By A.Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON Uh-oh. Here we go again.
The Boston Celtics' double-digit lead in the third quarter was trimmed to just a handful of points.
And then, they did something we haven't seen them do much of lately when put in that predicament -- fight back.
The lead was soon pushed back to double digits as the Celtics steadily pulled away for a 99-82 win over Philadelphia Tuesday night.
We've seen the Celtics (54-23) deliver some masterful performances this season, with Tuesday's win ranking among their more complete performances.
"We ran up against a team that played probably as well as they've played in a long time," said Sixers coach Doug Collins.
Although the final score doesn't speak to how close the game was for most of the night, there was little doubt about which team was better.
And while much of the talk leading up to the game centered around it being a playoff preview - if the players were today, these two would meet in the first round - Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't see his team's win being any kind of statement-like victory.
"Not at all," Rivers said. "I just think we won today, and they lost, and they're going to watch film and we're going to watch film. But it's a good win."
Especially when you consider the second-half slump that has engulfed this team far too many times lately, was never an issue.
In the third quarter, a jumper by Kevin Garnett gave the Celtics a 63-50 lead, their largest of the game at that time.
The Sixers responded by scoring 10 of the next 11 points to cut Boston's lead to 64-60.
Lately, that was the kind of run that set up an even bigger run by Boston's opponents.
But rather than continue to slump, the Celtics surged ahead by closing out the quarter with an 11-5 run to take a 75-65 lead into the fourth.
"It was nice, and we did it while subbing," said Rivers. "So to me that was even more important."
Paul Pierce, who had 18 points - all coming after the first quarter - echoed similar sentiments about the Celtics' strong play to close out the third quarter.
"We had a better sense of urgency, coming out of that time-out with 3:59 to play in the third," Pierce said. "The last couple games, we built up 10-point leads and teams got right back in to it. We did a better job of holding the lead, and being a little bit more solid."
Fueling Boston's strong play was Rajon Rondo, who continues to play at a level we haven't seen since the start of the season when he was among the top players in the NBA.
On Tuesday, he had a near double-double of 12 points and nine assists by halftime before finishing with 16 points and 13 assists for his 30th double-double this season.
"He was just aggressive, attacking and shooting," Rivers said. "You can see, he's getting himself ready for the playoffs."
And it wasn't just his scoring that gave the Sixers problems.
After Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday had 11 points in the first quarter, Rondo was part of a Celtics defense that kept him scoreless for the rest of the game.
For the game, Boston limited the Sixers to just 39.3 percent shooting, which included just 31.8 percent in the fourth.
"It started with Rondo," said Kevin Garnett, referring to Boston's strong play defensively. "He started to put pressure on the ball and I thought it just trickled down. I thought when we needed to get stops we got stops. multiple stops. After that, it was pretty much over."
And so now the Celtics move on to where they'll face the Chicago Bulls, yet another opponent that they might see at some point in the postseason.
Chances are at some point in that game, the Celtics will be have a lead and have it challenged by the Bulls who sit atop the Eastern Conference standings.
But Boston comes into that game off a night when as the game got tight, for a change, they didn't.
"Hopefully we can play a lot more games like this," Pierce said. "Just try to finish off the season on a good note."