PHILADELPHIA – Lost in the soup of numbers and defenses and offensive sets scrawled across a dry-erase board in the Philadelphia 76ers' locker room there glowed but two words, scrawled by a coach, that might say more about this team than anything else right now.
What else would you possibly call it? The Sixers have not taken the Boston Celtics to a Game 7 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series with anything resembling precision. They don’t run perfect fast breaks or shoot sparkling jump shots. Their basketball isn’t beautiful. They really don’t have a great star.
But what they seem to have is youth and an ugly, wretched, grinding style that has allowed them to fight their way through three victories that might be some of the most awful basketball ever performed in the NBA playoffs in any year. And because of that they are a game away from stealing a series they should never have been in.
And if that isn’t angry basketball, what is?
“They’ve succeeded in the blowouts and we’ve succeeded in the scrappy games,” Sixers guard Lou Williams said late Wednesday as he sat by himself at his locker.
Then he smiled.
“I’d rather win the scrappy games,” he said.
Sometimes there is beauty in the ugly. Much of the basketball world seems put off by this Boston-Philadelphia series with its lousy shooting and countless turnovers. But what is wrong with a great defensive fight? Just because the scores aren’t big doesn’t mean the narrative hasn’t been compelling. And Philadelphia, the eighth seed in the East, is a game away from a conference finals series it could never have imagined.
“They are athletic, they’re young and they are very fast,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They play with a lot of energy and it’s very difficult for our guys.”
Rivers expected this. He repeatedly warned his players in the days before the series began. He kept telling them the Sixers were a bad matchup. He told them the Sixers would fight and claw and do everything to keep their season going. Now that he is on the brink of losing, he understood exactly how the Celtics got here.
“I think they know every game is going to be a grind,” he said of his players.
The Sixers are learning quickly about survival. Between Games 5 and 6, their coach Doug Collins showed them a video about the 1982 Eastern Conference finals. This was when Philadelphia lost an awful Game 6 at home and had to go to Boston with little hope of winning and playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Except the Sixers did win that year, beating the Celtics so soundly that the Boston fans implored their hated rivals to “Beat L.A.!”
The current Sixers seemed befuddled by the film, some said. It has been years since this rivalry has been relevant. But Collins was hoping to establish something with his players: He wanted them to understand the fight these playoff series need. He wanted them to appreciate what previous Sixers teams had endured. And he wanted to know if they had the same desire.
“It was to see how much they wanted to go back to Boston,” Collins said.
On Wednesday, the star of those great Sixers teams, Julius Erving, moved slowly through the locker room congratulating the players.
“It’s different,” he said in comparing this era to the one from his time. “These two teams aren’t the two best in the NBA now.”
But then he thought about the series that has wound to this point, with all the broken plays and missed shots, and he shook his head.
“Usually in the playoffs you don’t have beautiful basketball,” he said. “There are no surprises now. By Games 3, 4, 5 you know what everyone is going to do. In 6 and 7 it’s just a struggle to play ball possession.”
In a sense it’s a grind, and the Sixers are winning the grind.
The Celtics are a shell of the great champion of a few years ago. Ray Allen’s ankle is so sore he can’t get separation. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are slowed by their own aches. And point guard Rajon Rando has strange games where he seems to disappear like Wednesday when he shot 4-of-14 and had five turnovers.
This series should still be the Celtics'. Saturday’s Game 7 is on their court and that should matter for something. They also get an extra day of rest before the game. They should be healed. They should be ready. They should sense the last great run at a championship looms before them.
Still, they have run into a team that is no longer afraid of them. Williams said he and his teammates learned they could run their pick-and-roll against the Celtics and have success. He said it with the matter-of-fact tone that comes from belief.
Things may have gone too far for the Celtics to stop them.
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