Do or die, part one. The Sixers did. On a night when the Sixers went through just a gruesome lull on the offensive end, they put together 48 minutes of the toughest defense you'll ever see to put the Celtics to bed 82-75 and send the series back to Boston for a decisive game seven. (game capsule)
Here's your rotation chart. Beginning of the third swung the game:
When they're clicking, it's easy to marvel at the Oklahoma City Thunder because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook make it look so easy when they're on. When Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are at their best, it looks like they're playing at another speed. Like college players against eighth graders. The Sixers are no less awe inspiring, for exactly the opposite reason. They make it look so, so hard.
On the defensive end tonight, they were literally all over the floor. Elton Brand was rotating out to the three-point line. On one possession, Jrue had to fight over five (moving) screens to stick with Rajon Rondo, and Rondo never got more than a foot of separation from him. Spencer Hawes lumbered out to get on Brandon Bass's elbow every time Rondo found him for a pop in the pick-and-pop. The Sixers worked so hard, again and again and again on the defensive end of the floor, and they just couldn't make it pay off on the scoreboard. Turnovers, terrible free throw shooting, poor defensive rebounding and Paul Pierce's anointment as the most unstoppable driver in the history of the NBA by the refs kept the Celtics in the game at every turn. So many of their brilliant defensive possessions were wasted, so many second chances, empty offensive possessions, blown transition opportunities. When LeBron glides from the three-point line with one dribble for a dunk in traffic you ask yourself, "How did he do that?" When you watch the Sixers gut out a win like this, keep hiking up their shorts and going back to work on the defensive end when everything is conspiring to make them lose the game on the other end, you can't help but ask yourself, "How can they keep doing that?" I don't know how you can maintain the focus on the defensive end like they did tonight, and grind out a win almost purely on the back of your defense, almost despite your best efforts to lose the game. It's a testament to the character on this team, and maybe a sign that all the tough losses have hardened their hide and steeled their resolve for this improbable playoff run.
The main adjustment the Sixers made today was to finally start playing the pick-and-pop to make Rondo beat them. They weren't abandoning the popper, they were sending help from the weak side if Rondo got over the screen, instead of applying the hard double, and they were somehow simultaneously smothering the paint. Rondo simply had nowhere to pass the ball, and when he did get the ball to Bass or Garnett, the looks weren't completely clean, like they had been in game five. After averaging 14.5 assists through the first five games, Rondo was held to six assists in this one, to go along with his four turnovers.
Collins made a curious adjustment to his rotation as well. In game four, when Boston went small, Collins countered with Lavoy at the five and Thad at the four, with glorious results. Tonight, he went away from that early, even though Boston spent much of the night in a small alignment. Instead, Collins matched it with a small lineup tonight. In fact, Thad Young never got off the bench in the second half at all. This may have been a result of his play in the first half (and game five, frankly), or it may have been in response to how the Sixers played early in the third. Either way, it was made possible by Elton Brand sporting the freshest legs we've seen since he injured his neck/shoulder against the Bulls early in that series. Brand was simply moving better out there. He was able to rotate, hedge, recover and trap hard. All things he couldn't do before. Maybe it was the looming offseason, maybe it was the light workload for the past two weeks. Whatever the reason, they needed it and got it from him.
Two things have become apparent during this series on the offensive end: (1) The Sixers can penetrate whenever they want to. At all times, they have an exploitable mismatch on the perimeter. (2) This team's offense runs its best when Jrue is handling the ball. Despite taking a back seat so much over the past year-and-a-half, he's still this team's best point guard and really their best option if they're going to score enough to win game seven on the road. Jrue can be his own worst enemy at times, usually when he tries to play too fast, or force plays that aren't there, but I said it during the game thread, and I'm going to say it again right now. I want them to win or lose this series with the ball in his hands.
Lou bounced back in the second half and for the second time this series, accepted the double teams and moved the ball. If he could, he'd split them and get into the paint for a shot or a dish. Lavoy was his usual cool, physical presence. Hawes wasn't atrocious, which is a big step up for him. I don't know how, but Iguodala shook what was probably his worst game ever from the line to sink the two biggest free throws of the game. His two biggest plays came in the third, though. The monster dunk over Paul Pierce on a second chance opportunity (#1 on ESPN's top 10) and the three-pointer he hit with 1:23 to go in the third. It was the Sixers' only three of the game, and Boston was in the midst of another quarter-ending run that looked like it was going to eat into the Sixers lead heading into the fourth. Just a huge shot on what was a tough shooting night.
Evan Turner continues to be completely incapable of hitting any shots more than three feet away from the hoop, and luckily he also still seems hellbent on attacking the rim whenever he has an exploitable matchup (and they give him the ball). It's a blessing and a curse, but tonight more of a blessing.
They protected their home floor. The series is all knotted up. I loved what I saw in the second half. I saw a team that wasn't ready for their summer to begin, and was willing to do all the little things you need to do to swing a close game where both teams are scuffling for points. I also thought the refs were really unbalanced in this one, and the Sixers showed a ton of poise and determination to fight through that and get the win. Great job, now do it again on Saturday.
Player of The Game: Jrue Holiday. 20 points, 4 boards, 6 dimes, sick defense and only 2 turnovers. Here's the best part about Jrue's game tonight, he scored 20 points and his jumper was off. Second-best part? 6/6 from the line. Third-best? Eight points in the first quarter, when they needed to get off to a quick start. Eight points in the fourth quarter, when they needed to put the Celtics away.
Next Game: Saturday, time TBD.