Forget the "philosophical differences" that led to Jim O'Brien's departure last January.
The coach's ability to coax players into competing until the end of the fourth quarter produced the only difference that mattered at a soldout FleetCenter last night. With a comeback reminiscent of O'Brien's days in Boston, the Philadelphia 76ers rallied from an 18-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat the Celtics, 98-95.
In a final bit of dramatic irony, O'Brien had to watch a last-second 3-point attempt by Paul Pierce hit the back of the rim before he could celebrate his first victory with his new team. Meanwhile, his former players were not surprised by what transpired in the season opener.
"They're going to play until the end," said Pierce (35 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists) of the Sixers. "They're not going to give in. They easily could have given in once we got up, 15, 16 points, and the crowd got into it. But you know, a Coach O'Brien team, like when he was here, they're going to keep fighting until that final buzzer sounds, and that's what they did."
As new Celtics coach Doc Rivers walked off the court at the end of the game, he swiped at the air with his right fist and said, "Damn," cursing the one that got away. Rivers knew the Celtics let a win slip from their grasp by losing focus and deviating from what worked when they opened the third quarter with an 18-2 run. The players thought the turning point came at the end of the third with the starters on the bench for a rest, leaving players such as rookie Al Jefferson and second-year point guard Marcus Banks on the floor. Rivers called the switch to younger players at the end of the quarter "a mistake."
But Rivers could not envision how the move would reverse momentum, or how Boston would struggle from the floor in the fourth quarter. The Celtics took an 83-71 advantage into the final period, then proceeded to go 3 for 17 from the floor. They missed four 3-pointers. They missed layups. They even missed 5 of 11 free throws.
Sometimes they didn't even make it to the rim or the line. The Celtics committed four turnovers that led to 7 points for the Sixers in the fourth. Overall, Boston committed 19 turnovers that led to 26 points for Philadelphia. Another 19 points came on second-chance baskets. Rivers did the math, the Sixers scored 45 of their 98 points because the Celtics struggled on the glass and failed to take care of the ball, and he was not happy.
But for all the Celtics' faults, the Sixers deserve some credit for shutting down Pierce and Co. while starting the fourth with a 14-3 run behind a pair of 3-pointers from Kyle Korver. The spurt made it a 1-point game (86-85) with 8:40 remaining. Boston stretched its advantage back to 6 points with free throws and a 20-footer from Raef LaFrentz. Then, a 3-pointer by Willie Green with 3:35 left gave Philadelphia its first lead since the second quarter, and the Sixers never relinquished it.
"The most important thing is that we had a sense of urgency," said Sixers guard Allen Iverson (30 points, 6 assists). "We knew that if we didn't buckle down and try to make things happen, make the defense [work] collectively as a group, then we didn't have a chance to win it."
It wasn't urgency, but energy that brought Boston back from a 14-point second-quarter deficit (38-24), not to mention key contributions from Pierce and Walter McCarty (10 points, all in the second). A 3-pointer by McCarty as the buzzer sounded pushed the Celtics ahead, 53-51, at the break. With the exception of a layup by Mark Blount (12 points, 8 rebounds) and 3-pointer from Ricky Davis (both off assists from Gary Payton), McCarty and Pierce accounted for the final 19 points of the second quarter. But the contributions of Davis should not be overlooked.
Boston began to cut into its double-digit deficit behind Davis. First, Davis sliced between two defenders for a dunk. Then, the small forward drove for a layup, drew the foul, and completed the 3-point play, allowing the Celtics to close within 38-29 with 7:51 remaining in the second.
But in the end, staying ahead proved more difficult than coming from behind.
"It shows us we've got a lot of work to do," said Davis (14 points). "We've got to be able to take the blow and keep playing, keep ticking. That's something we didn't do."