three situation, drawing a foul on Big Baby. He makes both free throws. Elapsed time: 5 seconds.
(2:20): Eddie House misses a 22-footer, Dalembert runs out behind the defense, and Iggy finds him for dunk. Elapsed time: 5 seconds.
So here you’ve got 11 Philly points, nine of which were the result of fast breaks, and none of them came off a Celtics turnover. This run shows what the Sixers can do against a team that’s not quite on top of its defensive game. I hate to point the finger at effort, but sometimes it’s effort. This (mostly) wasn’t a case of the Celtics taking bad shots or stupidly crashing the offensive glass. If Eddie House has an open jumper or a transition lay-up, he should take it–even if missing the shot means he’s behind the play already unfolding on the other end.
It’s not just about turnovers when you play the Sixers. It’s about doing everything you can to make them slow down–taking smarter shots, making more shots and getting back in transition above all else.
If Boston does those things, a first round match-up with Philly shouldn’t be a Hawks redux.