It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. The Celtics were 17-4, winners of their last eight games, and they rolled into the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia expecting to roll over a Sixers team that entered the evening 7-14. There wasn't supposed to be any need for late heroics — no 14 fourth-quarter lead changes, no dramatic final plays, no buzzer-beating shots.
But the Sixers scratched, they clawed, and they forced the Celtics to beat them on the very last possession. So the C's did.
"It was a gutsy win, man," said captain Paul Pierce. "It just didn't seem like we had it all night. We couldn't really get any consistent momentum throughout the game, we couldn't get any consistent flow. But like we've been saying, good teams find ways to win. That was an example right there — we won with our execution down the stretch."
More specifically, the Celtics won the game with the perfect lob pass from Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett, erasing a one-point Sixers lead in the final 6.6 seconds. Rondo had the ball in his hands for the final possession, he found Garnett on a mismatch with the smaller Jrue Holiday guarding him, and he hurled it halfway down the floor to Garnett for the game-winning lay-in with a second left. The Sixers had one last chance to win the game at the buzzer, and Garnett stole the ball from Holiday on the inbound to seal the deal. The C's survived with a 102-101 win.
Were the Celtics expecting to need last-second heroics in Philadelphia? Probably not. But they were prepared anyway.
"We worked on that play last week," coach Doc Rivers said of the Rondo lob to Garnett. "We tried to run it earlier this year, and the timing was a little off. It's just funny how things worked out. It's a low-clock play, the ball's in the best passer's hands, and you have shooters all over the floor. It worked, and it was good that it worked."
It was a play that might not have worked last season. To go off perfectly, it needed Garnett, with all his size, strength and speed, to be perfectly healthy. If he's a step slower or a tad weaker, the Celtics lose that game and their winning streak screeches to a halt at eight.
But the lob was in Rondo's arsenal, and Garnett gave the Celtics a win.
"We can do it now," Rivers said of the game-winning pass. "Last year, Kevin would have missed the lob, or we wouldn't have thrown it, number one. The fact that he can do that now is great."
"Not only his explosiveness and his body are back, but also his mentality," Pierce said of Garnett. "Just last year, when he was hurt, he just didn't have the same mentality, because I think the leg was frustrating him. Now he's completely healthy, and you can just see it in his attitude — on the court, off the court, it's amazing. He's proving a lot of people wrong right now."
The C's have needed everyone, not just a healthy Garnett and a brilliant Rondo, to build this nine-game winning streak. They've had a contingency plan for everything — when Pierce battles the flu, Glen Davis picks up his scoring. When Shaquille O'Neal goes down, Semih Erden mans the low post. When one guy can't bring it, another fills the void.
It was that kind of game, and it's been that kind of streak for the Celtics — even when things go wrong, the team has found a way to make them right.
"Things are going well for us," Rivers said. "We had foul trouble, and Paul was sick and played 39 minutes. We didn't have a lot of places to turn. It was just a good, gutty win for us. They played great, and we stole the win."
They've stolen a lot of them these days.
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