Even if the sell-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center was lined with plenty of Celtic-green throughout, it was Sixer pride that shined through, as the Philadelphia 76ers protected their home floor Friday night. Fueled by a rousing, playoff-level of intensity, Philly and Boston went to the wire for the third time this season as the Sixers prevailed, 89-86, in their first win over Boston this year.
Coach Collins has stressed all year long the importance of establishing a true home court advantage. Simply put, losing back-to-back games on their own hardwood would be unacceptable. The last time Philly faced the prospect of dropping two straight at home, February 11th, they toppled the league-best San Antonio Spurs. Friday, they looked to rebound after a home loss to OKC against the East-leading Celtics.
After a close call against Golden State on Sunday, I wrote that I hoped the Sixers would find a way to dictate the pace of the games remaining on the schedule. At the time, I was mostly referring to some of the lower-ranked opponents that remained; the Kings, the Raptors, the Bucks, the Pistons, etc.
However, as they fought off the Celtics for a full 48 minutes on Friday, the Sixers displayed a level of mental toughness not seen in Philly hoops since the Allen Iverson/Larry Brown era. Sixer teams of the last few seasons (and the start of this one, too) could not be faulted for a lack of effort – it was the absence of execution and a propensity to find ways to lose that held them back in tight games.
Now, the mood is different. Instead of timidly holding a lead, constantly peeking at the game clock and hoping it would hit :00 before their opponent caught up, this Sixer team remains poised and focused on finishing what they start.
“We had a lot of mental mistakes at the beginning of the year, now we’re trying to clean them up,” explained Andre Iguodala afterwards. Iggy (13 pts, 9 boards, 8 assists) flirted with another triple-double and put the game away late with a driving layup in the face of Kevin Garnett.
The last time Boston visited Philadelphia; it was KG getting an easy lay-in over Jrue Holiday to snatch a 102-101 win in the final seconds. Friday, the Sixers looked to seize control of the last two minutes of the game through their defense. In Boston’s final 14 possessions, they coughed up 3 turnovers, shot a paltry 1/9 from the field, and converted 2/4 free throws. Consider it seized.
The Sixers’ defensive game plan kept Boston on their heels all night. Rajon Rondo, the league’s assist leader, finished the game with 5 dimes, well short of his 12 apg average. Jrue Holiday, charged with the tough task of checking Rondo, did an excellent job of not allowing him to weave in and out of the lane.
For years now, Rondo has been wreaking havoc on defenses by knifing through the paint; feinting and faking until a defender slips out of position or loses track of his man in the post. Friday, he was relegated to shooting 15-foot jumpers. And while he uncharacteristically hit his shots with some consistency, they were jumpers the 76ers were prepared to let fly.
“They took the shots tonight that we wanted them to have to take,” Collins said after the win. Ray Allen barely got a good look from deep, finishing with 5 points on 2-11 shooting. Even KG, whose stroke can be deadly from the elbow, was left to take many jump shots slightly outside of his range that clanged off the iron.
With Kendrick Perkins now residing in Oklahoma City and Shaq on the mend, this gave the Sixers plenty of opportunities to grab uncontested rebounds and take off in transition. The Sixers exploited this for a 15-5 advantage in fast break points, as well as forcing Paul Pierce to pick up his 4th and 5th personal fouls late; preventing him from covering Iguodala on the final possession.
After the game, the board operators at the Wells Fargo Center had a little fun at the expense of the Celtic fans that invaded their stadium. After the win, this parting message lit up the scoreboard; “76ers thank Boston Celtic fans for attending tonight’s game. Come back in the playoffs and enjoy another loss!”
Hopefully, when the time comes, the seats will be flooded with Sixer red and blue. Then they’ll have to enjoy the loss from their couch.