BOSTON - All season long, through ups of a 20-9 start to the downs of pretty much the remainder of the season, when the team went 15-22, 76ers coach Doug Collins talked of growth, of maturity.
Wins and losses were more about lessons at times than they were about the season's record.
Thursday at TD Garden in Game 2 against the Boston Celtics, Collins' team had a severe mental growth spurt in the fourth quarter, staving off a patented Boston rush and grinding out an 82-81 win that evened the Eastern Conference best-of-seven semifinal series at one game apiece.
It was fitting that so many of their young players contributed late in the monumental win. With the game tied, 65-65, and 4 minutes, 4 seconds left, the Sixers had the ball out of bounds on the side with just .9 seconds on the shot clock. The inbounds pass went to Lavoy Allen, who banked in a lucky 22-footer for a two-point lead.
"When Lavoy hit that shot I thought that maybe we had a shot to win because baskets were had to come by," said Collins.
After Avery Bradley hit a three-point jump shot to put the Celtics up by 72-71, and another collapse down the stretch seemed probable for the Sixers, Jrue Holiday nailed a three-pointer with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining. That shot was matched by Ray Allen at the other end on Boston's next possession for a 75-74 Celtics lead.
Evan Turner, who was having one of the worst games of his NBA career to that point, drained a tough driving layup with 40.4 seconds left and a 76-75 lead.
The Sixers would never trail again and return home to the Wells Fargo Center for a Game 3 meeting on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
"Our young guys keep growing, and now they're becoming men," said Collins. "Our guys are growing up and in Boston Garden and playing the Celtics and the greatness this team is, for our guys to just scrap through this game tonight . . . We just found a way. Everybody who came in gave us a great effort. All season long we couldn't win these games, and now they believe they can do it, and it's fun to watch."
When two of the better defensive teams in the league play each other, offensive artistry isn't expected to be at its best. Monday proved that - and then some. But the Sixers were were a little less ugly, particularly during the third quarter when they outscored Boston by 10. And the defensive effort put forth by Allen on Kevin Garnett, who finished with just 15 points, 14 below his Game 1 total, was impressive.
"Lavoy Allen was great," said Collins of his rookie, who posted 10 points and eight rebounds in 30:21 of play. "We tried to put some strength on [Garnett]. We tried to take away his rhythm shots.
"They do such a great job of getting you strung out and throwing back to him, and all those shots he catches in rhythm and he just doesn't miss. So, really, it was trying to disrupt the efficiency and the timing just a little bit. And our guys were able to do it. We made him work hard for his points tonight, and that was critical."
Holiday led the team with 18 points, while Andre Iguodala, who again did a stellar job on Paul Pierce (seven points) defensively, finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Turner finished with 10 points, six rebounds and five turnovers.
"We've just got to take it one game at a time," said Pierce. "It is what it is, I can't change it. We got our work cut out for us. They took the home court advantage now. We got to try to find a way to get one or two wins in Philly."
Boston's offense was especially dreadful during the 12 minutes of the third period as they missed 13 of their 17 shots, gave the ball away seven times and got beat on the boards by 15-10. It was a far cry from the third quarter of the series' opening game when Boston did the bulk of its damage during a 21-4 run.
Iguodala and Elton Brand combined to score 13 of the team's 21 points in the third, both capitalizing on mid-range jumpers given to them by the Celtics.
This one, however, was all about the defense. After getting torched by the ageless Garnett in Game 1, the Sixers and Allen did a great job of taking him out of the game.
"I think we play some of our best basketball on the road," said Collins. "We had to win on the road to get into the playoffs. I think we have a comfort level now."
It's just another part of the maturing process.
Post-game video reaction