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Phew: Sixers Win Game They Absolutely Had To, Take Care of Limping Celtics

Mar 23, 2012, 11:21 PM EDT

The Philadelphia 76ers started slow, but ended strong against their Atlantic rivals, holding onto their division lead and winning the season series.
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There was no real getting around it: This was as close to a Must-Win
game for the Sixers as they were likely to have this regular season. The
Sixers have been struggling so mightily to find their groove recently
that if they couldn’t do it at home, on National TV, against a division
rival missing a handful of key rotation guys…you’d have to start doing
a whole lot of wondering about this team in general. And from the first
two quarters, it looked like the New York game all over again—struggles
scoring out of the gate, inability to get momentum-building stops,
Spike Lee yammering from the sidelines
. (Maybe not the last one.) But
the second half saw the Sixers born anew, and they rattled off 37 points
in the third to put the C’s firmly in their rearview, winning 99-86.

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And wow, was that third quarter something. It was a reminder—our first
in a few weeks, at least—that when this team is sharing the rock and
playing free-flowing, up-tempo basketball, it can be one of the most
exciting and dangerous teams in the league. Elton Brand gets a lot of the
credit for being the team’s primary finisher in the quarter—he scored 12
in the third alone, ending with a team-high 20 for the game—and just
about everyone got into the act before the end of the quarter, Evan
Turner was making last-second dishes to Thaddeus Young under the
basket for easy twos, and even Lou Williams was finding an open Spence
for a jumper or two. (Williams provided the capper with an alley-oop
slam off a ‘Dre lob—forgot the Sour Patch could get up that high.)

[VIDEOS: watch Will Smith congratulate Doug Collins on his 400th win | watch Mickael Pietrus' brutal fall, get carted off on stretcher]

For me, though the lion’s share of the credit goes to Spencer Hawes,
whose ability and willingness to make the extra pass spread through this
team like a virus in the second half. He only ended with three assists
for the game, but he made at least three more brilliant passes to find
cutters and open men. I had forgotten what a luxury it was to be able to
run the offense through Hawes when he was healthy during the first
third of the season, and to have that weapon back at our disposal for
the last third could prove invaluable for Philly. Having Spence for more
minutes helps, as well—he played nearly 28 tonight after playing
between 19-24 in his first four games back from injury. (No Nik Vucevic
tonight, which resulted in an interesting amount of Tony Battie, a trend
we all hope not to continue.) 

It’s far from the Sixers’ most impressive win of the season—as
previously mentioned, the Celtics were undermanned to begin with,
missing starting two-guard Ray Allen and losing defensive ace Mickael
Pietrus to a terrifying head injury partway through the game, along with
all their other season-ending tragedies (Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox,
Jermaine O’Neal). But from a practical standpoint, it was one of their
most important—it keeps the C’s at bay, with a one-and-a-half game
cushion in the Atlantic, and it also pushes the Sixers to four games up
on the Knicks, who lost tonight to the lowly Raptors. Almost as
importantly, it means that Philly wins the season series (and thus the
Atlantic tiebreaker) against Boston, a key buffer for the Sixers in a
potentially close division race.

The other reason getting a win was so key tonight? Next up, the Sixers
head south to San Antonio for what might be their toughest non-Miami
matchup of the season against the 30-14 Spurs. Not that they can or
should dump that one now, but winning tonight takes a little of the
pressure off them for Sunday, and maybe even gives them a little
confidence and momentum (assuming both are real things and not just
inventions of Kenny Smith) going into the game. At the very least, The
Sixers can rest easy tonight knowing that one way or the other, they
will finish the weekend once more as princes of the Atlantic. Go team.