PHILADELPHIA - The tomato cans were falling down in front of the Celtics.
No Bulls. The Heat on the brink of self-immolation. The Celtics had a 2-1 series lead over the Sixers and an 18-point lead in the third quarter of Game 4. They were toying with the young bucks from Philly.
And they let it get away. They blew a golden opportunity to get an almost-free pass into the conference finals. They were beaten Friday night, 92-83.
Now the series is 2-2 and they are going to have to come back here. They might have to play seven. They might even (gulp) lose to these guys.
What a waste.
Charles Barkley told us last week that the Celtics have zero respect for the Sixers. I believe him. And it cost them dearly Friday night.
It was all going so easily. The Celtics blew the Sixers off their own court Wednesday night, leading by 27 at their peak. It looked like more of the same Friday night. They bolted to a 14-0 lead. They led by 18 in the third. Then they got outscored by 27 points over the last 22 minutes.
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and owner Steve Pagliuca were rolling their eyes as they walked out of the Wells Fargo Center. They knew the Celtics had kissed away a golden chance.
Boston coach Doc Rivers made no attempt to disguise his disgust.
“We took it away from ourselves,’’ he said. “We just lost our composure.’’
The Celtics were outrebounded, 52-38. They allowed 17 offensive rebounds. That’s a lot of second shots. They committed 17 turnovers to Philly’s 11. They sent the Sixers to the line 36 times. That’s how you lose to a team that shoots 38 percent.
“We may have lost our composure,’’ admitted Rajon Rondo. We’re better than that. We’re a strong-minded team, a veteran team. We know we let this one slip away . . . So, we’ll be ready for Game 5.’’
The Celtics led, 24-12, at the end of the first quarter. Philadelphia made 3 of 16 shots and had five turnovers. The 76ers shot 23 percent (9 for 39) in the first two quarters and trailed, 46-31, at intermission. The locals were booed off their court at halftime.
“We were bleeding,’’ admitted Sixers coach Doug Collins. “I just kept telling our guys that something good was going to happen.’’
The Sixers took over the game in the second half. They got physical with the Celtics. They protected the basketball. They got to the foul line. Then they got their confidence and started hitting big shots. Five Sixers hit double figures in a 92-point game.
“I give them a lot of credit,’’ said Rivers. “They came out physical. We got into that instead of just playing basketball. We never got back to the way we were playing basketball in the first half. I thought it was more how we played.
“Everything we did was the description of what you don’t do to beat them. We took it away from ourselves. We just lost our composure. We stopped running our stuff.’’
He thought the Celtics took the bait when the Sixers got physical.
“When you have a chance to go up, 3-1, in a series, what else are they gonna do?’’ asked Rivers. “That’s what they should do. That’s what is so disappointing. We acted like we were surprised by it . . . I didn’t think from the first quarter on we played with the same discipline. We started turning the ball over and making home-run passes.
“We turned the ball over. Our defense didn’t really change. They got second shots. They got loose balls, they forced turnovers, and they got to the line. That’s what allowed them to score. When you have a team struggling to score you should never turn the ball over and clearly you shouldn’t foul.’’
Collins was typically honest after the Game 3 blowout when he said, “I think they’re looking at that other series a little bit, seeing Chris Bosh being out. I think they see a tremendous opportunity for themselves.’’
Collins was back on the theme before Friday’s game, acknowledging, “The teams that have championship aspirations want to play as few games as possible. When [the Celtics] saw [Derrick]Rose hurt and [Joakim] Noah hurt, the bracket opened up for them. They’ve been around. They’re thinking big picture. We’re not using it as a motivational thing. I don’t believe in a lot of bulletin-board material. But we want to go 2-2 and make them come back here.’’
And they did.
“Our guys are pretty amazing,’’ Collins said after the win. “We’re just going to keep fighting. It ain’t pretty. Let’s see where we can go from here.’’
The Celtics did everything wrong. They were inches from a clean getaway. We were starting to think about Atlanta, Philly, and Indy as the easiest possible path to the Finals. And then they let it slip away.