On basketball

Their play is the thing

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 25, 2012
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There is no reason for the Celtics to be embarrassed about their current state. Plenty of championship-caliber teams - if that’s what they are - struggle with lower seeds during playoff runs.

Saturday’s Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers will serve as an opportunity for those on the roster who have faltered so far to make amends, and for the Celtics to rid themselves of an opponent that eventually will be an Eastern Conference power if things progress as expected.

This series is a classic case of old versus young, where the young takes chunks out of the old’s psyche and pride, exposes the old’s warts, and uncovers the issues that will eventually lead to change. But that’s for later.

The Celtics have proven they are the better team, outplaying the 76ers for most of the series. That means little going into a Game 7 except that the Celtics should be confident that if they are able to execute, stay focused, and hit open shots, they will be headed on to the conference finals.

The offday Thursday should have served as a day of reflection for the Celtics, who abandoned their game plan in Game 6 seemingly moments after Philadelphia coach Doug Collins made some defensive adjustments. Brandon Bass attempted to repeat his Game 5 achievements but found playoff consistency more difficult than he expected.

The 76ers’ defensive approach on Ray Allen has officially changed, which may be a testament to Allen’s decline. They allowed him to shoot, waiting until he made consecutive shots to honor him with a permanent defender, and that never happened.

Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo is taking a lot of blame for his performance in Game 6, but he shouldn’t accept the responsibility if his teammates aren’t hitting shots as they did in Game 5. On countless occasions, he set up his teammates with scoring opportunities and they blew them. With a chance to build a lead before halftime, the Celtics shot 0 for 10 in a 4:18 stretch.

Rondo was responsible for one of those misses.

If anything, the Celtics can be encouraged by the fact that they played their worst game of the series and still had an opportunity to win. Kevin Garnett, whose jumper had abandoned him since his 27-point performance in Game 3, found his groove near the end of Game 6.

“We found a way to stay in the game for the most part,’’ said Paul Pierce. “Being aggressive. I thought we attacked all night trying to get to the bucket.

“The outside shots didn’t fall, but that’s the makes and breaks of the game. We got a lot of good shots from Kevin, a lot of good shots from Brandon, a lot of good shots from Ray. They just didn’t fall.

“We’ve got to go back and look and see what we could do better. I thought Rondo was aggressive to the bucket and that’s what they’re giving him. I think we’ve just got to move the ball and play the defense that we’ve been playing.’’

What the Celtics can’t do is get lost in the moment, because they have been here before, with Game 7s against Atlanta and Cleveland in 2008. They are not supposed to panic in this situation. They are not supposed to consider the repercussions of losing and turn it into even more of a pressure-packed situation.

Game 7s are part of the playoff landscape. This is a series about matchups, and the fact is, the Celtics were robbed of their athleticism when Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox were shelved with heart-related issues, replaced by Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins.

Stiemsma and Hollins are giving the Celtics their best, but there was a reason why Stiemsma was languishing in the D-League and why Hollins was released by the Cavaliers.

With a patchwork lineup, Doc Rivers is almost working wonders. Mickael Pietrus has been strong defensively but a nonfactor offensively. The Celtics are handicapped when they try to give Pierce, Allen, or Garnett some rest and counter with no capable scorer.

Pierce was the lone Celtic who could walk away from Game 6 feeling he had played to his potential, and he still missed six of 11 shots.

The Boston defense has held Philadelphia to 42.5 percent shooting, the Celtics are a poor second half in Game 4 from having won the series. A day of reflection and a hard day of practice and adjustment should provide a more positive approach for Game 7.

And they should feel positive, because they have been here before, and they are capable of so much more than they displayed in Game 6.

“Game 7s are nice to have at home, but you’ve got to go get it still,’’ Rivers said. “You’ve got to go play. You can’t rely on we’re at home.’’

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