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With a stunning 82-81 loss Monday night to the upstart eight-seed, the Boston Celtics found themselves knee-deep in questions.
What happened to the Celtics’ advantage in big-game experience and late-game execution? Would Paul Pierce‘s knee injury kill the Celtics’ enough offense? And why was Brandon Bass shooting more than anyone on Boston’s roster, considering Kevin Garnett seems to have swapped places with his 2004 MVP-self?
After shellacking the Philadelphia 76ers with an impressive 107-91 win on the road, consider those questions answered.
Okay, so maybe the fourth quarter crunch time question from Game Two wasn’t really answered when Boston emptied its bench for the final three minutes of garbage time. Up by 19, Doc Rivers subbed in Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic, Keyon Dooling, and E’Twaun Moore (orm as they’re more commonly known, the Tiny Four). The Celtics scored all of two points the rest of the way.
That said, it was incredibly refreshing to see the Celtics assert their will and take charge early, not letting the Sixers stick around until the very end when anything can happen. (Lavoy Allen’s line drive bank shot with 0.9 seconds on the shot clock, Evan Turner’s spinning, flailing prayer of a go-ahead layup) TNT might not want a game decided before the final minute, but as a Celtics fan, that’s alright by me.
Whereas his box score from Game Two drew comparisons to his worst career playoff performances, Game Three was more like the vintage #34 Celtics fans are accustomed to. Pierce only shot 35 percent, but 24 points and 12 rebounds? Soaring dunks? Fourteen free throw attempts? Maybe Pierce’s refusal to acknowledge his sprained MCL wasn’t a classic case of denial after all.
Of course, who knows how Pierce’s knee will respond after playing 37 minutes just 48 hours before Game Four. Maybe he’ll limp than ever on Friday night. But at least we know he can still carry the scoring load for stretches if need be. I “Tebow” with gratitude.
In the Celtics’ two wins this series, Garnett is only averaging, oh, 28 points and 12 rebounds. He’s also been the defensive captain/tour de force. Even in the loss, though Garnett had just 15 points, he scored 11 of them in the fourth quarter. With Pierce somewhat slowed, Garnett has become the primary scoring option, abusing the Sixers in the low post with an array of fade-aways and bank shots. At this point, I’m surprised when he misses.
This Minnesota-era KG blast from the past is much better than any blast from the Bass, who inexplicably jacked up roughly 1,000 jumpers without making any in Game Two. Bass took a much more reasonable 10 shots on Wednesday, making half and staying within the offensive flow. Garnett’s 12-of-17 shooting and seemingly scoring at will also helped.
From the rubble of the Wells Fargo Center, a new question emerges: can the Celtics carry their momentum from Wednesday’s dominant victory to Friday night?
I’d like to think so, especially with a chance to step on Philadelphia’s throats and put them in a 3-1 hole going back to Boston. Wednesday showed just how much more talented the Celtics are: not just Pierce and Garnett, but also Rajon Rondo (running the show with 23 points and 14 assists) and even Mickael Pietrus (3-of-4 on three-pointers and 13 points). The veteran Celtics can smell 76er blood in the water.
Unfortunately, I said “I’d like to think so” for a reason. This Celtics team can be wildly inconsistent from night to night, both in terms of results and, more criminally, effort. Sometimes the C’s just seem unmotivated, uninterested or unchallenged, and they play accordingly.
You could certainly make that case for the first two games of this series, both of which required fourth quarter comebacks. One resulted in a last minute loss, the other could’ve just as easily.
It’s hard to blame Boston after exuding such authority over their opponent (in their opponent’s own house, no less). They just controlled every facet of the game – what’s there to be worried about? My fear heading into Friday is that after coasting to an easy win and reclaiming home-court advantage, the Celtics will rest on their laurels instead of pressing the attack. That’s how they lost Game Five in Atlanta, and that’s how Philadelphia could re-tie the series Friday night.
But with some luck and a little hard work, the questions remaining after Game Four won’t have anything to do with age or injury, but only whether the Celtics can close it out in five.