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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Slowly -- finally -- 76ers learning how to win in the clutch

BOSTON -- Surprise, surprise. The Philadelphia 76ers, a team that has failed so many times in late-game situations over the last two years, out-executed the veteran and battle-tested Boston Celtics in a nail-biter playoff game.

Scoring 17 points on their final nine possessions, the Sixers stole home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference semifinals with an 82-81 victory in Game 2 at TD Garden on Monday.

In an intense environment, there were several moments when it looked like the Celtics had delivered the blow that would finally knock out their opponent. But the Sixers answered every challenge and evened the series by beating the Celtics at their own game.

"Our young guys keep growing," Philly coach Doug Collins said afterward, "and they're really becoming men."

Considering the Sixers' recent history in close games, the result of Game 2 was downright shocking. This is a team that was 7-17 in games decided by five points or less in the regular season. This is a team with no go-to scorer. And this time, the opponent wasn't the Rose-and-Noah-less Chicago Bulls. This was the vaunted Celtics, with the 17 banners, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers.

But there were the Sixers, making countless big plays in the game's final minutes, most coming from their youngest and least-experienced players.

Third-year guard Jrue Holiday answered a Ray Allen three with one of his own with less than two minutes to go. Second-year guard Evan Turner had two huge buckets in the closing moments, including an incredible drive and finish in the final minute. Turner and third-year guard Jodie Meeks each went 2-for-2 from the line to seal the victory.

The prime example of a young Sixer stepping up under playoff pressure is Lavoy Allen, the 50th pick in the 2011 draft. With veterans Elton Brand and Thaddeus Young struggling in the first two games, the 6-foot-9 rookie has become a major factor in the series on both ends of the floor.

Allen had one of the biggest buckets of the night, putting his team up two in the final minutes with a 20-foot heave that barely beat the shot clock. The play was a bit of a miracle. Many would call it lucky. But it typified Allen's contributions in the first two games of the series, where he's acted as a release for the Sixers' offense.

With the Celtics' defense pressuring the perimeter, the rookie has found open spots on the baseline and has rewarded his teammates for getting him the ball. He's shooting 9-for-14 in the series, including 5-for-7 from outside the paint. Where Brand and Young have failed, Allen has flourished.

In Game 2, Allen was just as important on defense. He pushed Garnett off the block, anticipated his post moves and contested his shots. Garnett is the leading scorer in the series, but has done most of his damage against Brand and Spencer Hawes. He has shot 14-for-19 with Allen on the bench, and just 5-for-13 with Allen playing.

Game 2 was a one-point game, but the Sixers outscored the Celtics by 21 points in Allen's 30 minutes on the floor.

"He's one of those under-the-radar guys coming out of the Draft," Andre Iguodala said of Allen. "When you put them in a position to just do their job, they excel. And he's definitely giving us a boost."

Allen is the guy that ESPN ranked 500th out of 500 players in their preseason rankings. After a solid rookie season and a couple of big games against the Celtics, Allen clearly can't be considered the worst player in the league anymore.

So what are we to think of the Sixers now? Entering this series, the Celtics had been dominant at home, winning 16 of their last 17 games. But Philly came a Game 1 possession or two from winning here twice in two tries.

Collins points to his team's April 21 victory in Indiana as the breakthrough game in terms of late-game composure and execution. The Sixers lost a fourth-quarter lead in that one, but made some big plays in overtime to beat a good team on the road.

Iguodala feels like the Sixers' first-round experience -- they won in Chicago in Game 2 -- was critical as well.

"I think the Chicago series really set us up for this series," Iguodala said, noting that the Bulls and Celtics were the top two defensive teams in the league. "We're keeping our composure, keeping our confidence. And it's going to be grind-out games."

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