Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers has referred to games like Wednesday night’s grinder against the Philadelphia 76ers as being “played in mud.” It was certainly ugly all around, but the 76ers came away with the victory, 82-75, in Philadelphia, forcing a seventh game at Boston Garden on Saturday night. Allen Iverson, the former 76ers star guard who appeared to thunderous applause before the game, might have said that the best way to win a playoff series at Wells Fargo Arena is “practice, practice, practice.” The Celtics should have taken some of that advice to heart, because for most of Game 6, they looked completely flummoxed.
It wasn’t all bad news for the Celtics, who got 24 points from Paul Pierce, including 13 for 13 from the free throw line. And Kevin Garnett almost single-handedly kept Boston close throughout the fourth quarter by contributing 20 more. But no one else on the Celtics reached the ten-point plateau, with both Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen tossing in nine apiece.
One of the most telling statistics for Boston was how it got schooled in the paint. Philadelphia handily outscored them on the inside, 42-16. One reason for that, 76ers head coach Doug Collins suggested afterward, was that he wanted to keep his team in “attack mode” and not try to get into a shooting contest with the Celtics. And the mediocrity of this statistic is compounded when considering Boston outrebounded Philadelphia, 48-37 (including 14 offensive boards), but just couldn’t convert on second-chance points.
Rajon Rondo couldn’t set up the offense, which accounts for his unusually low six assists. And Boston didn’t help its offensive cause by turning the ball over 17 times.
The 76ers, though they only hit one of nine shots from three-point range, nonetheless distributed the ball well, getting five players in double-figures. The Celtics put no pressure on them in that department either, hitting only 3 of 14 from beyond the arc. At one point, second-shift guard Keyon Dooling, ordinarily a serviceable three-point shot-maker, tossed up a rainbow which found nothing but air and fell harmlessly into the floor seats behind the basket – it perfectly summed up the Celtics’ offensive trials. Boston supplemented that with a series-low 33.3% from the field – including Rondo’s hitting only 4 of 14 field goals. This field-goal drought also spread to the bench, with the Celtics relief squad managing only five points – all scored by Mickael Pietrus – in just over a collective hour on the floor.
If Boston wasn’t exactly piling up the points last night, they made up for it with their personal fouls – getting whistled 25 times to Philadelphia’s 16. This hurt particularly in the last quarter, with Ray Allen fouling out in the crucial final minutes, and 76ers guard Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala hitting some key free-throws as the clock waned. In fact, Holiday (who led the 76ers with 20 points) and teammate Lou Williams were seemingly making shots from everywhere Wednesday night – particularly inside – and that, as much as anything else, was a big source of frustration for Boston’s big men.
The scene now shifts to Boston, where the pressure of getting to the next round will be sitting squarely on the Celtics’ shoulders. One important factor when considering the grueling nature of the playoff game schedule is that Boston will have two days rest – which favors a skilled, yet relatively elderly and hobbled Celtics team. For them, Game 7 will have to be a statement game, with Pierce needing to get involved early and often, and Rondo piling up the assists. But eighth-seeded Philadelphia, the relatively young and inexperienced squad they are, have been remarkably poised and shown that they are capable of winning close games on the road. Regardless, Saturday will undoubtedly be another tight and hard-fought game.