As Celtics forward Brandon Bass took the podium after his team’s Game 5 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, he couldn’t help but feel a little anxious.
After all, this wasn’t where the seventh-year veteran with a career playoff high of 19 points was expecting to be fielding questions following a crucial postseason game. Not as an afterthought on a team that features future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo as main attractions.
"It’s the first time for a lot of things," Bass said with a hearty laugh after the 101-85 victory, which gave the Celtics a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series. "That’s probably why you see all these beads on my forehead, because I’m a little nervous."
But Bass, the former Hornets, Mavericks and Magic reserve making his 39th career postseason appearance, had every reason to be under the hot lights on the main stage while his superstar teammates took questions in the crowded locker room. Because it was his 27 points — including 18 in a masterful third quarter — that led the Celtics to the victory and, perhaps, saved Boston’s season.
Early on, it looked like the Celtics were still stuck in the doldrums of their Friday collapse in Philly. After blowing an 18-point second-half lead in Game 4, Boston was sorely lacking in energy — mirroring the energy of the late-arriving TD Garden crowd — and allowed the Sixers to shoot a scorching 54.8 percent in the first two quarters.
"We weren’t right in the first half," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his team’s 50-47 halftime deficit. "I don’t want to get corny, but it was like, the Celtic spirit — it wasn’t there. … It was one of those games where we needed something to ignite us together."
Then they found the spirit in the form of 27-year-old Bass, who, frankly, is one of the last people you’d expect to provide the spark the Celtics needed. Bass played all 12 minutes of the third, hitting 6 of 7 shots while knocking down all six free-throw attempts as the Celtics rallied to take a nine-point lead heading into the final period.
"I thought we had a good grip of the game — I really did," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "And then it went downhill quickly."
Bass hit three jump shots in the quarter and also slammed home three uncontested dunks to light a fire under his sagging teammates — and particularly Rondo, who had seven of his 14 assists in the quarter, four of them coming on Bass buckets.
"I just thought he kept the game simple in the second half," Rivers said of Bass. "He didn’t try to do too much; he just let the game come to him, and he trusted his teammates by throwing an extra pass to Rondo and Rondo throwing it back."
The lead expanded to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter behind four more points from Bass, five points from Pierce and seven from Rondo, but unlike the last game, Boston didn’t let up and moved one step closer to clinching the series.
"Everybody collectively came together," said Allen, who scored just five points despite the absence of Avery Bradley and is averaging just 9.9 points per game for the playoffs. "As a unit we were all in sync defensively. We kept them from scoring, were able to get into transition and were able to make some good plays."
Many of those plays were coming from Bass, who finished the game 9 of 13 from the field in 37 minutes and became the fifth Celtics player to lead or tie for the team lead in scoring in a game this postseason. And the turn in the spotlight was a welcome change of pace for the bulky forward after averaging 10.1 points in less than 30 minutes during the first 10 games of the playoffs.
"The biggest difference was his energy," Rivers said. "I thought he went after rebounds, he played with a force, and I just thought he let himself go. … I think to be a great playoff player at some point, you’ve just got to let yourself go to the team and just play and everything will take care of itself. I thought he played very free tonight, and now we have to keep him there."
If they can, it will only mean good things for Boston. Performances like Bass’ are just what the Celtics will require — to prove that there’s more to their success than the Big Three and Rondo and that they can get consistent efforts out of their lesser-known players, too — if they want to continue on possibly the final playoff run of an immensely successful era.
"We need different guys on different nights stepping up," said Pierce, who scored 16 points. "A lot of times, they’re going to collapse on me, Rondo, KG, and there’s opportunities for other guys to take advantage."
It certainly won’t be likely, or even necessary, for Bass to break out again as the Celtics try to wrap up the series Wednesday in Philadelphia. But solid performances out of complementary players — like Greg Stiemsma, who scored 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting, and Mickael Pietrus, who helped limit Andre Iguodala to just eight points — only serve as further validation of the Celtics’ overall talent and their viability as a title contender.
"I haven’t really thought too much about it, but for me it’s just hard work," Bass said of what led to his breakout game, which was arguably the best of his career. "My motto is ‘God, grind, greatness,’ and grinding is what got me to this point."
And if he and the rest of the supporting cast can keep it up, more greatness could be in the Celtics’ very near future.