The Celtics somewhat surprisingly pushed the pace in the first game of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Sixers on Saturday. Celtics head coach Doc Rivers had said twice in the lead-up to the game that if the game turned into a "track meet," the Celtics would probably lose, so it was strange to see the Celtics grab rebounds, quickly hand the ball to Rajon Rondo and dash up the court.
"Philly's Atlanta on steroids," Rivers said less than an hour before tipoff. "The biggest difference is, Atlanta wanted to run, but they also believed they could get it done in the halfcourt with guys like Joe Johnson. Philly really needs to run, so they're going to force it down your throat.
"If it's a track meet, it's not going to be good for us. We've got to turn it into a game that we dictate. That's hard to do, but that's what we have to do."
With that, the Celtics were able to successfully dictate the pace in Saturday's game, but the pace they chose seemed to resemble the track meet Rivers had said he wanted to avoid. The Celtics pushed the ball at every opportunity against the Sixers, finishing with a 14-13 advantage in fast break points.
In truth, the up-tempo style was exactly what Rivers had hoped for.
"Well, we wanted to run," Rivers said. "Whenever I say that, I'm talking about them. On our board, the first thing I wrote before we went out was, 'We want to run.' We don't want them to run, but we want to run every time."
Just as track meets feature different events, the Celtics were able to pace Saturday's game in a way that favored them. Whereas the Sixers use the fast break to generate transition layups and dunks, the Celtics used it to establish early position in the post for Kevin Garnett and open jumpers for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the secondary break. None of those baskets show up under the official fast break points statistic, but they were a product of the Celtics' running game nonetheless.
The Celtics went with a small lineup for extended stretches, teaming their five best players regardless of position for 11 of the game's 48 minutes. Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, Allen and Avery Bradley not only outscored Philadelphia by 11 points during their time on the court, but they were also Boston's best rebounding unit and registered assists on 10 of the 11 field goals they made.
Most importantly, they made shots. That grouping of Celtics was 11-for-20 from the field, cutting down on missed shots that would have led to fast break opportunities for Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young.
"They're really fast, especially when they go small, so you can't turn the ball over a lot," Pierce said. "They really take advantage of them, because four of the five guys that get it can push the ball. Iguodala's really fast. Jrue Holiday, Turner pushes the ball. It's hard to really keep them out of transition, so the thing for us is to execute, get a good shot up every time and get back on defense."
The Celtics readily admit they will not be able to keep up with the younger, athletic Sixers if the entire series is played at a breakneck pace. In that case, another track and field comparison may be appropriate.
The Sixers will probably win the sprints, but if the Celtics can place strongly in some of the distance and field events, they expect to win the team title. Best of all, it will not involve spandex or short shorts, and the shoes will be a lot cooler.
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