PHILADELPHIA — Elton Brand sat before the microphone Wednesday night, shoulders slightly hunched beneath a sharp-fitting suit jacket. He has held a similar posture after every game of the Sixers' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics, but in the last two games the pain has been much less evident in his bearing.
What is unclear is whether that is because the soreness in his neck has truly gone away, or because the pain is merely lessened by his playing well.
Brand has suffered through a neck injury in the playoffs that forced him to see a chiropractor and has limited him to 9.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. In the last two games, though, the veteran power forward rediscovered some of the forgotten talent that garnered him a rich free-agent contract with the Sixers in 2008. He scored 19 points in the Game 5 loss in Boston and came through with 13 points, 10 rebounds and participated in strong team defense against Kevin Garnett in Game 6 on Wednesday.
"Elton Brand, he was our Ace of Spades [on Wednesday]," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "Just the heart of a lion. What he does for us as a team is amazing."
Fans may never see Brand's impact as anything more than millions of dollars down the drain. He has never averaged better than 15.0 points or 8.8 rebounds (often considerably lower in both categories) in four seasons in Philly. He has more than $18 million left on his contract after this season, and reports indicate he could be a candidate for the NBA's amnesty provision. Under that provision, he would be waived and still paid his full salary, but that money would not count toward the Sixers' salary cap figure.
Contract concerns are irrelevant at the moment, however, with Game 7 looming on Saturday night. Brand, along with Lavoy Allen and a trapping Sixers defense, has helped hassle Garnett since The Big Ticket's huge Game 3. Garnett was held to nine points on 3-for-12 shooting in Game 4 and toiled for a tough 20 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6. Garnett got his numbers in that game but never facilitated a flow in the offense, as he did early in the series and throughout the first-round series against the Hawks. Garnett shot 9-for-20 from the field on Wednesday and attempted only two foul shots.
"He's been playing so great in this series, we're just trying to limit his easy shots," Brand said of Garnett. "Twenty field goal attempts, 20 points. A shot per point for any guy that shoots a lot during the game, that's what you want."
Garnett's effectiveness against Brand has fallen off in the playoffs, even though their teams' playoff matchups have been far closer than their regular-season matchups. The Sixers trounced the Celtics in two of their three regular season meetings, yet Garnett posted a per-36-minute scoring average of 25.2 points when Brand was on the court. In the playoffs that number has fallen to 16.8 points per 36 minutes.
Both players are almost certain to be pushed beyond 36 minutes on Saturday, of course. In a win-or-go-home Game 7, it would not be surprising to see both Garnett and Brand play 40 minutes or more.
Just a few days ago, though, it seemed doubtful Brand would be capable of playing even 20 minutes in a given game, and effectively at that. It is now difficult to imagine the Sixers winning this series without him.
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