Surviving the 76ers was a strenuous, energy-sapping struggle. But the Celtics endured, serenaded off the TD Garden court by “Beat the Heat’’ chants after an 85-75 win over Philadelphia in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday night.
Rajon Rondo (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) clinched the victory with 9 points in a 1:45 span as the Celtics survived the final four-plus minutes without Paul Pierce, who fouled out with Boston holding a 3-point lead.
“I felt I owed him one,’’ Rondo said of Pierce. “He got me back in Game 2 of Atlanta [in the first round of the playoffs]. We played together as a team. No one played great, but we got the win.’’
The Celtics, who now have an 18-4 record in Game 7s at home, will visit Miami in the opener of the conference finals Monday.
Rondo, Kevin Garnett (18 points, 13 rebounds), Brandon Bass (16 points), and Ray Allen (11 points, including two fourth-quarter 3-pointers) recovered after disappointing Game 6 performances.
“Rondo down the stretch was huge,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “You know, Ray, he never could get it going, but he made a couple big shots, obviously. He is the ultimate gunslinger. I mean, really, that’s what makes great players. I would have never taken that shot late in the game like Ray, after missing my first 15.’’
The Celtics led by as many as 11 points early in the second half. But the Sixers rallied and had a chance to regain the lead as Andre Iguodala missed two free throws late in the third quarter.
And the Sixers were within a point early in the fourth quarter before Garnett hit a jumper and Allen broke a 1-for-9 slump with a 3-pointer. And, though the Sixers seemed capable of rallying, as they had throughout this series, they never got closer than 3 points again.
“Defensively, it was a beautiful game for us,’’ Rivers said. “We took away the paint, the way we hadn’t before [in Game 6]. We got out to the 3-point line - they made some, but overall it was pretty good.’’
The Sixers regained hope after Pierce’s straight-on banker made it 71-65 with 4:54 remaining. Iguodala made a 3-pointer and Pierce fouled out after being was whistled for a charge against Thaddeus Young.
Then Rondo began taking over. He drove off an inbounds pass, then rebounded an Evan Turner miss, and dropped a shot-clock 22-footer to make it 75-68 with 2:48 to go. Young missed out of a timeout, Rondo rebounding, then swishing a 3-pointer to make it 78-68 with 2:09 to go.
Elton Brand scored for the Sixers, then fouled out, sending Rondo to the line to make it 80-70 with 1:45 remaining. Jrue Holiday hit a 3-pointer and Rondo lost his dribble out of bounds, but Holiday missed a drive and Allen rebounded. Garnett, Rondo, and Allen finished things off with free throws.
As Pierce led the crowd in a standing ovation as the game entered the final minute, the crowd started a “Beat the Heat’’ chant, Rivers shaking his fist as he left the bench.
Fast starts had more often been curses than blessings for the Celtics, who got off to a 9-0 start in Game 2 (82-81 loss) and an 18-3 beginning in Game 4 (92-83 defeat). The Celtics took a 10-2 lead, but this time they persisted.
“We didn’t want it to end,’’ Rondo said. “I didn’t plan on going home tomorrow or any exit meetings right now.
“Last year is in the past. This year, we are a totally different team. We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously, we got to this point. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can, so we’ve got to go down there and take care of business.’’
The Celtics were at their best in this series, which started May 12, in games with two days’ rest. They had a spring in their step, and that spring was missing on one day of rest in an 82-75 loss in Game 6.
“I don’t know how tough it’s going to be,’’ Rivers said of the opener against Miami. “But we’ll be ready. We’ve got the long flight. As a staff, the good thing about the flight, it’s a three-hour film for us, so we can look at that. I’ve already packed, so I can watch them tonight.
“We’ll be ready. It’s going to be a tough turnaround, but we’ll be ready.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.