PHILADELPHIA — Rajon Rondo sat on a bench in the visitors' locker room at the Wells Fargo Center, wearing only a towel around his waist and a glazed expression on his face. He looked like a player whose team had just given an opponent new life in a series that should be all but over.
Rondo leaned on his knees and sighed, then leaned back and rubbed his face with both palms. The victory was right there, as was a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, yet it unraveled in a haze of free throws, technical fouls and turnovers.
"We let one slip away," Rondo said later, after he had dressed and taken the podium.
Rondo and the Celtics received more proof Friday that the Sixers do not plan to fade quietly in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. Two days removed from a dispiriting home loss and trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, the Sixers stormed back to win 92-83 and tie the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
Another rout looked to be in the works when Avery Bradley split a pair of free throws early in the third quarter to give the Celtics a 49-31 lead. But over the next eight minutes, the Sixers pounced on several Celtics misses and continued a steady march to the free throw line, outscoring the Celtics 24-9 and closing the gap to three points.
Given something to cheer for, the fans raised their voices and waved their team-issued rally towels to boost the Sixers the rest of the way. After Rondo flipped in a layup to tie the game at 83-83, the Sixers reeled off nine straight points to end the game. An efficient all-around performance by Paul Pierce, who scored 24 points on 8-for-13 shooting in addition to getting two blocks and two steals at the defensive end, went to waste for the Celtics.
The significance of the shift in both the game and the series was not lost on any of the players, especially the Sixers.
"No matter what people say as far as, 'It's not over 'til it's over,' being down 3-1 is a total different mentality than being at 2-2," said Sixers forward Andre Iguodala, who scored Philadelphia's first five decisive points immediately after Rondo's basket. "It could swing either way, so it was pretty much a must-win for us. Our psyche is a little different, but we still have to stay humble. I feel like they gave us their best shot in the first half, but we crawled back in and got it."
The Sixers' run included four technical fouls. Elton Brand picked up a tech three seconds after Kevin Garnett was whistled for one, and Ryan Hollins and Spencer Hawes shared a double technical later in the quarter.
The chippiness favored the Sixers, who were losing at the time, because it woke up the crowd from the malaise created by the double-digit deficit.
"Coming out of halftime, really I thought they just came out and became more physical," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And we got into that instead of playing basketball, quite honestly. I thought we lost our composure, and once we did, we really never returned to playing basketball the way we played in the first half."
Nearly every aspect of the stat sheet illustrated the Sixers' success is executing their game plan, from the 52-38 rebounding advantage to the 17 forced turnovers to their plus-17 free throw disparity.
Most of the Celtics players did not bother to look at the box score, though. They knew what happened. They were there. They recognized the opportunity they let slip away, and how a series they should have total control of is now equally in the hands of both teams.
"When you're on the road, you've got to really put the knockout punch to the team when you've got them down," Pierce said. "We just didn't do that."