|Garnett comes up big for the Celtics in Game 1, scoring 29 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. (US Presswire)|
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics have no shortage of go-to guys with the game on the line. Take your pick: Future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen and maybe even speedy point guard Rajon Rondo. Doug Collins, on the flip side, is still searching -- for just one.
Philadelphia had command of the Eastern Conference semifinal series-opener for more than 40 minutes Saturday night. Evan Turner was terrific, the frontcourt duo of Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen was more than just holding their own and Andre Iguodala was making shots and also locking down, as usual, on the defensive end.
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However, when Boston whittled what was once an eight-point fourth quarter lead down to a single possession, Collins knew his young group was in trouble. You could see it on his face. The veteran coach was well-aware of his club's performance in close contests, even rattling off a key statistic just prior to the game in which his team had just one victory all season long in a game decided by three points or less.
"We do it by committee," Collins said of his strategy of who takes the shots down the stretch with the game on the line. "We move the ball and whoever gets the open shot. That's who we are now."
Collins has no choice. That's the problem. There's no logical option who he can hand the ball to with regularity in the most pressure-packed moment and just relax.
The committee thing can work -- in the regular season. But rarely does it work in the postseason.
Philadelphia was unable to close out the Celtics in Game 1 and Boston, with clutch plays from three of its four stars, pulled out a 92-91 victory.
Andre Iguodala's mega-contract says he should be the guy for Philly, but he's not a killer. Not a cornerstone guy. Turner and backcourt mate Jrue Holiday aren't ready for that role -- and may never transition into cornerstone guys in the NBA. Lou Williams was the one who evidently had the open shots in the final few minutes for the 76ers -- but there were a couple problems. First, they weren't all that open -- and secondly, it was freakin' Lou Williams.
Give Collins and his young team credit. The 76ers battled Boston on the road and put themselves in position to steal the first game of the best-of-seven series. It was more than just a valiant effort.
But these guys need a guy who can make a play with the game on the line.
That's where Boston has a major advantage over Philadelphia -- and most teams.
The trio of Garnett, Allen and Pierce all ranks in the top five on the NBA's all-time scoring leaders among in active players. They combine for nearly 70,000 career points.
Doc Rivers feels comfortable -- and rightfully so -- putting the ball in just about anyone's hands for the game-winner.
Pierce has done it over and over, but it was Garnett and Rondo that delivered against Philadelphia. Thee duo accounted for 13 of Boston's final 15 points over the final 5:50 of the game. Pierce hit the only other bucket on a critical step-back jumper with 1:18 remaining that gave the Celtics a 90-84 advantage.
Rondo registered yet another triple-double despite struggling with his shot early in the game. It was his eighth in the last five postseasons, one fewer than the rest of the league combined. He finished with 13 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds -- but it was the trio of long jumpers in the final six minutes for the perimeter shot-challenged point guard that made the difference.
"He stepped up and took the challenge," Philadelphia's Evan Turner said of Rondo.
So did Garnett, who continues to look like the K.G. circa 2008. Garnett put Boston up for good with 2:52 left in the game on a three-point play and then buried an 18-footer over 76ers big man Spencer Hawes to give the Celtics a 88-84 lead.
"We're gonna ride Kevin all the way until he wheels fall off," Pierce said.
It's difficult to put a value on experience, but it was clear that the grizzled Celtics played with composure down the stretch and made every key play in the waning moments while Philadelphia struggled to keep its composure and score late in the fourth quarter. Nothing displayed the difference with more clarity than the final play of the game, when Paul Pierce took the ball out of bounds from the sideline with 3.4 seconds left and Boston in front, 92-91.
Instead of throwing the ball in the frontcourt, Pierce threw it to a streaking Rondo in the backcourt -- where he was able to outrun Turner, desperately trying to foul.
"Put it in one of his all-time great plays," Iguodala said in reference to Rivers drawing it up. "It was a gamble, but a smart gamble."
The young 76ers, who are playing with house money as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, were clearly disappointed with letting one slip away. However, most of them seemed to take confidence out of the effort -- which came down to the wire.
"They did what they were supposed to do tonight," Williams said.
Also, what they'll continue to do.