PHILADELPHIA - At halftime of Game 2 at TD Garden Monday night, Charles Barkley said on TNT, “It’s 100 percent clear to me that the Celtics have zero respect for the 76ers.’’
I’ll second that.
Everybody knows the Celtics are better than the Sixers. And that includes the Celtics. It’s easy to see why the Celtics might be taking their opponents lightly.
The Celtics throttled the Sixers, 107-91, at the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday night to take a 2-1 series lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal.
Philadelphia coach Doug Collins acknowledged that the Celtics are already looking ahead to the next round.
“I think they are looking at that other series [Miami-Indiana] a little bit,’’ said Collins. “I think they see Chris Bosh being out. They see a tremendous opportunity for themselves.’’
A series can’t be any closer than 2-1 after three games, but I am inclined to agree with Sir Charles and Collins. The Celtics are toying with the Sixers. It got them in trouble in Game 2 in Boston and it can get them in trouble again. But not Wednesday night.
The Sixers are younger and more athletic than the Celtics, but they are also a No. 8 seed. They staggered at the end of the regular season and barely made the playoffs. By the admission of Collins, they lose just about every close game.
They have advanced to the second round only because Chicago’s Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, went down with a season-ending knee injury at the end of Game 1 of the first round. Beating the Bulls gave Philly its first series victory since 2003.
Even the local fans seem to know the Sixers are going nowhere. The crowd was late and relatively subdued Wednesday night. Philly had to borrow Boston’s own Ayla Brown to perform the national anthem (remember the late Grover Washington Jr.?). They had to trot out a UMass guy (Julius Erving, perhaps you’ve heard of him) in an effort to inspire the crowd before the game. The loudest cheer of the night came when they showed Michael Vick on the big board.
Rajon Rondo is the embodiment of the Celtics’ attitude in this series. He is easily bored. He knows how good he is. He saves his best for the big games. And there are stretches when he gets sleepy against the Sixers.
Rondo brought his A game Wednesday, beating the Sixers to the basket any time he wanted. Rondo played all 12 minutes of the first quarter, scoring 13 points. It was 60-49 at intermission, which sounds like an early fourth-quarter score for these teams.
“I thought he set the tone,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “Rondo was extremely serious at shootaround. He really set the tone for our mental approach.’’
Paul Pierce also played all 12 minutes of the first quarter, exploding to the basket three times at the end of the period. There didn’t seem to be any trace of the sprained MCL in his left knee, which limited him to an average of 10.5 points over the first two games. Wednesday night, Pierce finished with 24.
“He just knows how to play basketball,’’ said Rivers. “He’s a throwback guy. All of a sudden he dunked the ball down the lane. Guys like Paul, they have something in their minds, it just trumps anything.’’
And then we have Kevin Garnett, who lectured us all about the dangers of dismissing the elderly when the Celtics polished off the Hawks last week.
Garnett turns 36 Saturday, has already played four more seasons than Larry Bird, and is enjoying a better late career than Paul McCartney. If KG played baseball, he’d be suspected of using steroids. He is scoring at will against the Sixers. He lit it up for 27 Wednesday night, making 12 of 17 shots with 13 rebounds.
The lead peaked at 105-78. Rivers emptied his bench with 2:51 left.
Rivers disputes the notion that his team has zero respect for the Sixers, but he agrees that it’s easy to dismiss teams without star power.
“They are a young team and an athletic team and they create really tough matchups,’’ said the savvy Celtics coach. “I think that is overlooked with this team.
“I think it’s easier to look at the Miamis and the Oklahoma Cities, and they have Durants and LeBrons and you see the star power and so you immediately give that team - and I think not just players, the press, everyone - I think you give that team respect.’’
We need to remember that a blowout does not define a series. The Lakers beat the Celtics, 137-104, in Game 3 of the 1984 Finals. The Celtics won in seven. The Celtics beat LA, 148-114, in Game 1 in ’85. The Lakers won in six.
These are not the Celtics of ’84 or the Lakers of ’85. These are the Philadelphia 76ers of 2012. “Seventy-Sixers’’ is a good name for them; that’s approximately the number of points you expect them to score in any given playoff game.