Doc Rivers did not mean his reference to performance-enhancing substances literally. And it did not take Rivers telling his team the Philadelphia 76ers were “Atlanta on steroids’’ for the Celtics to know they would be in for a physical confrontation in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I feel like, for the most part, those guys hit us in the mouth in the first quarter,’’ Kevin Garnett said after scoring 29 points in the Celtics’ 92-91 win over the Sixers in Game 1 Saturday night at TD Garden. “I’m not going to lie.’’
Nor did it take getting slugged for the Celtics to get off to a sluggish start, as they did in the first round against the Hawks. But, after trailing by as many as 13 points, the Celtics displayed enough fight and finesse to rally.
“We anticipated them wanting to get out and run, but as the game went on we settled in a little bit,’’ Garnett said. “Second half, we were more defensive-minded but, at the same time, still punching back, if you will. And we were able to put some defensive stops together and close the game out.’’
The Celtics ended up winning the inside battle, taking a 45-41 rebounding edge, but much of the credit for that goes to Rajon Rondo and the “small lineup.’’ Rondo led both teams in rebounds with a 13-point, 12-rebound, 17-assist triple-double.
The Celtics also had the edge in crunch-time defensive stops as they staged a 13-2 run in the final minutes.
“East Coast game, East Coast series,’’ Garnett said. “Boston-Philly. All the history I’ve read, watched - YouTube, whatever you want to call it - it’s just been typical. I don’t anticipate this being any less than that.’’
The Sixers took up where they left off in eliminating top-seeded Chicago in the first round.
Philadelphia scored the first 7 points of the game and led, 45-32, after an Evan Turner jumper with 3:45 remaining in the opening half.
The Celtics finally found an offensive rhythm late in the half, and the momentum carried over as they took a 4-point lead early in the third quarter. But the Sixers regained the advantage with 6 points in a 36-second blitz, upping their edge to 77-67 early in the final quarter.
“We didn’t have it early,’’ Rivers said. “I just thought they came out and they attacked us. I thought they played harder, quite honestly, the first 10 minutes of the game. I thought we came with the right intent and I really thought - and we’ve done it before - we miss seven to eight just point-blank, wide-open shots to start the game, and I thought we start thinking about our offense, you know?
“I thought the second unit saved the game for us, in the first half. All they did was, they upped the energy of the game for us.’’
Garnett was a part of that group, along with converted sixth man Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling, Ryan Hollins, Mickael Pietrus, and Greg Stiemsma.
As the Sixers took a 28-18 first-quarter lead, Garnett was 4 for 6, and the other Celtics starters 0 for 10.
But the Celtics closed the half with a 10-2 run over the final 3:03 and went on an 11-2 run over the opening 4:08 of the second half.
Brandon Bass’s transition score gave the Celtics a 53-49 edge with 7:52 left in the third quarter.
The Sixers pulled ahead, 77-67, on Lavoy Allen’s follow with 10:53 remaining in the game.
But the Celtics took command with a 21-5 run over a 9:18 span, before holding off the Sixers in a hectic finish.
“It’s funny, when we cut the lead the first time and then they pumped it back up [to 10 points], I didn’t feel bad about the game,’’ Rivers said. “I didn’t know if we were going to win or lose. I did feel like, mentally, our guys were still very much in the game. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, but that means you’re going to stay in it and you’re going to keep playing the right way.’’
Andre Iguodala stepped into a 3-pointer out of a timeout to cut the Philadelphia deficit to 90-87 with 1:11 left. A Rondo jumper made it a 5-point game, and that would be all the Celtics would need. Jrue Holiday made it 92-89 with 33 seconds remaining. Paul Pierce missed a jumper at the shot-clock buzzer and Rondo fouled Holiday with 3.4 on the clock, Holiday’s foul shots concluding the scoring.
This was a more composed close-out than the Celtics had produced in Games 5 (87-86 loss) and 6 (83-80 win aided by an officiating error) against the Hawks.
“We were yelling, ‘Foul, foul, foul,’ ’’ Rivers said. “And, fortunately, Rondo was the only one - Rondo is so smart. He was going to do it anyway, most likely. And it was perfect, because we allowed them to get across halfcourt to use more clock, instead of just fouling right away. It couldn’t have been done better, and it was a great play by Rondo.’’