They wouldn't be the Sixers if they didn't kick you in the behind just when you started to give up hope. In what had to be the most improbable comeback of my lifetime, the Sixers took a 14-0 start and spat it out. They took a horrific ending to the first half that saw them trailing by 15 and laughed it off. They took an 18-point, third-quarter deficit and gave it the finger. They simply would not be denied. They simply would not quit when everything and everyone said they should. (
Here's your rotation chart. Note the two runs that nearly killed the Sixers, to start and end the first half. Then take a look at the entire second half. Not a single negative rotation in the bunch:
I'm going to start in an unlikely place: Evan Turner. Turner was atrocious tonight. 5/22 from the floor. He threw up enough bricks to build a couple of houses. If you're looking for a reason the team shot so poorly in the first half, he's right there at the top of the list. That being said, his play on the offensive end was a key to the win. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, considering how many shots he missed and had blocked, but his relentlessness set the tone for the entire team. It was almost comical. He was like Tanner in The Bad News Bears. The little guy, in a fight with with a bunch of bullies who kept getting knocked down and knocked down and knocked down, but he refused to stay down. He refused to stop attacking. Turner was bordering on out of control, but every time he touched the ball, he was going right to the rim. He didn't care if there were five Celtics waiting there to block his shot, he was going to attack the paint come hell or high water. Obviously, you'd prefer if the guy attacking the hoop was actually producing something out of those drives, but for whatever reason, his effort had a ripple effect. It's like the rest of the team watching him banging his head against the wall and they just knew they had to do the same. Boston got complacent with their lead. Happy to shoot jumpers. Turner and the Sixers didn't get caught up in that game. If I never see Turner throw up a dozen bricks again I'll die a happy man, but tonight, he set the tone.
The game began to turn on a couple of technical fouls in the third quarter. On the first, Kevin Garnett stole the ball at mid court, and then threw a forearm at Andre Iguodala. It was a cheap shot, though he didn't really appear to make much contact. On the very next play, the Celtics dumped the ball down to Garnett in the post with Brand on him. Garnett made a move across the lane and Brand paid him back in spades for the cheap shot on his teammate. Garnett got a forearm right to the face, Brand was whistled for a technical and Garnett played his favorite game "Someone hold me back! I'm a super-tough 150lb seven-footer. Hold me back!" The free throw gave the Celtics a 50-33 lead with 9:42 left in the third. Over the next 21:42, the Sixers would outscore the Celtics 59-33.
I spent the fist couple of paragraphs talking about emotional keys to the game, and I believe both were important, but there's plenty of real-world production to be thankful for as well. First, Doug Collins made a simple adjustment with his big man rotation. Aside from staring the first and third quarters, he mirrored Kevin Garnett with Lavoy Allen. Lavoy was brilliant on the defensive end. If you go back and look at the tape, whenever Garnett caught the ball in the post with anyone else on him, he'd take two or three dribbles and wind up backing his man down into the paint. When Lavoy was on Garnett, he moved in the opposite direction. When Garnett went up for shots, Lavoy was in his jock. The kid is absolutely fearless and Garnett doesn't have room to breath when he's in the game. It was a huge adjustment by Collins, and a great job by the kid to stay out of foul trouble.
Another great adjustment by Collins was his decision that he wasn't going to overreact to Boston's small lineup. Through the first three games of the series, when Rivers went to Pierce at the four, Collins mostly went small with Iguodala at the four to guard him. Not tonight. Tonight, he basically said "You're doing me a favor by going small." Tonight, he stuck with Allen at the five and Thad at the four when Boston went small, and it paid huge dividends. Thad was guarding smalls on the defensive end, usually Avery Bradley, and on the offensive end, he was torturing the Celtics with his offensive rebounding, interior passing and size advantage. Thad was a difference-maker in the second half for the Sixers, after seeming like the Celtics' best friend in the first half with three turnovers and at least three or four more fumbles or bad passes that luckily didn't wind up going the other way.
One more turning point came with 9:09 left in the third quarter. Jrue picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. Lou Williams came into the game, and I noted in the game thread that this was probably the end of the season. Collins really had no choice but to play Lou the remaining 9 minutes of the third quarter in a game that seemed to be slipping away. After a bad first half, Lou probably played the best half of his career in a situation when they needed him more than ever. Boston continued to double him, continued to play him physical, and instead of allowing himself to be pushed to the sideline, Lou split the doubles consistently, got into the lane and either drew contact or found an open teammate for a jumper when the defense converged on him. He was nearly flawless in the second half.
More kudos to Doug Collins for pressing the right button in the beginning of the fourth quarter. He went with the dreaded Lou, Meeks, Turner combination in the back court (and I ripped him for it), but Meeks was shot out of a cannon, especially on the defensive end where he caused a few turnovers and really locked in on Ray Allen. Jodie gave them a definite spark and even hit a three in a huge spot (off a drive-and-kick by Lou.).
And finally, after starting the game 0/5 from the field, Andre Iguodala absolutely put this game away with three huge jumpers late in the fourth. First, a catch-and-shoot three from the left wing, then a step-back deuce over Ray Allen, and finally the coup de grace, a catch-and-shoot three from the right wing with 36 seconds left on the clock to give the Sixers a 5-point lead, off of (you guessed it) a drive-and-kick by Lou Williams.
It's not nearly how you'd draw it up, but the Sixers will live to fight for a couple more days, at least. The pressure shifts squarely onto Boston's shoulders for game five, and their old guys had to play a ton of pressure-packed minutes in this one. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Great, great job tonight, but you're only halfway there. Do it again.
Player of The Game:
Four viable candidates in Lavoy, AI9, Thad and Lou. Who am I to disagree with Iguodala, though. Lou gets the nod for his 15 big points, and 8 bigger assists.
Monday night, at Boston.
So much happened in this game, I'm sure I left a bunch out. What a night. Enjoy your weekend, Sixers fans. Secure in the knowledge they'll be back for another game in Philly, and hope will still be alive no matter what happens in game five.