Jrue Holiday paced the 76ers past the Celtics on Wednesday with 20 points to force Game 7 on Saturday.
PHILADELPHIA — The buzz at the start was for Allen Iverson’s ceremonial return.
By the end, more than 20,000 fans were on their feet and going wild for Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and the rugged-and-determined play that kept the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers alive for at least one more game.
Yes, the Sixers are talking about Game 7 — and they’re taking this improbable postseason run back to Boston.
Holiday scored 20 points, and Brand had 13 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Sixers to an 82-75 victory over the Celtics on Wednesday night that tied the Eastern Conference semifinals.
No team has won consecutive games in a series where neither team has played well enough to seize control. But the Sixers were good enough to win Game 6, improving to 5-0 this postseason in games following a loss.
“Game 7,” coach Doug Collins said. “That’s all we wanted was to win tonight and give ourselves a chance to go into Boston and see what happens on Saturday.”
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo could be playing their last game together Saturday night if they can’t find a way to hang onto the ball and put away a Sixers team that won’t quit.
Boston has learned three times already how difficult that can be.
The fun started when the not-quite retired Iverson earned a roaring standing ovation when he presented the game ball.
It ended with the song, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” blasting through the arena.
“I want more,” Collins said. “We’re going to get greedy. We want more.”
The Celtics posted ugly numbers across the board: Blame the loss on the 33 percent shooting, the 17 turnovers or the 3 for 14 3-point shooting. Either way, there’s enough to go around. Pierce had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Garnett had 20 points and 11 boards.
“We found a way to stay in the game, for the most part,” Pierce said.
They did because the Sixers again failed to put up the sparkling numbers in the box score usually required for a deep postseason run. They missed 8 of 9 3-pointers, shot a woeful 17 of 28 from the free throw line and had 12 turnovers.
But when the Sixers really needed that game-changing basket, there was Evan Turner twisting and fighting through defenders down the lane. When the Sixers needed a stop, there was Brand, ripping a rebound away from Boston, even with painful neck and shoulder injuries that keep him awake at night.
“When you get out there, you don’t feel much,” Brand said. “You’ve got the adrenaline flowing. You’re banging and fighting. That’s why Coach has confidence in me to play 34 minutes.”
The Sixers wrote “Huddle Up and Fight” on their locker room chalkboard.
They did just that and are now one win away from reaching the conference finals for the first time since 2001.
Iverson was the MVP of that run.
Maybe a little of that ol’ A.I. magic rubbed off in Game 6.
Unlike Game 5, when the Sixers collapsed in the third quarter and blew a lead, they suddenly found a groove in front of 20,403 fans.
The Sixers started hitting free throws, kept turnovers to a minimum (two), and fed the ball to a starting lineup that had been largely outproduced by a fantastic bench.
Turner was fouled on a go-ahead layup but missed from the line. That made the Sixers 5 of 13 while the Celtics were 14 for 14.
Iguodala split two defenders and threw down a ferocious dunk over Pierce to draw the foul. He made his first free throw after missing his first four and the Sixers led by five.
Pierce led the parade to the line for the Boston. He made his first 11 attempts for a Celtics team that was 17 for 17 through three quarters. The Celtics made only 19 field goals through three.
“We’ve got to move the ball and continue to play the defense that we’ve been playing,” Pierce said.
The Sixers also couldn’t find their way from the 3-point line and missed their first six attempts until Iguodala nailed one for a 58-52 lead.
Garnett caught some heat after calling Philly fans “fair weather” after Game 5 in Boston.
Well, the forecast called for thunderous cheers after Iguodala buried his 3.
That helped the Sixers take a 60-56 lead into the fourth and put them 12 minutes away from Game 7.
This time, the Sixers weren’t blowing a lead.
Turner, who never met a clutch attempt he didn’t like, went right-to-left on a drive down the lane for a nine-point lead. The 6-foot-4 Holiday brushed off the 4-inch difference and went high over Garnett for a one-handed bucket and an 11-point lead.
“Someone else was talking bad about our fans, so it was good to get this victory for them,” Brand said.
While the Sixers swapped shot makers on almost every possession, the Celtics never found that third and fourth option behind Pierce and Garnett.
“We never really established Kevin,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Even though Kevin had points, it wasn’t the type of points we needed.”
Rondo had tortured the Sixers over the first five games, but was limited to nine points (4 for 14 shooting) and six assists.
He’ll need to return to form at home for the Celtics to have a chance at avoiding the upset.
“It’s been a tough series. It’s down to a Game 7,” Garnett said. “We’ve played well at times, they’ve played well at times. But now, we’ll take it home and see what we can do.”
Iguodala and Turner scored 12 points. Lou Williams had 11 and the Sixers outscored Boston 42-16 in the paint.
“I just want our guys to play with no fear,” Collins said.
Collins had the Sixers watch a highlight video from Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. The Sixers blew a 3-1 lead in that series and were forced to win Game 7 at Boston to reach the finals — which they did.
Thirty years later, the Sixers get to try again.
Notes: Iverson cupped his hand to his ear and received the loudest ovation of the night. He watched the game from a suite and his eyes watered up when he was shown later in the game on the big screen as the crowd, thousands wearing a No. 3 jersey, went wild and chanted, “MVP!” Iverson posted on Twitter, “You can always come home again!!!” … Celtics assistant coach Tyronn Lue was famously stepped over by Iverson in the 2001 NBA finals. … Celtics G Avery Bradley (shoulder) sat out. Rivers said Bradley and Ray Allen are both considered day to day. … Collins was stunned Iguodala was left off the NBA’s all-defensive squad. Collins said Iguodala should have been “no worse than a second-team defender.” … Mickael Pietrus hit the only 3 of the half for either team at the buzzer to send the Celtics into the break ahead 36-33.
