WALTHAM, Mass. — In the wake of their resounding victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the Celtics stressed the need to get out to better starts. Their blowout win was almost flawless, they said, if not for the forgettable first quarter.
The Celtics did exactly as they intended to do in the next game, running out to a 14-0 lead and leading by as many as 15 points in the first quarter Friday. Naturally, they ended up losing by nine.
The second round of the NBA playoffs has featured the curious trend of teams losing after building supposedly commanding leads early in games. Several teams, including the Celtics and Sixers, are proving the adage — to an extreme degree — that, "It is not how you start, but how you finish."
The Clippers built a 24-point lead in the second quarter of Saturday's game before losing to the Spurs 96-86. The Lakers led by 11 points in the first half Saturday and extended that lead to 12 points early in the third quarter before fading in a 103-100 loss to the Thunder. The team that led after the first quarter in the first four games of the Celtics-Sixers series lost every game.
These are not minor sprints out of the tip, either. There was nothing fluky about the Sixers scoring 33 points in the first quarter of Game 3, as their third and fourth quarters in Game 4 revealed. The Celtics led 14-0 three minutes into Friday's game, but such energy-fueled runs happen in every game. The sustained stretches of strong play, followed by lengthy stretches of poor play, are much more puzzling.
Teams make adjustments, as the Spurs did in the second and third quarters against the Clippers, but part of the explanation also may lie in the complacency that can set in when a team looks up at the scoreboard and sees a lead that seems to grow exponentially even with only a few minutes gone on the game clock.
"I think a little bit is human nature," Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "When you go up like that, you become complacent. It's just human nature, and I hate for it to be that way, but I saw it kind of slip away a little bit when we had a couple of off possessions. We got nothing out of our offense. We took the easiest shot available as opposed to working our offense. They went down and got call after call, they scored at the free throw line without the clock moving and now the momentum got on their side."
Not every player agreed with Allen's position. Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers cited the Celtics' emotional reactions to some physical play by the Sixers on Friday as evidence that their team lost its composure, rather than fell into a lull. Kevin Garnett noted the 36-19 free throw disparity in favor of the Sixers as a vital part of Philadelphia's comeback.
The timing of the runs — early, middle or late — therefore may be less important than the fact that the runs occurred at all. The Spurs did a better job Saturday of sustaining their run than the Clippers did, and that made a bigger difference than whether they made their run in the first or second half.
The Sixers' 24-9 run in the third quarter to pull within three points would not have meant much if they had not followed it with a strong final 13 minutes. After the Celtics pushed their lead back up to eight points, the Sixers outscored them 37-20 over the final 13 minutes, 20 seconds.
"There are going to be runs in games," Rivers said. "That's just what happens. The team that stops them the quickest will probably be the one that wins the series."
The answer may not be as simple as telling teams to start games poorly. By coincidence, though, it seems to have helped.