A renewal of the Celtics-76ers rivalry seemed to be a few light-years away last night.
But Celtics coach Doc Rivers expects the gap between the teams to narrow much sooner than that, though Boston appeared to be performing in another galaxy during a 102-78 victory at TD Banknorth Garden.
"They are going to find their way," Rivers said. "Right now, they are just trying to find their way. When teams are doing that, you don't want to give them a break, you don't want to be the team that gets them going. By the end of the year, they'll be in there - they will. So, right now, they're not, and we want to take advantage of that."
The Celtics did just that, with a clinical defensive display and a third-quarter offensive surge, during which only three Celtics scored.
Ray Allen (23 points) led the way as the Celtics starters were allowed to sit out the final quarter for the fourth time in five games.
The Celtics (15-2), who will take a league-season-high seven-game winning streak into tonight's visit to Charlotte, regained their defense-first habits after struggling to a 119-111 victory over Golden State Wednesday. And that paid off in the Celtics' greatest margin of victory this season.
The Celtics had a 46-28 halftime lead, the lowest opponent point total of the season - 1 fewer than Detroit's first half Nov. 9.
The Celtics' defense was strong early, the Sixers failing to hit the rim in the first 2:13. The Sixers failed to convert from the field for a 5:48 span late in the first and early in the second quarter, the Celtics' 11-0 spree in the opening 3:29 of the second capped by Leon Powe's 3-point play for a 33-16 lead.
"I thought, defensively, we were more sound than I can remember," said Kevin Garnett (16 points). "We really wanted to make a mark. Philly's one of these teams that's definitely more improved, they're one of the dangerous teams in the East, and I felt like, defensively, we were connecting more than anything. And you saw it from the giddy-up, you saw it from the jump ball, in how we were pressuring the ball, how we got turnovers, and how active we were."
The Celtics upped the intensity even higher in the second half.
Only three Celtics scored in the third quarter, but the assertiveness of Rajon Rondo (4 points), the shooting of Ray Allen (15), and the inside play of Garnett (8) stretched the lead to 26 points. Garnett completed two 3-point plays off dunks in the final 1:59. Though Paul Pierce (season-low 6 points) was noticeably absent from the offensive show, he was conspicuously present defensively, drawing charges on successive possessions in the third quarter. The Celtics gained their biggest lead on a Tony Allen steal and dunk for a 79-49 edge, which would turn out to be the clinching points, 1:52 into the final quarter.
The only Sixer who seemed capable and/or willing to retaliate was Marreese Speights, who scored 12 points in the final quarter and was ejected for a flagrant foul on Brian Scalabrine with 43 seconds to go.
"They'll be fine," Rivers said before the game of the Sixers (7-9). "I'm not just saying that because they are our opponent. You just don't know. With some teams that make a lot of changes, they break out right away, with some teams it takes time. Denver and Detroit - Denver played well right away, Detroit will be great by the end of the year. By the end of the year, Philadelphia will be what we all thought they would be."
The Celtics, though, are already what they were a year ago. They have duplicated last season's record after 17 games and are on a 74-win pace.
"You know, 30 assists jumps off the sheet," Rivers said. "And they shot 41 percent, but a lot of that percentage went up in the fourth quarter. I thought the defense was - just deflections alone - phenomenal.
"So, when we get stops, we push the ball up the floor and run and share the basketball, we can be a good team when we do those things."