Grown-ups 2, Kiddies 0.
The Atlanta Hawks were younger, friskier, and adjudged to be more, how you say, “athletic’’ than the Boston Celtics.
The Philadelphia 76ers were even younger, friskier, and adjudged to be, how you say, more “athletic’’ than the Atlanta Hawks.
Now they’ll each be relaxing in front of their big screens Monday night, watching the, how you say, more “seasoned’’ Boston Celtics compete with Miami for a berth in the 2012 NBA Finals after they took Game 7 from Philadelphia, 85-75.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Yet again, the game was not an artistic triumph. Perhaps it’s simply not possible for Eastern Conference teams to play smooth, flowing, aesthetically pleasing basketball.
But the fourth quarter, at least, was recognizable as playoff basketball. Despite the Sixers shooting dreadfully (28 for 80) all night, they were refusing to go away, and with 4:16 to go they weren’t in too bad a position, 3 down (71-68) as they watched Paul Pierce head for the sideline after being whistled for a charge, his sixth foul. The Celtics, who had led by as many as 11 (49-38) in the third period and 8 (69-61) earlier in the fourth, were a long, long way from a trip to Miami at that point.
“I thought we had a great chance to win,’’ confessed Sixer coach Doug Collins, who had to reason that his offensively-challenged team may have had one little surge left.
The Rajon Rondo Show was about to begin.
Understand that it hasn’t been a Big Three for a long time.
“I call it a Championship Four,’’ said Collins. “If you leave him out, you’re making a huge mistake because that guy has become the motor that drives the team.’’
Anyone who didn’t understand this would soon be enlightened, as Rondo drove the left baseline for 2 and a 73-68 lead with 3:39 to go; rebounded an Evan Turner turnaround at one end and threw in a 2 that had originally been called 3 before a review; nailed a 3 from - no exaggeration - 4 or 5 feet behind the arc; and then swished a pair of free throws. That’s a 9-point outburst, and, when it was over, the Celtics were up by 10 (80-70) with 1:45 remaining, and the usual sellout crowd of 18,624 could start its “Beat the Heat’’ chant.
It was a virtuoso performance of the highest order, coming at what Magic Johnson long ago identified as “Winnin’ time.’’
Rondo finished with another certified big-game triple-double (18-10-10), and don’t think he didn’t know what he needed when he hauled in the final rebound in the final minute.
“Rondo took over the game in the last four or five minutes,’’ said Collins with a sigh.
“Well,’’ said Doc Rivers, “he has no choice. That’s what makes him good. Rondo wants to run the team, be a quarterback. But with Paul fouling out, he had to take charge.’’
Sounds great, except that Rondo did two things in this stretch that aren’t always part of his profile. He hit two long, long shots and he buried four free throws in succession.
“Those are the shots we’d like him to take - and he made ’em,’’ Collins said. “He’s not afraid to take ’em. That’s what you have to do in this league.’’
“A new weapon,’’ said a smiling Rivers on the subject of Rondo’s aerial bombardment. “You know, when he’s in his rhythm, he’s a good shooter.’’
“My shots all night, my floaters, were hitting the rim and bouncing out,’’ Rondo explained. “I thought I had pretty good rhythm, so I wanted to stay confident and continue to shoot the ball, and you know they went in at the right moment.
“It’s not about me. It’s a team effort. I just happened to score 7 or 8 points in a row, but my teammates got us to that point.’’
Now that’s not just being deferential, or reverential, or whatever. That happens to be the truth. For prior to that game-closing outburst Rondo (seven turnovers) was not having a big night. In fact, he was doing a great deal to keep Philly in the game with careless passing and ballhandling.
The Old Guys were really doing their jobs. First it was Pierce, with three tough third-quarter jumpers. Throughout it was Kevin Garnett, whose 18 points, his defense, and, especially, his 13 rebounds, were indispensable. And then there was Ray Allen.
How classic Ray was this? Struggling horribly all night, with but a single layup and a technical free throw to show for his efforts, he hits two big threes in the fourth quarter.
“Ray is the ultimate gunslinger,’’ said Rivers. “That’s what makes great players great. I was a basketball player one day. And I would never have taken that shot late in the game, like Ray, especially after missing my first 15. First of all, I wouldn’t have been in. But you know what I mean, you’ve got to have [guts] to do that. You really do.’’
So, in the end, pedigree and experience mattered. It might not have been a big deal in Games 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, but this was different. Philly was resilient and tenacious and yup, athletic, but in this one it fell behind, 10-2, and only had one lead (20-19), and that for 17 seconds. The Celtics did control this game, and we can safely say the better team won. That’s twice now. It’s Year 5 of the Three-Year Plan, and they’re still rolling.
“We’re exactly where we thought we’d be,’’ Rivers said. “And we’re going to Miami.’’