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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

Celtics get surprise visit from Sixers now

Paul Pierce was all smiles with fans after closing out the Hawks on Thursday.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Paul Pierce was all smiles with fans after closing out the Hawks on Thursday.

In the NCAA Tournament, they say you’ve got to “survive and advance.’’ In the NBA, you just take ’em any way you can get ’em, and then get out of Dodge before there’s a recount.

Or, in this case, you wait for Philadelphia to show up.

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That’s right. It’s going to be Boston vs. Philly.

Check that: Boston vs. Philly?

The same 76ers who looked so down, so out, so completely outclassed when they were here on Easter Sunday that there appeared about a 95 percent chance they would miss the playoffs entirely? Those 76ers?

Yup, that bunch. Funny what injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah can do to spoil a season.

And that, of course, would be the worst mistake the Celtics could make; you know, underestimate the 76ers. Chicago still had a lot of weapons left, and most people (including me) thought the Bulls weren’t going to lose to the 76ers under any circumstances. But they did.

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There’s no way the Celtics should be feeling cocky, anyway, not after that sloppy fourth quarter exhibition on display Thursday night. What should have been a nice, comfortable, put-your-feet-up-on-the-hassock dispatch of the Hawks turned into a harrowing finale in which the Celtics had to score twice after falling behind by 3 and then hold down the Hawks, who had what seemed like 117 opportunities to tie or go ahead in the last 9.1 seconds. It was an 83-80 conquest, and it was work.

I know what you’re thinking, and don’t lie to me. You’re thinking, “Big deal. They just beat the Hawks, and who doesn’t know that they’re the biggest bow-wows in the league?’’

OK, well, maybe they were. But they aren’t. They’ve grown up, and if Al Horford hadn’t missed 55 games they would have finished with the third seed. The Celtics are lucky he didn’t start playing until Game 4.

“We’ve moved on,’’ sighed Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “And you really have to give Atlanta a lot of credit. Atlanta is criticized so much for who they are, and all that, but they could have gone away 10 times tonight. The story of the whole series was them putting pressure on us.’’

If these were the same old Hawks, the game would have been over after the Celtics ran off a 16-0 second-quarter blast to take a 10-point (41-31) lead. But they chopped it to 6 (47-41) by halftime and 4 (67-63) at the end of three.

The Celtics opened up a 74-65 lead a little over three minutes into the final period, but the Hawks were unimpressed, and when they had finished off a 14-2 run of their own they were actually ahead by 3 following a Horford runner off the glass with 2:23 remaining. You can imagine the tenor of the Garden at this point.

Teams with canine tendencies don’t launch fourth-quarter 14-2 runs on the road in elimination games. So let’s put all that stuff to rest. Atlanta very definitely came to play, not just Thursday night, but throughout the series.

And the Hawks might be making preparations for a Game 7 Saturday evening were it not for the play of a man who, not so long ago, appeared to be so far past his prime that even the idea of a performance such as the one he submitted in Game 6 was unimaginable.

But Kevin Garnett brought a 2002 A-game to this one.

The numbers (28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 5 blocks) hint of a vintage performance, but just that. They hint. You had to see the majesty of his play, how he controlled the action at both ends and how, most importantly, he demanded the ball and then did something useful when he received it.

How many times have we all pleaded of this man to be individually assertive on offense, and how many times has he stubbornly chosen to play the role of Chief Facilitator, rather than that of Chief Go-To Guy? And how many times have we all pleaded of this man to act 7 feet tall and condescend to get down in the box and cause some hell?

Thursday night, he chose to do so.

“KG was an All-Star tonight,’’ saluted Atlanta mentor Larry Drew. “He made some big shots, some timely shots. He was aggressive. He was fighting for the low post. We tried to disrupt his rhythm with double teams, but sometimes we didn’t get there fast enough.’’

“Kevin was phenomenal,’’ said Rivers. “He bailed us out, really.’’

You knew that after the Celtics had handed the game back over to the Hawks in the final period, that the only way they were going to be redeemed would be if Garnett could save them. Paul Pierce was hobbling. Ray Allen had come back to earth after a couple of impressive outings. The one offensive constant was Garnett.

Trailing, 79-78, the Celtics just had to get the ball to Garnett. With the shot clock running down, he received the ball in the lane and hit his 10th, and final, basket, a nice little turnaround. Oh, there was a lot of stress before this thing was nailed down, but the game’s last basket had been scored, and fittingly, it had been scored by Kevin Garnett.

“I’m so proud of our guys,’’ Rivers said. “Execution. We went to the last option, and KG had to make the shot. That’s hard to do under pressure.’’

It would have been nicer if the Bulls had the decency to extend their series with the Sixers in order to give the Celtics some additional rest, but that did not happen. A series against their ancient rival that no one saw coming a month (or perhaps even a day) ago will open at the Garden Saturday night.

“At least we don’t have to travel,’’ reasoned Rivers. “It’s not the greatest team for us to play. They’ve got a bunch of gazelles coming in here. They beat us by a thousand two times. And I can tell you right now the key to the series: Don’t turn the ball over.’’

Those two losses referenced by Mr. Rivers were in Boston’s pre-Bradley stage. The Celtics have reinvented themselves on the fly, plugging in a young man (Avery Bradley) who is a sensational on-the-ball defender in the backcourt, while beefing up the frontcourt with a big blond rookie named Greg Stiemsma who can block some shots, and a big, skinny vagabond named Ryan Hollins who has won the approval of his coach for his own aggressive defense. The December-January-February Celtics don’t exist anymore.

And while Doc would have loved to be starting a series on Monday, rather than Saturday, he’s pondered the alternative. “It’s a short turnaround,’’ he agreed. “But I’d rather be in a Game 1 here than in a Game 7 in Atlanta.’’

We haven’t had a nice Boston-Philly series in 10 years. That’s way too long. I can taste the cheesesteaks and Tastykakes already.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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