HASLEM SUSPENDED FOR TONIGHT'S GAME 6 VS. PACERS:
MIAMI — Udonis Haslem insists he meant no harm. The NBA deemed otherwise, and the Miami Heat will be without one of their co-captains when they try to close out the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night.
Haslem was suspended for Game 6 of the Miami-Indiana Eastern Conference semifinal series, a matchup where emotions boiled over in a runaway Heat victory on Tuesday night. The NBA also said Miami reserve center Dexter Pittman will miss three games in response to his flagrant foul against Indiana backup guard Lance Stephenson in the final seconds of Game 5.
Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough was not suspended, although the league upgraded his foul against Miami’s Dwyane Wade to a flagrant-2 on Wednesday — which, if called that way during Game 5, would have brought an automatic ejection. Hansbrough struck Wade in the head, opening a cut over his right eye. Moments later, Haslem committed a flagrant foul against Hansbrough, clearly in response to the play against Wade.
So while Haslem sits Thursday, Hansbrough may play.
“It’s very disappointing, obviously,” Miami forward Shane Battier said Wednesday night. “But we’re a resilient group. … The verdict process is a mystery to players, and so we don’t get caught up in it. We can’t control it. We know the NBA’s going to do what they feel they need to do and we need to live with the consequences. So it’s really out of our hands, not worth getting riled up. We’re going to put together an effort that will make Udonis and Dexter proud.”
The Heat lead the series 3-2, after a 115-83 win Tuesday night in a game that had the three flagrant fouls on the court, accusations of dirty play afterward and finally with Pacers team president Larry Bird telling The Indianapolis Star that his team was “soft” in Game 5.
“I agree with his assessment. We did play soft,” Indiana’s Danny Granger said Wednesday. “We got smacked around. We got beat up, we got bullied, and we really didn’t respond well.”
Countered Miami’s LeBron James, the NBA’s reigning MVP: “He’s just trying to amp them up. That’s all. That’s all it is. He knows his team isn’t soft. But with them, with their backs against the wall at this point, he knows what he’s doing. He’s not the executive of the year for no reason.”
Pittman logged only six minutes in the playoffs anyway, his presence in the postseason barely noticed until he laid out Stephenson — who made at least one choke sign toward James earlier in the series — with a forearm to the chin and shoulder areas.
“Hard fouls are part of the playoffs,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said Wednesday. “Fouls to the head have no place in this game, not by us, not by Miami, not by any other team in any other series. With all the concussion research that’s been going on over the last few years it’s a very serious matter and it just doesn’t have any place in the game.”
Wade sounded somewhat amused that Granger — who’s been whistled for three technicals in the series — was one of the Pacers suggesting Haslem and Pittman should be suspended. Wade and Granger have had words during the series.
“We’re not in here crying about the fouls,” Wade said. “They fouled us. … We’re moving on to Game 6. We’re not going to worry about what happened in Game 5. For us, it’s about moving forward.”
The Pacers may move forward without Granger, who sprained his left ankle in Game 5.
Granger was in flip-flops when Wednesday’s practice ended, saying he was on painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication. Stephenson, who had X-rays taken to rule out any fractures to his collarbone or shoulder areas, did not practice.
“In my mind, I’m going to play,” Granger said. “Elimination game, I have to play.”
Vogel sounded concerned, but optimistic.
“Very much hoping he’ll be available tomorrow,” Vogel said. “He’s a gamer. I’m thinking he’ll play. But his ankle’s pretty bad, so we’ll see.”
Vogel called Miami floppers before the series started, and it’s been gritty throughout. The teams combined to shoot 66 free throws in Game 1, and there have been a combined nine technicals and flagrants called in the four games since. Tension also increased after cameras caught Stephenson making a choke sign during Indiana’s Game 3 victory, and Juwan Howard confronting him about his antics before Game 4.
“It’s been a physical series, started by them,” Wade said.
And James said he doesn’t expect things to cool down when the Pacers try to save their season in Game 6.
“I always feel like in a playoff series or certain regular-season games that a team may be trying to go for me,” James said. “It’s happened. I’m not saying guys are playing dirty, but certain guys say, ‘You know, if you hard-foul LeBron, get him off the ball, he’ll stop being aggressive and things like that.’ I know when it’s happening and I see when it’s about to happen. I’m always in protect mode. I’ve been hard-fouled a lot.”
James said one of those situations happened in Game 5. Indiana forward David West — who left Tuesday’s game with what the team called a sprained knee, though he insisted Wednesday he was not hurt — took exception to a play where he was knocked backward, saying a Heat player fell into his knee. On that play, replays showed West was boxed out by Battier, but it appeared no one hit West in the knee area.
Not long afterward, West fouled James, who said he saw it coming.
“He was the one on the floor and I was the one still standing,” James said. “So I started laughing at that. But he tried to get me.”
West said on Wednesday that if Indiana wants to force a Game 7 in Miami, it simply needs to play better on both ends than it did on Tuesday night.
“You’ve just got to stand your ground. I think that’s the biggest thing,” West said. “It was unfortunate, the play at the end of the game on Lance. But we’ve just got to deal with it, man up, handle it — like I said, the best way you can, within the rules.”