On basketball

Unrelenting defense flexed its muscle, too

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 17, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA - Doc Rivers showed how serious he was about his team’s defensive execution with 1:32 remaining in the first quarter Wednesday evening at Wells Fargo Center, shortly after another 3-pointer by Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday.

The former UCLA standout punished the Celtics with his long-range shooting in the 76ers’ Game 2 victory at TD Garden, and Greg Stiemsma left Holiday alone at the stripe to race back to cover Lavoy Allen. Holiday took a rhythm dribble and canned the 3-pointer for his 10th point; 21 seconds later, Stiemsma was headed to the bench in favor of Ryan Hollins.

Mistakes like that were unacceptable. The Celtics had to be meticulous on defense, paying attention to every detail. After that, they were.

While the offense was dominant for the first time since Game 4 of the first-round series with the Hawks, defense was the reason the Celtics coasted to a 107-91 victory in Game 3.

After the first quarter, the 76ers made just 20 of 60 shots, unable to shed the constant wave of Boston’s help defenders. Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner, who were so effective in the first two games, combined for just 14 points on 4-for-16 shooting.

For the first time in the playoffs, Philadelphia looked like an eighth seed, unable to react to the Celtics’ unrelenting defense.

“Strategically, we changed up some things and they worked out,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “They came out really aggressive. I thought for the most part we stayed in our strategies and I thought from every guy who played tonight, there was no hesitation but a lot of energy. And I thought our defense was really the reason that we were able to get some baskets and turned those stops and some of those turnovers into easy points and baskets and offense. And we rolled the momentum.’’

But it didn’t begin that way, and that’s what makes the effort even more impressive.

The 76ers burned the Celtics for 61.9 percent shooting in the first quarter, draining shots contested and uncontested. But the Celtics were creating a defensive identity not seen before in this series, and they did not allow fluke plays to discourage them, as they did in Game 2.

In the waning seconds of the quarter, the Celtics frazzled 76ers guard Lou Williams, who briefly lost the ball to Rajon Rondo. But Rondo couldn’t come up with the bobble cleanly, and Williams scooped up the ball and canned a 3-pointer for a 33-28 lead.

Rivers despises 30-point quarters, but this one wasn’t frustrating, because the Celtics were more aggressive and passionate guarding the ball.

“We stayed consistent with our strategy. We didn’t make many adjustments, they were hitting some tough shots,’’ Garnett said. “When Lou comes in the game, he’s probably one of the best individual players one-on-one in our game, we respect him a lot. He’s a priority, along with Jrue, those two guards are a handful. So we’re respecting those guys. Tonight, we stayed firm with the concept of what we wanted to do and we did it for four quarters.’’

The 76ers, home for the first time in the series, took advantage of the comfortable atmosphere and converted shots it missed at TD Garden, especially Thaddeus Young, who led them with 22 points after being a nonfactor in the first two games.

Holiday looked to be on the way to another stellar game, with 10 first-quarter points, including two 3-pointers. He was so troubling that Rivers decided to send two defenders at him each time he dribbled near the 3-point stripe.

The 3-pointer was a major factor in Philadelphia’s Game 2 rally, but this time the Celtics took away that weapon - unless it was a desperation heave at the end of the shot clock.

After that trey at the 1:53 mark of the first, Holiday did not score again until 7:49 remained in the fourth, a testament to the Celtics’ defensive emphasis.

The 76ers are a team that struggles with offensive execution, having finished 22d in the league in scoring. But the Celtics refused to pressure the ball in the first two games, allowing Iguodala, Turner, and Williams to create off the dribble.

There seemed to be a fear that those athletes would zip past Celtics defenders into the key for a layup or an easy dish to a big man. But when that happened in Game 3, Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand (showing his age) couldn’t convert.

The Celtics shifted the pressure to make plays from the Philadelphia swingmen to the big men, and it proved a brilliant move. Brand and Hawes finished 3 for 14, missing a series of short jumpers and layups, and drawing jeers from the fans.

Meanwhile, the offense fed off the defensive intensity, and for the first time in the series, the Celtics consistently made shots. The Philadelphia misses led to fast-break opportunities, and the Celtics scored 21 points that way, which allowed Rondo to orchestrate the offense.

“We got stops and multiple stops,’’ Rivers said. “And like I said before the series, we want to run. We got back and we allowed our defense to set and that was huge for us.’’

While the 76ers shot just 42.4 percent through the first two games, the Celtics knew they had slipped defensively in stretches. On Wednesday, they paid attention to detail from the beginning, and it was impressive.

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