This is the script when the Sixers play a good team: Set up a game plan, execute the game plan, hang in the game, build a little lead, get to the final five minutes with a chance to win. This time, though, the script had a different ending when Doug Collins threw a curve ball at the Celtics and his Sixers refused to be denied their biggest win of the season ... so far.
A couple of huge things happened for the Sixers tonight in the fourth quarter. The biggest is obviously hanging on for the close win after failing to do so countless times this season, and we'll get to that in a moment. The second, though, is something which will probably fly under the radar, but is probably a bigger indicator of this team's intestinal fortitude.
NBA games have a certain flow to them. It's not a rule, obviously, but the psychology behind why certain things happen a certain way over and over again is always present. In this case, it's the psychology of playing catch up. We've all seen it a thousand times. A team falls behind early, then spends the rest of the game trying to catch up. One of two things usually happens: (1) They keep climbing up, maybe they even tie the game, but they never quite get over the hump. Each time they fall short, it becomes harder to muster the energy needed to get back up. Eventually, they just run out of gas. (2) The team playing from behind climbs the hill and actually takes the lead. When they do, the entire tenor of the game changes. The team that was playing the front-runner tightens up and before you know it, their double-digit lead has turned into a double-digit deficit and they're on their way to a gut-wrenching loss. The key here is that when the trailing team actually gets over the hump, it's usually for good.
Tonight, Boston spent nearly the entire game staring up at the Sixers until Nenad Krstic hit a pair of free throws with 6:48 left to give Boston their first lead since early in the first quarter. I thought that was going to be the turning point, but the Sixers had other ideas. Lou answered immediately with a layup off a pretty pass from Jrue to take the lead right back for the Sixers. 11 seconds later, Ray Allen shook free and drilled a three to give Boston a two-point lead (their largest of the game). Again, they got over the hump, again, I thought that was probably the end for the Sixers. And again, the Sixers answered immediately, this time it was Jrue off a pass from Hawes. When Jrue sunk that shot to tie the game at 81 there was 6:03 remaining on the clock. The Sixers had essentially taken Boston's best shot twice in a row, stood up and punched back. The Celtics were done. Boston only managed five points in the final 6:03 of the game. Their only field goal was an uncontested Garnett layup the Sixers conceded with only 6 seconds left. Five points on their final 11 possessions. Suffocating isn't a strong enough adjective to describe the defense the Sixers played down the stretch tonight. Which leads us right into Collins' master stroke.
Here's the dilemma facing Doug Collins: His team has trouble scoring points in the half court offense. This is a big problem at the end of games, because the pace of the game slows down and you're forced into the half court. For, oh, about 64 games, Collins has tried anything and everything to figure out a way to bleed points out of his offense in the waning moments of close games. He's used Lou to initiate. He's put Thad out there to create mismatches. He's put Speights in, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. The results have largely been the same: Poor execution. Tonight, with 5:03 left in the game, Collins decided to try one more strategy. Instead of shuffling players around to gamble on a moderate improvement in offensive execution, he figured "Well, if they can't score our offense doesn't really matter all that much." He pulled Lou Williams and put his best defensive lineup on the floor, and also his most-used lineup on the season: Hawes, Brand, Iguodala, Meeks and Holiday. (Statistically speaking, their best defensive lineup has Thad in for Hawes with this unit, but that lineup is small and Hawes was playing well tonight, so I do believe this was the best defensive unit for this situation). He left perhaps his two most-talented scorers, Lou and Thad, on the bench and he had his starters run the same offense they'd run all night to squeeze out a few points. On the defensive end, they attacked. 2 blocks, 2 forced turnovers, 2 hard fouls to prevent scores, 4 missed, contested shots and the Garnett mercy layup. That's what they did to close this game down.
Maybe a light bulb went on in Collins' head. Maybe he'd just tried everything else and this was next on his list. However he came to it doesn't really matter. I'm just hoping that we see this approach in the future as well. The Sixers strength is their defense, so lean on it when games are on the line. It just makes sense.
- I thought Jrue played an excellent defensive game on Rondo. Rondo scored 12 points on 6/12 from the floor, but 4 of the 6 made shots were jumpers outside of 15 feet, and those are shots you want Rondo taking. He had one layup on which Hawes should've given a hard foul and another little floater just outside the lane on a broken play. The key to Jrue's defense on Rondo was keeping out of the lane for kick-outs, though. Rondo played 35 minutes tonight and only had 5 assists. 7.1 under his season average.
- Speaking of Rondo, it's going to cost the Celtics if he doesn't get over his fear of contact on the offensive end. He's deathly afraid of going to the line and it makes him less effective on the offensive end. Smart teams are going to take advantage of that.
- Iguodala finished one rebound and 2 assists shy of his fourth triple-double of the season. He also hit his biggest shot of the season to put the game away. That was one situation where the Iguodala isolation was the correct end-of-game play call. For some unknown reason, Doc Rivers took Paul Pierce out of the game with his team down 3 points and only 30 seconds left on the clock. He put Sasha Pavlovic in the game to cover Iguodala. Pierce did have five fouls, but is that really the time to protect him? I mean, if Pierce or anyone else picks up a foul in that situation, the game is basically over anyway. How you can downgrade your defense intentionally like that is beyond me.
- If you want to look for a key stat to thank for the win, look no further than the six turnovers the Sixers had on the game. Boston's team is third in the league in opponent TOV% at 15.2%. They force an average of almost 16 per game. Excellent, excellent job of taking care of the ball tonight.
- Spencer Hawes played one of his better offensive games tonight, and he probably wasn't as bad on the defensive end as Nenad's 16 points would lead you to believe. Krstic shot only 6/15 from the floor, and you have to consider having a Nenad lead the Celtics in FGA a win in and of itself, no matter how well he shoots.
- You can easily make the case for either Hawes or Iguodala for POTG honors, but I'm going with Meeks. Jodie's overall line is nothing to write home about, but he was Mr. Clutch tonight on both ends of the floor. He earned it.
- Overall, just a huge win for so many reasons. The biggest of the first 65, but hopefully a trend-starter, rather than a high point when we look back on the season.
Player of The Game: Jodie Meeks
Playoff Race: NY was dormant, ATL lost to Chicago and Indy lost to Toronoto. The Sixers are .5 games out of the #6 seed, 3 games out of #5 and 7 games up on #8. Solid night all around.
Up Next: @ MIL, Saturday night
We're on the weekend schedule, so I'll have my preview/game thread combo up later this afternoon. The tip is at 8pm.