The Philadelphia 76ers’ aggressiveness disrupted the Celtics’ offense in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday night. And the Celtics were their own worst enemies as late-game execution miscues contributed to an 82-81 loss at TD Garden.
This was the fourth successive skin-tight contest for the Celtics, who concluded their first-round series against Atlanta with a 1-point loss and a 3-point victory. The Celtics staggered through much of Game 1 before taking a 92-91 decision over Philadelphia, generating a feeling that if they performed up to standards the second game would be theirs.
And that appeared to be happening as the Celtics scored the first 9 points of the game. But the Celtics’ offense struggled over the next 34 minutes, 10 seconds, producing only 40 points. Yet, the Celtics led by 4 late in the third quarter and might have pulled this one out but for an unexpected basket by rookie Lavoy Allen, clutch conversions by 21-year-old Jrue Holiday and 23-year-old Evan Turner, plus last-second fouls by Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.
“I don’t like the fact that we took, to me, almost three quarters to play the right way, offensively,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Listen, we knew the blueprint before the game. It took us three quarters to get into it.’’
The Celtics revived their offense in an inspired, 32-point final quarter. They led by a point with 1:40 remaining, then fell behind by a point a minute later as Turner drove for a 76-75 Philadelphia edge.
Ray Allen missed out of a timeout and that’s when the Celtics’ execution started letting them down. The Sixers rebounded with 28 seconds to go and Rondo delayed fouling Holiday near midcourt until 14.4 seconds remained.
“I wanted to foul two seconds early, but we didn’t,’’ Rivers said.
The Celtics then put the Sixers on the line, Turner making it a 78-75 lead with 12 seconds left. The Celtics had time to recover - but two seconds out of a Boston timeout, Garnett was called for a foul on a screen, and Louis Williams’s two foul shots clinched the result. Ray Allen’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to 80-78 with 3.5 seconds left, then Jodie Meeks hit two free throws before a Garnett 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I think Kevin got three off-the-ball offensive fouls,’’ Rivers said. “So, clearly it looked like they were looking for it all night. Listen, if you’re going to tell me that Kevin was the only one moving in picks, then I’ll live with that. But he clearly was not the only one.
“We put ourselves in that position. I say it all the time - put yourself in a position to let someone else do something, then you can lose games. And that’s what happened.’’
The Sixers concentrated on Garnett, challenging him with Lavoy Allen’s physicality and rapidly double-teaming him on the post. That made it difficult for Garnett (15 points, 12 rebounds) to get into a shooting rhythm and also tempted him to pass up shots and dish to open teammates.
This was a calculated risk by the Sixers, and it paid off as Brandon Bass missed 10 successive shots and Paul Pierce went 2 for 9 from the field. Garnett got warmed up in the final quarter, totaling 11 points.
“Nothing was wrong - we didn’t go to him,’’ Rivers said of Garnett. “It’s plain and simple. I thought we never established the post. I really thought we started out the first four minutes of the game moving the ball, playing the right way. And then I thought, honestly, we chased shots as a group. We don’t do it often. We are a great ball movement team, a next-pass team, and tonight we were not.’’
After totaling 24 points in the second and third quarters combined, shooting 13 for 20 (6 for 7 on 3-pointers) in the final quarter was nearly enough for the Celtics.
Garnett tied it, 65-65, with a move in the lane with 4:33 left. On the next Sixers’ possession, Rondo poked away Holiday’s dribble and Pierce blocked Williams out of a timeout with 0.9 on the shot clock - the 76ers’ Allen banked in a shot off the inbounds pass.
Garnett missed a chance to give the Celtics the lead, dunking off a Rondo lob but failing to convert the 3-point play after a Lavoy Allen foul. Turner then scored on a drive despite appearing to be tied up by Ray Allen.
Finally, the Celtics regained the advantage as Rondo rebounded a Garnett miss and found Avery Bradley for a 3-pointer on an inbounds pass. Holiday’s 3-pointer gave the Sixers a 74-72 lead, then Ray Allen’s 3-pointer restored the Celtics’ lead. Pierce’s defending caused a Philadelphia shot-clock violation.
But Rondo misfired with a jumper. Turner drove against Rondo, giving the Sixers a 76-75 edge they would not relinquish. After Ray Allen’s miss, the Celtics had several chances to foul but did not for nearly 14 seconds.
“My thinking was it’d be a four-second differential,’’ Rivers said. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to get the rebound - by the time you got the rebound it’s probably three seconds. And then they have a foul to give, so they foul and now you’re down to two seconds. That’s a tough way to score. So, you know, I was hoping we could foul - I wanted to foul two seconds earlier than that, but we didn’t.’’
Game 2 by the numbers
7: Points for Paul Pierce, who was 2 for 9 from the floor. He tied his season low for points.
9: Celtics’ home win streak that was snapped. Boston’s previous home loss was April 4 vs. San Antonio.
11: Points for the Celtics in the third quarter, in which they shot 4 for 17 and were outscored by 10.
17: Team-high points for Ray Allen, in 37 minutes off the bench. It was his highest point total since scoring 19 on April 7.
18: Game-high points for Jrue Holiday, who was 7 for 15 from the floor and hit four of the 76ers’ five 3-pointers.
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.