BOSTON - If all the 76ers wanted from Game 5 against the Boston Celtics was a decent chance to take control of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics certainly provided it Monday night with a lackluster opening half in which the Sixers easily could have put some distance between the teams.
The Sixers failed to do that, however, and paid the price in a dreadful second half as the Celtics took a three-games-to-two lead and now can close out the series Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Celts are old and aren't what they were a few years ago, but they are not going to hand out too many chances to young teams trying to knock them off, particularly those that play as poorly as the Sixers did in the second half.
By the end, when both coaches emptied their benches and the Celtics romped away with the 101-85 win, the only question was whether the Sixers will be able to recover for a Game 6 on their home court. The season and the series would suggest they are a resilient team too young to let anything like a stray whupping bother them.
"It's going to be tough," coach Doug Collins said, "but every game has been tough. I thought we had a good grip on the game tonight - I really did. But it went downhill quickly."
They have bounced back before, never more so than in Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center when they not only put a bad beating in the previous game behind them, but didn't let an 18-point second-half deficit deter them, either.
So, figure the Sixers will play and also guess that the Celtics might not have the same legs in the second half that they had Monday night. The series resumes after just one off day instead of the two that preceded Game 5. That's a bright spot for the Sixers, and they need all they can find.
"All season long, we've stepped up to the occasion," forward Elton Brand said. "We know what we have to do, but in this game we didn't do it."
Well, they did it for a while, shooting 55 percent from the floor in the first half and outrebounding the Celtics, particularly on the offensive boards. What they didn't do is what cost them, however. They didn't get to the foul line, which would become a game-long theme.
For the night, Boston shot 33 free throws and the Sixers shot 16. Collins got a technical foul after another whistle went against the Sixers late in the going, but that was probably just the result of cumulative anger. In the first half, as the Sixers were trying to build a lead that could withstand a decent run by Boston, they were outscored, 9-1, at the line and their lead, despite great shooting and pretty good defense, was only 50-47.
"I thought we played phenomenally in the first half and only had that three-point lead to show for it," Brand said. "In the second half, we couldn't stop them from making a run, and turnovers hurt us again."
No, actually, turnovers killed them, particularly in a stretch midway through the third quarter when they gave the ball away five times in the space of six possessions and let Boston score 10 straight points.
In a way, it wasn't fair, because who expected Brandon Bass of the Celtics to channel his inner Larry Bird during an amazing stretch that would result in Bass outscoring the Sixers all by himself in the third quarter? Bass burned Thaddeus Young for most of it, but the Sixers really came apart as a team, not in individual sections. They fumbled away the ball, took bad shots, and couldn't keep up with the frenetic pick-and-roll game that Boston point guard Rajon Rondo dictated in that big run.
"We weren't right in the first half; you could just feel it," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "I told the other coaches, 'We've got to find a way to get through this half and then try to gather them back.' We were able to stay in striking distance. I felt there was a chance early on that they could stretch out the game if we didn't get it right."
That chance was definitely there, but whether it was because they didn't get the foul calls or because they didn't stop the Celtics often enough, the Sixers let the Celts hang around and then saw the consequences.
This Boston team, built around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, is 8-0 in Game 5 of playoff rounds that were tied, 2-2. What happened Monday night is nothing new. What happens next is the key. Boston isn't so dependable at closing out a series.
And it can't be a coincidence that its best second half came after getting two days off.
"Oh, it isn't a coincidence," Rivers said.
The Sixers get one more chance to surprise Boston with their energy and enthusiasm, and the Celtics hope they need only one more game to trump that with experience. Boston gave the Sixers a chance on Monday night, but, just like grumpy old men, the Celtics took it right back and didn't look so old when they did.