PHILADELPHIA – Of all the teams to fall for the trick, you’d expect the Boston Celtics to be the last.
They had to know the reaching hands were coming; the grabbing, the tearing, the slapping and the shoving. Whatever dream of a season this had been for the Philadelphia 76ers was now reduced – with an 18-point deficit in a series about to go 3-1 – to the final act of the desperate.
Their only hope was to make the Celtics snap.
And then it worked.
This was in the second half of Friday’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals the Celtics were controlling. With no other choice, the Sixers brought the elbows and shoulders and subtle pushes. And unpredictably there followed the unraveling. It arrived in a forearm of Kevin Garnett brushing away an opponent on a loose ball. Then it followed a possession later in an angry Garnett drive toward the basket that brought much of Sixers forward Elton Brand’s hand latched onto his face.
After that, it seemed whatever crisp basketball the Celtics had been playing was gone. This series that should be a game away from being over is instead tied. And that means the Sixers have done nothing if not dragged the old and weary Celtics into at least a six-game series they did not want.
All because the young inexperienced team pulled an old playground gimmick on the wise and experienced Celtics – and it worked.
“After we got those technical fouls, we did go on a [13-2] run,” Brand later said standing alone at his locker.
Brand smiled. He was asked if the Celtics “unraveled.” He didn’t want to say that, he replied, but he kept smiling, leaving unspoken the notion that Boston had done exactly that.
“We had to muck it up,” he said. “We had a lot of bodies to bring and that worked to our advantage.”
This, of course, would not be the first time Garnett has reacted poorly to rough and physical play. At times he is a 6-foot-11 stick of dynamite ready to explode at the slightest spark from an elbow or official's call. He didn’t retaliate against Brand for the technical, but his exaggerated attempts to stay away from a conflict showed he was well in its center.
Ultimately, it wasn’t just Garnett who broke the wonderful spell the Celtics seemed to have held on the Sixers for the first half. But so much of Boston’s psyche rides on the emotions of its starting center. Once the Philadelphia players started to torment Garnett, his teammates lost composure too.
It came in little things: fouls, missed shots and turnovers. As the third quarter dragged on in the game that was supposed to break the 76ers, the team breaking instead was Boston.
“I thought [Philadelphia] came out [in the second half] and became more physical, and I think we got into that instead of playing basketball,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers later said. “Quite honestly, I thought we lost the composure we once [had]. We really never returned to playing basketball the way we played in the first half."
What seemed to stun Rivers was how this could happen. This has been an ugly series, one with so many missed shots and fouls and free throws. The Celtics fully understood the limitations of a Sixers team that could give 36 minutes to guard Evan Turner so he could clank 17 of 22 shots. As long as Boston played smart and its older players could stay reasonably healthy this wouldn’t be a tough series.
Best to let Philadelphia make the mistakes, which it did for two quarters in Game 4. Then came the muck.
“It wasn’t planned or anything, we just knew it was something we had to do,” Brand said.
“When you have a chance to go up 3-1 in a series and you’re up and you’re on the road what else [is Philadelphia] going to do?” Rivers said. “They’re going to get into you. They are going to grab your hands. They are going to foul you. To me, that’s what they should do.
“But we act like we’re surprised by it. So I was disappointed in that.”
Boston was never the same after the technical. The Celtics maintained their lead into the early minutes of the fourth quarter yet something was clearly gone. The Sixers, who had 12 points in the first quarter, had 33 in the last. Garnett, who has taken a beating in this series, had nine points and was in foul trouble for much of the second half.
“It was a little frustration for us,” Brand said. “You want to play hard, things aren’t going your way, you want to step up a little bit.”
So the pushes. So the grabs. So the little slaps to the forearms.
So the last hope of the desperate.
And Boston fell for it.
“We may have lost our composure,” guard Rajon Rando said.
In doing so, the Celtics now have a long series they did not want.
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