- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Boston Celtics chose the hard path. Of course they did. It's the only path they know.
Despite owning an 18-point, third-quarter lead with a chance to essentially deliver a knockout punch to the Philadelphia 76ers in Friday's Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics let their opponent off the mat, and now it looks like they'll have to endure yet another 12-round slugfest after absorbing a rather improbable-if-it-was-someone-else 92-83 defeat at Wells Fargo Center.
The scene shifts to TD Garden for Monday's Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece.
It's hard to be surprised with Boston. The Celtics have been allergic to easy this season, the team seemingly going out of its way to encounter obstacles, even if they're not in its direct path.
Friday represented a chance to all but stamp Boston's pass to the conference finals against a team that seemed more than willing to roll over. No, that would have been too simple. The prospect of as much as a week's vacation was simply too inviting for a veteran team nursing a series of nagging ailments.
So the Celtics dominated the early going, then promptly stopped working. They allowed the 76ers to out-tough them over the final 24 minutes, let them out-desire them when it mattered most. Then Boston players -- seemingly hardly surprised by their own stubbornness -- plodded to the bus to lament letting yet another one slip away this season.
"It's frustrating," admitted center Kevin Garnett, whose 36th birthday celebration Saturday will undoubtedly be tarnished by Friday's events. After being otherworldly for much of this series, Garnett came crashing back to earth Friday, connecting on just three of 12 shots for nine points and 11 rebounds over 40 minutes. He turned the ball over seven times, unable to withstand the pressure he commanded around the basket.
"We had a team down, and we didn't finish them off," he said, sighing. "It's pretty disappointing."
And there was plenty of disappointment in the Celtics' locker room, the reality sinking in that they'll have to endure at least 48 additional minutes of playoff basketball and return here for Game 6 on Wednesday.
But there was hardly shock or dismay over what had occurred. These are the 2011-12 Celtics, after all. It's as if an increased degree of difficulty is the only thing that truly drives them.
As for what happened on the court, coach Doc Rivers threw himself under the bus for not being able to help his team regain its composure when Philadelphia made its second-half charge.
"We did more than settle; we lost our composure," Rivers said. "We stopped running our stuff. Whenever that happens, I always think that's me. I think that there is something the coach can do to slow them down, to get them back in their sets, to get them back in their rhythm, and I couldn't do it. To me, I always think that's my fault."
Oh, don't worry, Coach, there are plenty of potential scapegoats to go around. Coughing up an 18-point lead is truly a team effort.
Yes, the Celtics can lament that the officials did them no favors. Philadelphia attempted 36 free throws (compared with Boston's 19), and the Celtics were whistled for 28 infractions (to the 76ers' 19).
But the zebras had little to do with Boston's 17 turnovers, eight of which came in the second half and led to 11 of the 15 points off giveaways for the 76ers.
What's more, the referees weren't the ones who outmuscled and outhustled the Celtics on the glass. Philadelphia finished with a 52-38 overall edge thanks in large part to 17 offensive caroms that it cashed into 12 second-chance points.
"The free throw line tells the story to me," Rivers said. "Thirty-six free throw attempts to 19 -- that's tough to win that way if you turn the ball over 17 times against the 76ers. Everything we did was the prescription that you don't do to beat them. [A] 17-5 [edge] on offensive rebounds, 17 turnovers, 36 free throws -- you would have thought we were down the whole game if you looked at those numbers."
Boston actually scored the game's first 14 points, led by 15 at halftime and was still out front with less than 10 minutes to play.
But the Celtics got away from their philosophies, couldn't get a stop when they so desperately needed one and watched Andre Iguodala nail a pair of long-range jumpers during the final 82 seconds to essentially seal their fate.
Maybe coaches and players are simply numb to what happened, but Boston players seemed alarmingly resigned to the loss. It's just par for the course this season.
The Celtics were left clinging to the fact that they've responded well to their own adversity, producing quality wins that almost immediately erase the memory of bad losses. Consistently inconsistent, they've always emerged standing in the end.
"We're a strong-minded team," Rajon Rondo said. "We're a veteran team, and we know we kind of let this one slip away. They felt like they let a couple slip away earlier [in the series]. Regardless of how each team feels, you still have to go out there and play the game. So we'll be ready for Game 5."
Will they? You want to believe Rondo, but you wonder whether this team has a large enough supply of mental resolve to accomplish its ultimate goals (all while testing its fan base's supply of Xanax and Pepto Bismol during this roller coaster ride).
There's no guarantee where this hard path leads -- and maybe it will make things sweeter in the end -- but one thing is certain: It's far too late to turn around and choose the easy path.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
Once again, the Celtics make life difficult for themselves as the 76ers gain new life.