PHILADELPHIA - The only thing reliable about this Celtics team is its unreliability.
This was a Game 6 close-out road game following a home victory in Game 5. The Big Four core group is now 2-5 in such games.
They shoulda won Game 2. They shoulda won Game 4. And after playing a truly abysmal game here in Wednesday night’s Game 6, they are in a position where they had damn well better win Game 7 Saturday if they wish to avoid feeling miserable for the rest of their lives over a colossal lost opportunity to get to the NBA Finals.
So the consequence of Wednesday night’s 82-75 Philadelphia 76ers triumph over the Celtics is that there will be a 22d Game 7 in a Boston Garden and the sixth against this franchise, which came into being as the Syracuse Nationals before moving to Philadelphia when the original Warriors went West.
The Celtics are 17-4 in the first 21 games, but history will have nothing to do with anything, as Celtics coach Doc Rivers was quick to point out.
“You can talk about the history of Game 7s,’’ Doc said, “but at the end of the day half these young guys don’t know I played, and they definitely don’t know [Sixers coach] Doug [Collins] played.’’
The Celtics have done the worst possible thing. They have allowed a talented young team to acquire playoff dueling scars. Had the Celtics taken care of business earlier in this series, they’d be preparing for the next round and the Sixers would be home paying homage to the grizzled NBA veterans who had shown them the facts of NBA playoff life. Instead, they have been compiling a nice little playoff résumé, and they will take the TD Garden floor Saturday thinking they are Equals.
This is not the way it was supposed to be.
But it does seem to be consistent with the M.O. of the Celtics, who have played some of the worst games in Celtics playoff history in the last few weeks.
They shot 33 percent in this one. That won’t get it done. They had 17 turnovers, leading to 19 Philadelphia points. That won’t get it done, either. Shooting comes and goes. We all know that. But you’d think that a veteran team having a poor shooting night would be extra careful not to throw the ball away, and in this case I mean exactly that. The Celtics were very careless with the basketball Wednesday night.
The 76ers were eminently beatable. They missed nine consecutive shots during a wretched second quarter in which they scored 11 points. But the Celtics were only able to construct a 36-33 halftime lead only because Mickael Pietrus beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer.
At halftime, there really was only one relevant question: How was either team in the game?
Not for the first time in this increasingly tedious and aesthetically unsatisfying 2012 playoffs, the mutual play was so substandard that you really were thinking to yourself whether this was the worst game you’ve ever seen.
“They muddied it up with their defense and we muddied it up with our offense,’’ Rivers said. “It was a muddy game.’’
There was no decent offensive flow from the beginning.
“We’ve got to make them inefficient,’’ Collins had said before the game.
He added that for Boston, it all starts with Rajon Rondo. “Rondo has scored 72 points and he has 73 assists,’’ Collins noted. “He’s had a hand in 50 percent of their offense.’’
Now, whether the 76ers stopped Rondo or Rondo stopped himself is an open question, but the fact is the Celtics aren’t going to win many games in which their floor leader finishes with 9 points and six assists.
“I think he may have gotten caught in-between,’’ Rivers said. “I thought he was trying to orchestrate the offense and trying to go, and he probably got caught in the middle tonight. It happens, but he’ll be better.’’
No matter how bad a playoff game is, someone has to win, and despite their offensive ineptitude the Celtics were still in reasonable control in the third quarter, leading, 41-35, and in possession of the basketball. But on that possession Kevin Garnett threw it away, and when Elton Brand (13 points, 10 rebounds in a very determined effort) got loose inside for a basket it was the start of an 11-0 run that culminated in a resounding Andre Iguodala dunking 3-point play in extremely heavy rush-hour traffic, a real crowd-pleasing feat if ever there was one.
The Celtics would re-tie the game at 46 and 48, but Jrue Holiday broke the game’s final deadlock by getting to the line and Spencer Hawes hit a jumper. That made it 52-48, and the Celtics never would be closer than 3 (53-50) after that.
Philly must be given some credit here. Clearly, this is a team the Celtics do not like to play.
“They’re athletic. They’re young. They’re fast,’’ Rivers said. “They play with a lot of energy. They’re very difficult for our guys. That’s why they were hard for us to play in the regular season and they’ve been hard for us to play in the playoffs.’’
Not having Avery Bradley to keep Holiday and Lou Williams under control is a factor. Ray Allen not being Ray Allen is a factor. But the Celtics still have had ample opportunity to put this team away and now they will have to play them in a winner-take-all game that should not be taking place.
But we should all have the message by now. This is who they are.