Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett used an off-hand, and ultimately ill-advised remark about him by the Atlanta Hawks’ co-owner to inspire himself and the Celtics to victory Thursday night over the Hawks in their NBA quarterfinal playoff series. Garnett scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots in helping secure the Celtics’ 83-80 win in Game 6 of their match-up, played at Boston Garden. Paul Pierce, who played with a knee injury, added 18 points and guard Rajon Rondo contributed 14 of his own, along with eight assists.
Garnett, playing in his 17th NBA season, was hitting shots from around the key all night with relative ease, and his ten defensive rebounds were critical in keeping the Celtics in or near the lead. Garnett, asked after the game about Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr.’s remark that “Garnett is the dirtiest guy in the league”, replied “I just found that comment to be a little rude and a little out of hand, and I wanted to address it … Just because you’ve got a lot of money doesn’t mean you can open your mouth.” He then mentioned that it gave him a little extra gas in the tank, and the Celtics needed every bit of it, as they managed to cling to a slight lead in the waning minutes against a determined Hawks club.
Hawks forward Al Horford’s return to the lineup this week was looked upon with concern by the Celtics, as he had been critical in defeating Boston when they played in Atlanta this past Tuesday. Thursday night, he had 15 points to supplement a very balanced Hawks attack that saw four of their starters scoring in double-figures – though production from their bench was practically non-existent.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who will travel to Boston on Saturday night to play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, had an even more dramatic ending to their deciding quarterfinal game against the East's top-seeded Chicago Bulls. The 76ers’ Andre Iguodala had 20 points and hit two critical foul shots with just over two seconds left in regulation to secure Philadelphia’s 79-78 win and series upset over the Bulls, who were playing without forward Joakim Noah and their outstanding guard Derrick Rose. Philadelphia, as an eight-seed, now goes to its first semifinal since 2003.
The history of the Celtics and 76ers will be lost on many younger fans. But for nearly fifty years, the competition between these two storied franchises has been fierce and often acrimonious. In this particular match-up, Celtic stars Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are battling injuries, but playing nonetheless. Aside from that, they have to play tougher in the key. Against Atlanta, the Celtics were largely playing the Hawks’ game – a lot of perimeter shooting and not enough muscle inside. They’ve had some solid contributions in the defensive lane from big man Greg Stiemsma and recent arrival Ryan Hollins. But they and the “Big Three” of Pierce, Garnett and Allen will have to find some daylight inside to supplement their tendency to shoot from the arc.
The 76ers, for their part, are a young and athletic squad who like to run and don’t play as well when the tempo slows. Boston, not the most effective pressing team, should have to keep them from running in transition. Celtics playmaker Rajon Rondo, who has an extraordinary seven triple-doubles in NBA playoff games, needs to keep the turnovers to a minimum while effectively badgering Philadelphia’s adept guards, including Lou Williams and rookie Jrue Holiday, to keep them off balance. Holiday’s scoring has been inconsistent, but he was outstanding in the Bulls series, while Williams has been consistently strong off the bench. And Boston guard Avery Bradley, who’s been playing opportunistic defense, will add considerably here. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Rondo's playoff triple-doubles.]
The Celtics bench has some strong defensive components, including forward Marquis Daniels and another recent Celtic roster addition, guard Keyon Dooling. But one lingering concern is forward Mickeal Pietrus, who as a member of the Orlando Magic last year, was a superb outside shooter against Boston. But since he returned to the Celtics’ roster after nearly a month-long absence, he has been exceedingly quiet in their offense. They need him to step up in a big way against the 76ers.
Overall, both teams are very well-coached – the Celtics with Doc Rivers and Philadelphia with former Philadelphia star Doug Collins. However, the 76ers just don’t have the consistency to overcome the Celtics’ veteran strength. The Celtics can and do spread the ball exceptionally well, and look for Rondo to once again pile up the assists here. And if their big three can return to the offensive form they had in the last part of the regular season, they will once again advance. That can and will likely happen.