Over the past five years, the Boston Celtics have developed something of a reputation for being one the most diligent, composed, veteran groups in the NBA, and they’ve got two NBA Finals appearances and one shimmering Larry O’Brien Trophy that suggest that their earnest attitude and enduring focus breed positive results.
But despite all of the Celtics’ talent and chemistry and the elevated levels of success that the trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have achieved since converging on Boston in 2007, the area where the Big Three has always, perplexingly, come up short is their ability to kick a team when it’s down.
Since 2008, the Celtics have had 23 opportunities to put a team away and clinch a playoff series, and in 13 of those games Boston allowed its opponent to force another game — or worse, end the Celtics’ season. That includes a 2-11 record in potential close-out games on the road.
That baffling absence of a killer instinct out of the East’s most generally unruffled team reared its ugly head again Wednesday in Philly, as the Celtics, with a chance to eliminate the valiant if overmatched 76ers, shot 33.3 percent from the field in an uninspiring 82-75 loss, setting up a decisive Game 7 on Saturday in Boston.
"I really just thought they outplayed us tonight," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who dropped to 36-35 in the playoffs since 2008. "They muddied it up with their defense and we muddied it up with our offense. It was a muddy game."
This failure to close isn’t necessarily anything new for the Celtics, who have stumbled in virtually every playoff series they’ve played since the Big Three first formed, but it never feels any less surprising to see a team of Boston’s caliber struggle with an opponent on the ropes.
In 2008, the Celtics lost a clinching game in three of four rounds on their way to an NBA title — one each against Atlanta, Cleveland and, eventually, Los Angeles — and in 2009, the Bulls forced a Game 7 in the first round, while Orlando rallied out of a 3-2 hole to eliminate Boston in the Eastern Conference semis.
Then in 2010, Miami scraped out a win in Game 4 of the first round before bowing out in Game 5, Orlando took Boston to six games after falling behind 3-0 in the conference finals and the Lakers rallied from down 3-2 to win 4-3 and prevent a second Celtics title in three seasons — easily the most painful collapse in the Big Three’s short history.
In the first round against Atlanta this year, Boston failed to finish off the Hawks in Game 5 before putting them away in Game 6. Now they’re at it again, dropping the ball with a series on the line.
"They were aggressive, but there was nothing that we haven’t seen for six games," said Garnett, who scored 20 points on 9-of-20 shooting in the loss. "We missed shots that normally we make. For some reason we had coverage problems tonight. This team is too good to do that against."
In the past, the Celtics have been able to recover and rally — let’s not forget, they’ve gone on to win 10 of those series after failing to close out the first time — but this year, in what might be the final run of the Big Three era, Boston may not be so fortunate.
Seemingly all of the Celtics’ weaknesses are the Sixers’ strengths, and though Boston has been able to adapt to this point, the situation in the locker room becomes increasingly more dire with each additional game forced upon the Boston veterans’ old, tired legs.
"They’re athletic, they’re young, they’re very fast, they play with a lot of energy, and it’s very difficult for our guys," Rivers conceded after Wednesday’s loss.
Certainly, having two full days off before taking the floor for Game 7 will work in the Celtics’ favor — they lambasted Philadelphia in Game 5, in the only other such situation in this series — but as their breath gets quicker and their feet start to move slower, you can’t help but wonder if they’ll be able to keep up with the eighth-seeded Sixers with their season on the line.
"We don’t want Philly to run, but we need to run, and the best way for us is to have a running game offensively and a slow-down game for them on the other end," Rivers said. "In the games we’ve won, we’ve done that, and in the games we’ve lost, we haven’t been able to do it."
Even if Boston finds a way to escape with a win in Game 7, it may already be too late to expect much more going forward.
For a team that is almost quite literally on its last leg, rest is invaluable, and in failing to properly handle Philadelphia — both in Game 4, when they blew an 18-point second-half lead and Wednesday, when they failed to even have a single player shoot 50 percent from the field — the Celtics may have spoiled any title hopes they thought they had.
A win in Game 6 would have given the Celtics at least two and as many as four full days off before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals — and that’s to say nothing of the two additional days they could have bought themselves with a win in Game 4.
Now, should they even advance at all, Boston will have one day off before opening up against either Miami or Indiana on the road. From there, they’d play every other day, huffing and puffing along the way, until someone — likely someone other than Boston — advanced to the NBA Finals.
But before they can worry about what the next round holds, the Celtics first have to complete the task at hand. And this time Boston has no choice but to do what it couldn’t do Wednesday and go straight for the jugular.
"It’s win or go home; confidence is very high," Garnett snapped when asked about Game 7. "We’ve been here before, we’re very experienced."
Unfortunately for the Celtics, in this case that’s part of the problem.