Celtics 102, 76ers 101

Celtics win tug-of-war with last move

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — The crazy part, Kevin Garnett said, was that the Celtics worked on it over and over again in practice, and Garnett messed it up over and over.

Still, with six seconds left in their fourth quarter tug-of-war with the Philadelphia 76ers, Doc Rivers huddled everyone up and called the play.

He scattered the usual array of shooters on the floor — Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Nate Robinson — but they were more or less accessories.

“I was a decoy,’’ Allen said. “But when the other team doesn’t know it, it’s, ‘Don’t leave me.’ There’s so many things going through a coach’s mind, like, ‘Oh [snap], what’s going to happen?’ Because anything could happen.’’

Rivers’s ideal “anything’’ was for Rajon Rondo to connect with Garnett.

On a lob pass.

The Rondo-to-Garnett oop has become one of the signature moves of the season, a sign of Garnett’s revival. Down by 1 with one chance at a game-winner, the Celtics simply needed it to work.

Rondo took the inbounds pass, Pierce and Garnett set screens, Jrue Holiday decided to switch to cover Garnett. At that point, Rondo knew he could pretty much do whatever he pleased.

He decided to heave the lob from some 25 feet out to Garnett, who had all of a 7-inch advantage on Holiday.

“Rajon just threw a perfect pass and I just banked it in,’’ Garnett said. “It’s only right that the basketball gods give it to me tonight.’’

After exploding into a playoff-worthy celebration, the Celtics walked off the floor with a 102-101 win, their ninth straight and their seventh straight at the Wells Fargo Center. In a way, it was a grand theft of a young Sixers team that had won four of five coming in, and for all but six seconds rose to the occasion of playing their one and only game televised by TNT this season.

“It’s just funny how things worked out,’’ Rivers said. “We just felt like we didn’t play great. We shot the ball great and in some ways stole the win. Players all know when you get away with one, and we got away with one tonight.’’

From the start, the Celtics were out of character, playing with a patchwork starting lineup, going with Semih Erden in place of Shaquille O’Neal, who was nursing a sore right calf and sat out his sixth game of the season. They gave up 32 points in the first quarter, the most they’ve allowed to start a game this season, and ended up trading punches until the final bell.

When Allen drilled a wide-open 25-footer with a little over a minute left in the game to put the Celtics up, 98-97, Andre Iguodala answered with a floater in the lane to put the Sixers back up. Glen Davis answered with a baseline pull-up to tip the scales again.

With 11.1 seconds left, Iguodala started at the top of the key, crossed right, and blew past Pierce for a layup to put the Sixers up, 101-100, with six seconds left. But with almost no hesitation, Rondo hooked up with Garnett for the winner.

Even though it worked, Rondo was still a stickler about it.

“We didn’t execute to a T,’’ Rondo said, tongue in cheek.

Garnett had 14 points, Rondo finished with 19 points and 14 assists, and Allen scored a game-high 23 points, scoring 7 straight at one point in the fourth quarter as the teams swapped baskets.

Rondo played 47 minutes, Pierce played 40, and Garnett logged 32. Davis scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench as the Celtics made due with a thin rotation.

“We’re beat up, man, we’re no different from any other team,’’ Garnett said. “We have key guys out. We’re trying to sustain and everybody’s going to have to play key minutes. I’m no different from that.’’

The Sixers were at the very least opportunistic, even if they fell just short. Seven Sixers, including all of the starters, scored in double figures. Jodie Meeks led the way with 19 points.

Iguodala finished with 14 points and 11 assists.

“What a heartbreaking loss,’’ said Sixers coach Doug Collins. “Our guys played so hard and so well. That Celtics team is good and well-coached. They have got so many different ways that they can attack you on the offensive end. It was just a shame. It would have been an incredible win for us.’’

The Celtics upped their road record to 8-3, tied with Atlanta for the best in the Eastern Conference. They’ve pieced together the wins all sorts of ways, from comebacks to blowouts, but getting one at the buzzer on the road was gratifying in its own way.

“You think about last year, we didn’t steal a lot,’’ Davis said. “And we got one today.

“We didn’t play as well. We didn’t rebound the ball the way we were supposed to. Philly was aggressive. And we wound up winning the ballgame because we stayed poised, did what the coaches asked us to do, and we believed.’’

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