BOSTON - The tire tracks were still fresh on the backs of the 76ers last night after a 45-point drubbing by the fast, athletic Bulls the night before in Chicago.
But instead of rolling over against the hottest team in the league, instead of packing the bags and heading into the holidays without a care, the Sixers played rough and tough against the team that might be the best in the league at it, the Boston Celtics.
Elton Brand and Tony Battie battled with Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett as hard and as long as they could. The team, so satisfied with bad outside shots in Chicago, took the ball to the basket without trepidation.
At one point early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers had gone to the line 21 more times than the Celtics, 30-9.
Come the fourth quarter, though, Boston got back the swagger that had taken it to 13 straight wins. The Celtics were the ones who performed crisply on offense down the stretch. They were the ones who were able to get to the foul line and limit the Sixers on the offensive end.
They are the team that has a plethora of go-to guys when a basket is needed down the stretch.
They are the ones that won, 84-80, to grow their winning streak to 14.
"Against this team you have to be aggressive," said Sixers coach Doug Collins, whose team fell to 11-18. "This is a team that's very physical. You sort of have to hit them before they hit you, and I mean that in a good way. You've got to be able to create some contact and I thought we did that. Late in the game it sort of role-reversed there where they got to the line. Once we got in the penalty, it's so hard to guard them coming down the stretch."
In that final quarter, the Celtics made 12 of 14 foul shots compared to just one of two for the Sixers. The problem was plain to see: The Sixers don't have a real go-to player down the stretch and the Celtics have many.
With the Sixers down 82-80 and possessing the ball, they got the ball to Andre Iguodala (nine points), but his attempt to drive the ball to the basket was blocked. Ray Allen then hit two free throws to close out the third game of the Sixers' eight-game road trip that will continue on Sunday night in Denver.
"We ran and got the ball to him on the elbow, we turned and attacked and he got it to the rim," Collins said. "We got our best player the ball on the elbow, he got a step and got in the lane and stuff and after that I couldn't really see what happened."
To get an idea of just how difficult it is to match up against the Celtics defensively, consider what happened to Thaddeus Young late in the first quarter on three straight Boston possessions.
The 6-8 Young was first backed down by Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who outweighs him by 70 pounds. Next time down, Kevin Garnett, who has 3 inches and 35 pounds on Young, posted him up. Finally, in Boston's final play of the quarter, Allen, one of the best shooters in the game, nailed a step-back 20-footer.
That's just some of the firepower the Celts possess, and a big reason why they were able to pull out the win.
Still, after such a drubbing in Chicago, all were pleased with the bounce-back effort.
"That's more what our team is like," said Elton Brand, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out with 1 minute, 2 seconds remaining. "I know that [the Bulls] aren't 45 points better than the Celtics, and that's what we lost by [Tuesday]. It's disappointing we didn't come with it [Tuesday] and it's disappointing we didn't close out this win tonight. But we played strong and we played well."
Jrue Holiday, who has been struggling with his offense lately, scored 15 points and dealt five assists. Lou Williams (12) and Tony Battie (10) came off the bench to provide offensive spark.
Boston, which improved to 23-4, was led by Allen's 22 points. O'Neal added 13, Garnett 12 and Paul Pierce 11.
When the game was just about over, Pierce made his way toward the bench and produced a mock swipe of his brow. He knew the Celtics had come close to seeing that winning streak fly away like one of Santa's reindeer.
"We need to put everything together on a consistent basis," Battie said. "We have a very young team, led by a 20-year old [Holiday]. That's not a knock against him, we'll be OK. We're taking our lumps, but we're learning on the job."
They could learn a lot watching that team they played against last night.
Evan Turner, Marreese Speights and Craig Brackins did not play. Doug Collins said Speights had been sick all day and almost didn't dress . . . Darius Songaila and Jason Kapono were deactivated.
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