Almost always a sound defensive squad, the Celtics took their defensive energy to another level down the stretch of Game 1 against the Sixers. Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley delivered the highlight plays, but the entire unit helped shut down a Sixers team that had been somewhat surprisingly effective for most of the game.
"Our defense really picked it up there in the fourth quarter," said Paul Pierce, who shot only 3-for-11 from the field but whose biggest contribution was guarding Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala. "You know, they're a good team. You can't take nothing away from them. There's a reason they're here."
"Every time we'd take the lead, they'd make a run," Pierce added. "We just gathered ourselves and kept grinding, kept grinding."
More accurately, the Celtics ground down the Sixers. Jrue Holiday, the Sixers' leading scorer in the playoffs and one of their best clutch performers in the first round against the Bulls, missed three of the four shots he took in the fourth quarter and did not register an assist in the period. Evan Turner blitzed the Celtics with 10 points in the second quarter but was held to only four points in the second half and none in the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia shot only 8-for-21 from the field in the fourth and got outrebounded 15-8 as part of a second half in which the Celtics controlled the glass with a 28-16 rebounding advantage. Boston's late surge came after the Sixers pounced on the Celtics in the first quarter, taking an early 28-18 lead, and after Philly owned the first-half rebounding battle 25-17.
Defense has been the Celtics' hallmark since Doc Rivers became the coach, but they did it a little differently on Saturday. They countered the Sixers' desire to run by pushing the ball themselves on missed shots and turnovers, helping to make fast break points basically a wash at 14-13 in favor of Boston. Reaching 90 points qualified as a scoring explosion for both teams, yet both teams clearly played better on defense than offense.
The Sixers led 77-69 when Iguodala drove the lane for what would have been a back-breaking dunk, but Garnett stepped up, leapt and stuffed Iguodala's attempt at the rim. The Celtics outscored the Sixers 12-5 over the next seven minutes to take the lead at 83-82, before a jump shot by Spencer Hawes gave the lead back to Philadelphia.
Then Bradley came through with the defensive play that may have won the game. When a poor pass by Rajon Rondo led to a runout by Lou Williams down the right wing, the Sixers looked like they were sure to add to their lead. But Bradley bided his time on the left wing before timing his jump perfectly, going straight up to block Williams' shot and sending the ball back the other way for a jumper by Garnett.
There were still more than two minutes to play, and the Celtics' lead was only four points, but Bradley's play sent the message. This was the Celtics' quarter, no matter how much the Sixers wanted to claim it.
"You guys have got to understand that we're playing a very good team," Garnett said. "Very young, but I thought for the most part those guys hit us in the mouth in the first quarter, I'm not going to lie. As the game went on, we got good, and in the second half I thought we had more of a defensive mindset. We put some stops together and closed the game."
In a matchup of two defensive-minded teams, the Celtics came up with something in the fourth quarter that may have set a new standard, as well as set the tone for the rest of the series.