The Celtics have been doing business like this for 55 years. In a 2-2-1-1-1- series, they take ownership of Game 5.
Game 5 is a mini-7. Teams that win Game 5 in a 2-2-1-1-1 series go on to win the series 83 percent of the time. A very disproportionate percentage of that 83 belongs to the Boston Celtics. Game 5 is damn near as important as any Game 7. Ask Larry Bird, who used to conduct annual seminars on the subject.
Monday night’s outcome was the one any serious student of both Celtics and NBA history would have expected. Final score: Boston 101, Philadelphia 85. But this was no wire-to-wire butt-kicking. No, no, no.
This was a weird one. With 3:49 remaining in the third quarter, Philly’s Lou Williams stepped to the line with an opportunity to tie the game. His team had lost a modest 4-point lead held earlier in the period when the Celtics ran off 10 straight to take a 63-57 lead. But the Sixers emerged from a timeout to score a couple of quick baskets and now Williams was going to tie the game, except that he missed one of the free throws.
On the Philly bench, coach Doug Collins was feeling just fine. Hadn’t his team made a proper response to the Celtics’ surge?
“I thought we were back in it,’’ he acknowledged. “We were OK. We had weathered the storm. But we couldn’t sustain anything.’’
No kidding. Six minutes later they were down by 15 (81-66). The Boston run would balloon to an embarrassing 31-12.
The timeout at 2:49 of the fourth saw the Celtics up by 20 (96-76), and it was time for Gino and friends on the big board.
“I thought we had a good grip of the game, I really did,’’ Collins said. “The game went downhill quickly.’’
Don’t ask Celtics coach Doc Rivers what happened. He’s not sure himself. All he knows is that he was happy to be within 20 points of the Sixers at halftime, let alone the misleading 3 (50-47) the scoreboard insisted was the actual spread of the game.
“We were never ‘right’ the first half,’’ Rivers declared. “You could feel it.’’
It was role reversal, pure and simple. How many times do you see a home team adjudged to be superior unable to pull away from the pesky visitor, who doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything but who somehow won’t let you pull away? How many times do you talk about the Celtics allowing the other team to “hang around?’’
This time it was the Celtics who were doing the hanging around. If you had never looked at the scoreboard, you’d have thought the Celtics were down by 10, minimum. But they were right there, and about the only thing you could point to was a 13-2 advantage in free throws made.
Comebacks have to start somewhere, and Collins zeroed in on the game’s precise turning point, a sequence that began with the Sixers ahead, 57-53, and Philly’s Andre Iguodala picking off a sloppy pass way past the arc. Paul Pierce had little choice but to grab Iguodala and was called for a clear-path foul, which meant two free throws and the ball. Philly was still looking, as Larry David might say, pret-ty, pret-ty good.
But Iggy bricked the free throws, and the Sixers came up empty. Kevin Garnett (20 points) was hit for an offensive foul while setting a pick in advance of a three-second violation whistled on Elton Brand (a give-back call?). Garnett swished a jumper and with that the Celtics were off on a 22-9 run to complete the quarter.
Turnover followed upon turnover. The Sixers were disintegrating.
“They were the aggressors,’’ said Collins, “and I think it started with the clear-path foul.’’
What angered Collins was the nature of the turnovers. “One-handed passes,’’ he sighed. “You can’t make careless, one-handed passes against this team. They’re too good, they’re quick, their perimeter players have great anticipation. They’re physical, and we didn’t do a good job with that. We did not meet the tenacity they played with from the third quarter on.’’
On top of that, Brandon Bass outscored them in the third quarter, 18-16.
Entering the third, Bass was playing a typical 2012 Brandon Bass playoff game, which is to say he was alternating an occasional basket with many a painful fumbling of the basketball. He was doing way too much thinking and not enough playing. But it all came together for him in the third quarter, as he got loose for three dunks and three jump shots, augmented by six free throws.
“Too many easy baskets, too many dunks,’’ lamented Collins. “He made some dunks, got in the paint, and what happens is that opens up the basket for you. All of a sudden that basket looks a lot bigger for that jump shot.’’
Appropriately energized, Bass was also attacking the glass, and it was a Bass back-tap offensive rebound that gave the Celtics a final possession culminating in a Pierce jumper that sent them into the final quarter leading, 75-66.
Collins seemed to have more of a handle on what happened than Rivers did.
“I don’t know what the turning point was,’’ Rivers admitted. “It was just one of those games. We needed something to unite us together. And once we started to play right, we started to play well.’’
The question now is whether the coaches and the fans can believe anything the Celtics say. The Celtics continue to insist they have the proper respect for their opponent, but the clear pattern of this series has been that they consistently operate in a turn-it-on-turn-it-off mode.
So do they or don’t they truly feel they are playing equals?
“We know how difficult it is; nothing’s easy,’’ said Pierce, who only took four shots in the first half. “You’ve got a very resilient Philadelphia group who just won’t go away. I take my hat off to them; they are one of the better teams we even played in the last few years because of their fight, and they’ve got great coaches and their players are mentally tough.
“We know they’re not going to go away, so we’ve got to have our hard hats on for the next game to try to put ’em, away.’’
Sounds good. And the truth is that history favors the Celtics. Splitting the first four games, winning a rousing Game 5 at either Garden, and then putting on the requisite game face to put the series away in 6 is a time-honored Celtics tradition.
But the key is Game 5, which is why the 2-3-2 format David Stern foolishly imposed on the world beginning in 1985 is such an abomination. When you do 2-3-2 you eliminate one of the great mini-dramas inherent in the game.
One of these days the commissioner will see the light and restore sanity to the Finals.
Too bad he wasn’t here Monday night. Maybe he would have gotten the message. Long live Game 5!