BOSTON -- After the Boston Celtics kicked away a chance to win Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Hawks in Atlanta last week, coach Doc Rivers re-emphasized to his team the importance of late-game execution.
"End-of-the-game execution is going to win or lose playoff games for you," Rivers said that night.
His words have rung true over the first two games of the Celtics' Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers. And, much to his chagrin, his charges have seen both sides of that execution spectrum.
Two nights after making all the key plays and smart decisions down the stretch of a Game 1 triumph, the Celtics committed multiple missteps Tuesday that led to an 82-81 loss to the 76ers in Game 2 at TD Garden.
The series shifts to Philadelphia tied at one game apiece.
Oh sure, Boston wasn't helped by an anemic offense that mustered a mere 24 points in the second and third quarters and had the team staring at another double-digit fourth-quarter deficit. But in typical backs-against-the-wall Celtics fashion, they rallied late and had a chance to take a commanding series lead.
Instead, they fumbled it away.
The final minute was not Boston's finest; this on a night when few of the 48 were anything to brag about. But three sequences sealed the Celtics' fate:
" Nursing a 1-point lead -- their first advantage since the early moments of the third quarter -- the Celtics had a chance to build on their advantage after forcing a 24-second violation. It was the only stop they generated down the stretch as the 76ers made their final five field goal attempts and six free throws over the game's last four minutes.
But the Celtics couldn't get their offense in motion, and Rajon Rondo dribbled the ball for 19 seconds before forcing a 17-foot jumper with two defenders nearby. The shot found back iron.
At the other end, Evan Turner drove past Rondo (Ray Allen did little to help the penetration) and even when Paul Pierce stepped up in the lane, Turner willed in a circus layup while falling to the floor for a 76-75 Philadelphia lead.
Asked what he was looking for before settling for that jumper, Rondo shrugged and said, "I don't even know."
The Celtics shot 41.8 percent (33-of-79) for the game, and a mere 24.3 percent (9-of-37) in the middle quarters, as they struggled to generate quality looks. Give Philadelphia's defense some credit, but Boston's offensive execution was downright woeful.
On the ensuing possession, the Celtics came out looking for Allen, their best offensive option for the night, but Philly defended an initial 3-point look and he settled for a fadeaway baseline 16-footer that rolled off the rim. And that's when things really fell apart.
" With 26.9 seconds remaining, Philadelphia corralled the rebound of the Allen miss. If Boston played for a stop and the Sixers wound down the shot clock, it would have left them less than three seconds to generate a potential winning shot.
But Boston players seemed confused as to whether to foul and allowed 12 seconds to run off before Rivers motioned for Rondo to foul the ball handler.
That didn't occur until 14.4 seconds remained and the Celtics needed another foul -- this time with 12 ticks remaining -- to send Turner to the line. He pushed it to a three-point Philadelphia lead with two free throws.
"We had a foul to give," Rivers said. "It was almost a very similar situation to what they had that last game. Obviously, if they didn't have a foul to give, we would've played the clock out.
"My thinking was it would be a four-second differential, there's no guarantee you're going to get the rebound, by the time you got the rebound it's probably three seconds [remaining]. And then they have a foul to give, so they foul and now you're down to two seconds. That's a tough way to score. So I was hoping we could foul. I wanted to foul two seconds earlier than that, but we didn't."
Rondo wouldn't throw his coach under the bus for the late decision to foul.
"Coach made the right decision," he said.
But the indecision cost Boston precious time. Still, the Celtics should have had an opportunity to tie the game, but they simply didn't give themselves a chance.
" The Celtics were attempting to put a play into motion when referee Michael Smith whistled Kevin Garnett for an illegal screen when he mugged Andre Iguodala while trying to spring Pierce for a 3-point look.
The call obviously didn't go over well in Boston's gym, particularly given the timing, but even Garnett admitted he had been warned earlier in the game by the officials about his screens.
"Mike was in a position and he called it, I'm not going to make a big stink about it," Garnett said. "I think [referee] Danny [Crawford] had already given me a warning about how I was setting picks. I'm going to continue to set picks and continue to get guys open.
Later, Garnett added, "Mike made a great call, man. I don't really give it up to refs. But if he thought it was a moving pick, then that's what it is."
Forced to foul, the Celtics never had a chance to tie it from there, with late 3-pointers by Allen and Garnett making the final spread closer than it should have been.
Left to lament missed opportunities, the Celtics know they have only themselves to blame for this loss.
Asked what adjustments the Celtics need to make, Garnett playfully barked, "I'd have to kill you if I told you that."
He later offered one notable amendment. "I will say that we have to do a better job of executing down the stretch," Garnett said. "I'm sure Doc is going to make us watch the first game, then watch the second game and it will be obvious."
Yes, the contrast will be stark. It's why this series is 1-1.
One of the big advantages Boston had coming into this series was supposed to be its big-game experience, having been down this playoff road many times before. The Celtics were supposed to be the ones who made the big plays when they mattered most. Game 1 seemed to confirm that. Now we're not so sure.
Boston didn't take advantage of that experience in Game 2 and, because of that, it has given away its other big edge in this series: home-court advantage.
In a season in which the Celtics have made everything as difficult as possible on themselves, they've done it yet again.