Celtics 96, 76ers 86

Celtics connect the dots

They put it all together despite Pierce's struggles

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 6, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA - They’ve been together for three years now, and the difference when all five starters are on the floor is obvious for the Celtics.

It can be seen when Rajon Rondo sets up high, knowing the defense is crowding him at halfcourt, and Kevin Garnett sets a screen to get him a free path to the basket over and over again. It wasn’t complex, it was chemistry. “Kevin set some great picks . . . I tried to take advantage of that,’’ Rondo said.

It could be seen when Kendrick Perkins smacked away Lou Williams’s 6-footer and Garnett sprinted the other way for an easy fast-break layup. It’s the kind of hustle that kills spirits, particularly for a Philadelphia 76ers team that went from playoff team to disappointment in a year’s time.

“You’re all the way at the basket, you think you’re free, and then this big guy comes and knocks your shot back out and it leads to a break on the other end,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “It’s tough.’’

It could be seen last night in a 96-86 win over the 76ers, when the Celtics’ starting lineup was intact for just the 38th time this season and only the second consecutive game. On a night when Paul Pierce scored just 7 points on 1-of-9 shooting, the Celtics had enough firepower to make Pierce’s performance a moot point.

Since losing to Cleveland and New Jersey, a low point in a season of ups and downs, the Celtics have won three straight. Much of the difference has been pride, but part of it is personnel.

“It’s only three games and it’s definitely against teams we should beat, but it’s a start,’’ Pierce said. “We’ve got 20-something games to go and we’re starting to build something from the playoffs.

“The sense of urgency is definitely there the last couple of games. I really like our spirit. I think that’s the main key, from start to finish, our energy has been there and we’re starting to get it together.’’

The team wasn’t completely healthy - Tony Allen watched from the bench in a black blazer and black jeans with a hip injury - but when Rondo, Ray Allen, Perkins, Garnett, and Pierce are assembled and able-bodied, there’s a trickle-down effect that makes everything more potent, from the stars to the bench, which provided a 29-point lift and built on a lead the Celtics were able to sustain.

“That’s what teams are,’’ Rivers said. “That starting unit is starting to grow again . . . but I’m not worried about the starting unit. It’s nice to have most of the whole team together. Your rotations are set. Guys have a better rhythm when they’re coming in and out. It’s been difficult this year because we haven’t really had that. But that’s the way it is.’’

Since the trade deadline, Ray Allen’s hand has been burning, and last night his 14 first-half points (he scored 16 overall) were the answer to the 76ers’ Elton Brand, who scored 14 of his 17 points before the break.

Garnett continued his revival, matching Williams’s game-high 22 points, going 8 of 11 from the floor and grabbing eight rebounds.

Rondo (16 points, 11 assists) almost single-handedly kept the Celtics ahead with a 14-point third quarter, passing up the jump shot and going hard to the rim for all his points, using Garnett as his bodyguard to the basket.

“That was huge,’’ Rivers said. “We were looking for something offensively because we just didn’t have anything going offensively that stretch. We ran two plays, basically, and Rondo was fantastic in them.’’

The Celtics found themselves trading baskets with the 76ers for stretches, but clamped down in the fourth quarter, not allowing Brand, Williams or Andre Iguodala (14 points on 5-of-12 shooting) to get anything more than a glance at the basket.

Meanwhile, Boston clicked, moving the ball around (24 assists on 35 field goals) and taking good shots (50.6 percent from the floor).

“When guys are healthy and we play the right way - sharing the ball on the offensive end, being in position on the defensive end - I think we’re going a pretty good job,’’ said Perkins.

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