Coach Doc Rivers said mental toughness would be key for the Celtics. Last night, facing the 76ers in the season opener at the FleetCenter, the Celtics had their mettle tested down the stretch. In a game in which both teams came back from large deficits, Philadelphia prevailed, 98-95, after Paul Pierce missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Sixers regained the lead when Willie Green nailed a 3-pointer with 3 minutes 35 seconds to play. A pair of missed free throws by Mark Blount, followed by a 3-pointer from Allen Iverson (30 points), gave the Sixers a 98-93 advantage with 2:48 left, and necessitated a timeout by Rivers. The Celtics squandered a chance to tie the game when they failed to score on three consecutive possessions. Ricky Davis missed a 20-footer. Payton missed a 3-pointer. And Blount missed a layup before Philadelphia got the ball back when Kyle Korver grabbed the defensive rebound.
Philadelphia had the ball and the lead with 11.3 seconds left. Coming out of a timeout, Samuel Dalembert could not convert a layup. Giving Boston and Pierce one last chance.
The momentum from a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Walter McCarty carried into the second half After trailing for most of the first half, Boston opened the third quarter with an 18-2 run for a 83-71 lead entering the final period.
The Celtics outplayed the Sixers in third quarter in almost every facet, leading by as many as 18 (71-53) when Pierce made a pair of free throws with 7:21 remaining in the quarter. Pierce scored 14 of his 35 points in the third, while the Celtics shot 53 percent from the floor and did not miss in eight attempts from the line.
The run started with a layup from Raef LaFrentz, but not until the power forward found Payton for a 3-pointer did the run really get rolling. Boston reeled off 14 straight points before Iverson hit a 9-footer. But the Sixers continued to struggle, shooting just 29 percent in the third. The Celtics complemented their offensive surge with better rebounding and appeared on the way to an easy victory.
But the Sixers started coming back as the third came to a close. They closed within 9 points (80-71) on five straight free throws. As anyone who's ever watched a team coach by Jim O'Brien knows, they fight until the final buzzer. The sense of deja vu O'Brien probably experienced during the second quarter had nothing to do with pacing the familiar FleetCenter sideline. It had everything to do with the performances of Pierce and McCarty, who combined for 19 points in the quarter and brought Boston back from a 14-point deficit. A 3-pointer by McCarty as the halftime buzzer sounded pushed the Celtics ahead, 53-51, at the break.
With the exception of a layup by Blount and 3-pointer from Davis (both off assists from Payton), McCarty and Pierce accounted for the final 19 points of the second quarter. But the contributions of Davis should not be overlooked. Although his offense and energy came in spurts, he provided a burst when the Celtics needed it.
Boston began to climb back and cut into its double-digit deficit behind Davis. First, Davis sliced between two defenders to dunk the ball before they even knew what happened. Then, the small forward drove for a layup, drew a foul, and completed the 3-point play, allowing the Celtics to close within 38-29.
The positive momentum continued when Payton sent a bounce pass diagonally across the paint to McCarty waiting on the left side of the basket for another layup. With six assists and three turnovers in the first half, Payton appeared to handle the discomfort from a fractured thumb well. He kept the ball moving and the Celtics clearly missed his presence when he took a breather.
O'Brien undoubtedly blasted the Sixers for their inadequate defense during the latter stages of the first half. Philadelphia allowed Boston to shoot 72 percent (13 for 18) in the second quarter. But it was a game marked by inconsistent defense as the Celtics allowed the Sixers to shoot 48 percent in the first half. Boston also struggled on the glass before halftime, getting outrebounded, 20-13, and grabbing just two offense rebounds. Pierce, who led the Celtics in rebounding at the break, needed help on the glass. Philadelphia did most of its damage in the paint, outscoring Boston, 24-16, around the basket.