Continuing to make the most of a good thing, the Boston Celtics used their strength inside tonight to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 106-98, in Game 2 of their NBA Eastern Conference finals series.
Although the Celtics' lead never was greater than 10 points, often fluctuating between four and six, the defending champions were in total control throughout the second half as a result of their play in the low post. Larry Bird led the Celtics with 24 points. Kevin McHale had 22 and Robert Parish scored 13 with 16 rebounds.
Tonight's game hinged on the opening moments of the third quarter. Down by 52-46 at the intermission, the Celtics got seven points from Parish in the first 2:42 of the second half to pull to 58-55.
Continuing to push the ball inside, they scored five consecutive free throws to move in front for good at 60-58. "We were awful on offense in the first half, but that third quarter showed that what offense is about is patience," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said.
It also showed what a bind the 76ers, now down two games to none as they prepare for two weekend games at home, are in against the defending champions. For most teams, the approach against the Celtics is to concede the outside shot to guards Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge while trying to stop the team's big inside players.
So far in the series though, Ainge and Johnson have succeeded on shot after shot from outside, forcing Philadelphia into a more conventional defense. That accomplished, the Celtics forced the action down low, where they have a distinct height advantage.
Tonight, the 76ers took one more shot from the field than the Celtics and outrebounded them, 47-44. In addition, the Celtics shot only 42 percent from the field to 45 for the 76ers. The difference? Boston took 37 free throws, making 32 of them. Philadelphia shot 24 times from the line, making 18.
In the decisive third period, one in which Boston outscored Philadelphia by 32-18, 14 of those points came at the foul line. Six of them were by Johnson, who ended with 22 points.
"As soon as one guy gets hot, they put their biggest guy on him," said McHale. "We try to find someone else, but, if our guards are hitting, that puts a lot of pressure on their big guys."
Jones agreed. "If they are going to double-team us, Danny and Dennis are going to throw some down," he said. "If we don't hit the outside shots, they are just going to be all over Robert, Kevin and Larry."
In that aspect there's little that the 76ers can do. "If you try to take away something, then you have to give something up," guard Maurice Cheeks said. "If you have to let something beat you, I'd rather play the percentages of them hitting their outside shots."
Speaking of percentages, in NBA history, only four teams have won a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games. The last was the Portland Trail Blazers, against Philadelphia in the 1977 title series.
In addition, the Celtics have never lost a series in which they held a 2-0 lead. But despite those long odds and the toll being exacted upon them so far, the 76ers remain surprisingly calm.
Game 3 will be in Philadelphia Saturday afternoon.
"The home court has meant something this year (each team won three times on its court during the regular season) and I hope that doesn't change," said Cheeks. "It's paid dividends for Boston."
"We still feel good," added back court mate Clint Richardson. "There are still a few areas we're still getting beat at, like loose balls and rebounds. But if we correct them we'll be in good shape."