Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo all had double-doubles and the Boston Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers 107-91 in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to take 2-1 series lead. Garnett had 27 points and 13 rebounds, Pierce added 24 and 12, and Rondo chipped in 23 points and 14 assists. Thaddeus Young had 22 to lead Philadelphia, and the Sixers got 55 points from their bench, but the Sixer starters managed just 36 and shot 30 percent. Philadelphia led by five after the first quarter, a quarter in which they shot 62 percent, but made just 21 field goals the rest of the way, and finished the night shooting 41 percent from the floor. This was a statement game from Boston. They had their backs against the wall going into this game, with many questioning their health and their mental focus. They answered the bell tonight, and can take a commanding 3-1 lead with a win in Game Four on Friday.
Rondo scored four straight points at the end of the half, capping a 32-16 second quarter which allowed Boston to take a 60-49 lead into the half. Then Boston came out and stomped on Philadelphia at the start of the second half, opening the third quarter on an 11-2 run, and never looked back. Boston has been awful with leads this year, often going with the "let them back into it then win it late" approach. Tonight they went a different way. Rondo, Pierce, and Garnett, combined to score 20 points in the half's first seven minutes and that was more or less the game. Coach Doc Rivers still rolled with his starters well into the fourth quarter, taking no chances even with the Celtics in complete command, but the game was over three minutes into the final frame.
The Truth Hurts
Paul Pierce's injury situation has been a big story throughout this series. Pierce strained his left MCL prior to Game Four of the Celtics first round series against the Atlanta Hawks and has been struggling with his offense ever since. Pierce had probably the worst playoff game of his career in Game Two, scoring seven points on 2-9 shooting. Tonight he started 0-6, the Celtics missed their first seven shots, and it looked like another long night for Pierce and the Celtic offense. However it takes more than pain to stop "The Truth." After Rondo scored 11 straight points to single handedly keep Boston in the game early Pierce came up with two emphatic "I will not be denied" plays. First he drove past Andre Iguodala and threw a dunk down over Lavoy Allen while drawing a foul, then drove base line and did the exact same thing, putting Young in a poster. He still struggled with his shot, finishing only 6-17, but these two plays summed up Paul Pierce perfectly – healthy or not, if he can play he will score.
Rondo's Offense Jumpstarts The C's
Again, early in the first quarter it did not look good for the Celtics. The Sixers were hitting every shot they took and the Celtic offense had completely stalled out. Their go-to-guy Garnett had started 2-3, but then picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench. The Celtic offense has looked lost in the post season without Garnett on the floor, and the game seemed to be shaping up that way early on. Then Rondo sensed that his team needed a couple buckets, and with Pierce struggling he decided to do it himself. Rondo started taking the ball aggressively into the paint, banking in his patented floaters, and scoring 13 first quarter points. From then on the game opened up for the Celtics and they got open shot after open shot. At the end of the third quarter the Celtics had not scored less than 28 points in any frame, and it wasn't like they were hitting ridiculous shots. They were just breaking down the Sixer defense time and again and burying open shot after open shot. Thanks to Rondo's early aggression the Celtics shot 52 percent and only turned the ball over seven times. They are almost unbeatable when they play like this.
Pietrus Coming Alive
Mickael Pietrus came to Boston with a reputation as a big game player, a reputation that he had not lived up to through seven games of the 2012 playoffs. While Pietrus' defense has been top notch in the postseason he was shooting a woeful 15 percent from three point range going into Game Two and wasn't giving the Celtics the type of impact off the bench that they need. Then he got two threes to go down in the fourth quarter of Game Two, and while the Celtics lost the game, finally seeing a shot fall has given Pietrus a world of confidence that he carried into Game Three. He scored 13 points off the bench for Boston tonight, connecting on 3-4 from three point range, and also coming up with a nasty fourth quarter block on Spencer Hawes. Pietrus can do more offensively than just fire away from the perimeter, but that is the foundation of his game, and he is just miles better when his shot is falling. With Pietrus hitting from the perimeter the Celtic bench is significantly improved.
Stiemsma Struggles, Gets Pulled
It wouldn't be a Celtic game if there weren't at least a little bit of bad news. As has been written here before, Doc Rivers has yet to decide on a top reserve big man, continuing to give both Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins minutes off the bench despite the fact that Hollins has clearly been the better of the two. Hollins hustle and athleticism has given Boston a major boost while Stiemsma has been little more than a liability whenever he is on the floor, but Rivers still can't decide who to go with. When Garnett picked up his second foul Rivers again went with Stiemsma as his first big off the bench. Once again he struggled, ending up in the wrong place on four straight defensive possessions, forcing Rivers to yank him in favor of Hollins after just four minutes. Hollins played well and Stiemsma never saw the floor again. Hopefully this will be the sign Rivers needs to finally give Hollins Stiemsma's minutes. He has outplayed Stiemsma and the Celtics have been better with him on the floor. He deserves those minutes. Playing them both doesn't make sense.
What It Means
This was an answer game for the Celtics. They did not look focused in either Game One or Game Two. They got away with it in Game One, but could easily have gone into Philadelphia down 0-2 and really had only managed 24 minutes of good basketball in two games. Tonight they played with determination, effort, and execution for 48 minutes. Pierce went insane when they went down early, yelling and screaming every time he went to the hoop with a look on his face like he was out for blood. Philadelphia had a chance to take control of the series with a win tonight, but Boston imposed their will on them and crushed their spirit. How Philadelphia responds on Friday will say a lot about them because Game Two seems to have awakened the Celtics. They didn't look like they were taking the Sixers seriously in Games One and Two. Now they are into the series, and put themselves fully in control with a Game Four win.
Game Four tips off from Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center on Friday, May 18th, at 8 pm. The Celtics can take one more step in the right direction if they come up with a good effort on Friday.
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