Wednesday, May 23, 2012 Updated: May 24, 7:39 PM ET
Another roadside vanishing act
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
PHILADELPHIA -- An hour before tipoff in Game 6 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the 76ers, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers leaned on a wall outside the visitor's locker room Wednesday evening and smiled when a reporter asked whether he was able to gauge his team's mood and energy level before a potential closeout contest.
"Hell if I know," quipped Rivers, who noted he has never quite been able get a read on his team before games. Which sort of makes him like the rest of us.
After 13-plus assists in each of his previous five playoff games, Rajon Rondo mustered just six in Game 6.
Two nights after the Celtics shot a blistering 52.2 percent from the floor and rode a second-half surge to a Game 5 victory that left them on the cusp of punching their ticket to the conference finals, Boston bricked its way through what would politely be dubbed an eyesore of an offensive effort, shooting a mere 33.3 percent overall and enduring an 82-75 defeat against the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center.
That loss sends the series, now tied at 3, back to Boston for a decisive Game 7 on Saturday night at TD Garden.
"We didn't have it," Rivers said of his team's energy. "I thought [Philadelphia] had a lot of energy tonight, a lot of energy from the building. I really just thought they outplayed us."
The Celtics will have two days to rest weary legs and try to figure out where in the world their offense disappeared to in the 48 hours between Games 5 and 6. It clearly didn't make the team charter to Philadelphia.
Boston lacked both the energy and offensive cohesion that decorated the second half of Monday's win. Still, the 76ers did their best to let the Celtics hang around for a late charge that simply never came because Boston couldn't make shots.
"The shots we missed tonight, we made in Game 5," point guard Rajon Rondo said. "That's basketball."
Rondo made the case that Boston shot 27.8 percent in a let's-never-speak-of-it-again second quarter, but actually led by 36-33 at the intermission. Wrap your brain around that.
Even so, the Celtics couldn't generate anything consistently on offense. Rondo had a mere three first-half assists, two of which came in the final 39.9 seconds of the second quarter.
That's astounding considering he entered Wednesday's game having recorded at least 13 assists in each of his previous five playoff games, only the second player in NBA history to accomplish that feat, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Magic Johnson did it three different times in his career.
Boston as a whole generated a mere 14 assists in Game 6. Rondo finished with six. What happened to the player who was so aggressive and turned Game 5 around with his full-throttle play?
"I don't know; he wanted to play well," Rivers said with a shrug. "I thought he attacked early and missed some shots. He probably got caught in between himself, because he saw that the offense wasn't working, so I thought he was kind of trying to orchestrate the offense and trying to go, and he probably got caught in the middle tonight. It happens. He'll be better."
Rivers must hope his team as a whole will be better. After dropping a season-high 27 points in Wednesday's Game 5 triumph, Brandon Bass came crashing back to earth, misfiring on 10 of 12 shots. Rondo missed 10 shots, too (4-of-14), while Ray Allen was a mere 4-of-11 (1-for-5 beyond the 3-point arc).
While both sides endured lulls in scoring, the 76ers seemed committed to getting to the rim and generating points in the paint. They dominated that area of the game, finishing with a 42-16 advantage in the paint.
Oh sure, Philadelphia missed its free throws (going 17-of-28 overall) and Boston utilized its own trips to the charity stripe (20-of-23) to hang around. But the Celtics soon got away from moving the ball, instead settling for contested jumpers late in the shot clock, and nothing fell. Still within four points at the start of the fourth quarter, Boston never made a truly serious charge.
Maybe Rivers should have seen this coming. Let's face it: The Celtics have been atrocious in first-chance closeouts, particularly on the road.
Eastern Conference Playoffs
Get all the news and commentary on the Celtics-76ers matchup on ESPN.com's matchup page.
With Wednesday's loss, Boston is now a mere 10-13 in closeout games in the Big Three era, including a 2-11 mark on the road. The good news: They're headed home for Game 7, and they typically atone for letting the opposition live another day.
If you were expecting a livid Celtics locker room, you'd be surprised at the overall tone. Kevin Garnett seemed the most upset at a failed chance to end the series and get a chance for some much-needed rest. But Boston players were not short on confidence, even after their dismal offensive effort.
"Win or go home," Garnett said. "Confidence is very high. We've been here before, very experienced. All out. Nothing less."
It's hard to imagine the Celtics' offense giving much less. And that's what Boston clung to as a bit of a silver lining. The Celtics played about as bad an offensive game as they could and still had a chance to steal one. Players rallied around the notion that making some adjustments -- and, more importantly, some shots -- should allow them to finish this series Saturday.
At the end of his news conference Wednesday, Rivers was asked whether this loss reminds him of a Game 6 loss to the Cavaliers in the 2008 conference semifinals. Boston shot 39.7 percent and endured an ugly 74-69 defeat in Cleveland, only to bounce back with a 97-92 triumph in Game 7 in Boston two days later.
Rivers smiled and noted he didn't remember that until the reporter brought it up, then said, "If we can do the same thing, then that would be terrific."