Celtics give Sixers a boost

BOSTON -- What's the old adage? You play with fire long enough and you'll eventually get burned?

That's the story of the Boston Celtics. They got burned Monday night and, in the process, they also may have given the Philadelphia 76ers not only new life, but also an involuntary confidence injection.

The Celtics' late-game luck finally ran out in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Sixers. This time, the refs didn't bail them out, as they did in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks with a blown call. This time Kevin Garnett tried, but couldn't save them down the stretch.

This time, as in Game 1 of the series, the Celtics fell behind by 10 points in the second half. This time, as in Game 1, they rallied to erase the deficit in the fourth quarter. But this time, unlike in Game 1, it was the Sixers who made the key plays down the stretch and came away with an 82-81 victory to square the series at 1-1.

Pay no attention to the final score. This was a 65-65 game with 4:33 left to play and was borderline unwatchable. A flurry of points down the stretch, including two Hail Mary 3s by Garnett and Ray Allen, pushed the Celtics out of the 70s. Barely.

But we all figured this would be a hard series to watch. We all figured the games would be close and the scoring low. But we also figured that in these kinds of games, the team that invariably wins is the team with experience. Especially at home.

Until Monday, the Celtics had done just that. They'd taken all three Garden games from Atlanta, but one went into overtime and another went down to the final seconds. Game 1 against the Sixers was a one-point game and Rajon Rondo dribbled out the clock. (He did the same thing in Game 5 at Atlanta, which was not a good thing.)

But while the Celtics won Game 1, their coach, Doc Rivers, said something else happened over those 48 minutes.

"I think we lifted their confidence. I really do," Rivers said. "I mean, we played a home game in Game 1 where we stole the game. And so if you're the other team you have to have a little confidence coming in."

Or, as the Sixers' Jrue Holiday said, "We like playing against Boston. We think we match up well against them and even though they had a smart play at the end of Game 1, we still had a chance in that game. So that's definitely a confidence booster."

Now these Sixers have even more confidence. How often does a young team coming into the playoffs do a 180 from what it did over the course of the regular season? These are not your Lockout-Season Sixers.

During the 66-game death march, the 76ers had 23 games decided by seven points or less. They lost 18 of them. In the playoffs so far, they've had five games decided by seven points or less. They've won four of them.

"I have to tell you, all season long we couldn't win these games," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "And now our guys are believing they can do it. And it is pretty special to watch."

It's dangerous to read too much into one playoff game. We all thought the Hawks were toast after getting routed in Game 4 and they came thisclose to forcing a Game 7 in Atlanta. You think the Lakers are ready to fold their tents after Monday night's debacle in Oklahoma City?

But Game 2s tend to be harbingers. In the first round of the playoffs, the team that won Game 2 won seven of the eight series. The Sixers took control of their first-round series by crushing the Bulls in Game 2 in Chicago. Rivers pointed to the victory in Atlanta in Game 2 as being the key game in the Hawks series (because it came without Rondo or Allen).

There are going to be at least three more games in this series. There could easily be a blowout, but most of the games are probably going to resemble Games 1 and 2. This is where the Celtics have every reason to be concerned going forward.

Paul Pierce clearly is hobbled. Avery Bradley's shoulder popped out again. Brandon Bass is missing shots he made in his sleep during the regular season. Rondo looks ready to take control and then inexplicably pounds the ball into the floor and launches a stupid shot with the game on the line.

"I don't think we have a big margin of error," Rivers said. "We knew that coming into this whole playoff run with the bodies we have. We've got guys going in and out of games. Paul clearly is not 100 percent.

"We're not going to run away from anybody. I would like to -- we've done it once, I think, so far," Rivers went on. "Tonight I thought honestly we had a chance to. I really did. I thought if we had played right, we had a chance to do that, and we just didn't."

No, they didn't. And now we have a series because, as Pat Riley famously said, a series doesn't officially begin until the home team loses. The Celtics did just that Monday night. Whether it was a sign of things to come, or an aberration, is something we don't know. But we do know that the Sixers are not going to go away.