The Celtics are everybody’s favorite team in Boston in the spring of 2012, and they won another pulsating playoff game Saturday night, beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 92-91, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
But it’s hard to get too excited about a series against these Sixers, who are just so young and . . . anonymous.
Really. How much energy can you manufacture for this round? Seen anybody wearing a “Iguodala Sucks’’ T-shirt lately?
The Sixers looked more athletic than the Celtics Saturday night, but a little too green to beat Boston on its home court.
The Celtics have played the Sixers (or their Syracuse Nationals forefathers) in 18 previous playoff series, but this doesn’t feel like a natural rivalry. There’s no Dolph Schayes, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, or Andrew Toney suiting up for Philadelphia.
It doesn’t make winning any less important. The Celtics have to beat these guys in order to get to Miami for the conference finals. Philadelphia stands in the way of another date against the hated LeBron James.
But it’s hard to work yourself into a lather against the worthy upstart visitors who’ll play again at the Garden in Game 2 Monday night.
Unless you want to count part-owner Will Smith, the most interesting person associated with the Sixers is their coach, Doug Collins. Dougie is the guy who made the free throws that should have won the gold medal against the Soviets in Munich in 1972.
He’s the guy in the famous photo, sticking his tongue out at Dave Cowens while they wait for somebody to take a free throw. He’s a media-savvy quote machine and he knows what he’s up against as he takes his eight-seeded Sixers into the fire of the Garden.
“My young guys are growing up,’’ Collins said. “They are having fun, which is what I want them to have.’’
Collins called himself “a coach that never minds a missed shot. Take the next one.’’
Who wouldn’t want to play for a guy who says that?
He was asked about his team learning to “take a punch’’ in the playoffs.
“I hope I can help them,’’ he said. “I have been punched a lot.’’
The networks hate this series (Saturday night, TNT?) because the Sixers have no star power, and in the minds of most experts . . . no chance. Smashmouth defense is not a party starter for NBA ratings. Ditto for no-name rosters and playoff inexperience. Before beating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls (playing without last year’s MVP, Derrick Rose), the Sixers had not won a playoff series since 2003.
They are led by Andre Iguodala, who hails from Springfield, Ill., and went to the University of Arizona. Did you know that since the 2006-07 season, Iggy is the only player with at least 7,500 points, 2,500 rebounds, 2,400 assists, and 800 steals? Me, neither. Thank you, Sixers PR department. We can win a lot of bar bets with that one.
The visitors bolted to a 13-point, first-half lead, but lost the edge at the end of the second quarter and led by only 5 at intermission. It was part of a second-and-third-quarter 16-2 run that turned things in the Celtics’ favor.
“They’re one of the best third-quarter teams in the NBA,’’ said Collins. “But we bounced right back. I told our guys, I’m very proud.’’
With Kevin Garnett continuing his late-career dominance (29 points, 11 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo pinballing around the parquet (13 points, 17 assists, 12 rebounds), the Celtics looked confident in their ability to prevail in a close finish.
“I’ve never seen Kevin play better,’’ said Collins.
Saturday night’s loss was unfortunately typical for the visitors. Citing stats about his team’s poor performance in close games, Collins said, “A lot of that is our ability to close out.’’
Iguodala admitted inexperience hurt his team in Game 1.
“In the fourth quarter we had that two-minute spell when we were trying to make a home-run play instead of grinding it out little by little and finishing the game,’’ he said. “We know we can play with these guys. We have to grow from these situations, hopefully learn from them, and try to get better for Game 2.’’
The Sixers know this was a golden opportunity. They had a chance to take home-court advantage. They had a chance to get everybody’s attention with a Game 1 victory in Boston. But Collins cited three missed layups and four fumbled offensive possessions when it mattered most.
“That’s the sign of a team still growing,’’ he said. “We’re not going to drop our heads. We don’t do that. We’ll fight just as hard in Game 2, at least as long as I’m coach.’’
The Not Ready for Prime Time Players from Philly will be back at it Monday night at the Garden.