PHILADELPHIA -- You can blame the officials. Or the Celtics' stagnant second-half offense. Or the turnovers. Or the second-chance points. There's no shortage of potential scapegoats following Boston's 18-point collapse during Friday's Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
But give Philadelphia some credit, too. Down the stretch, it stepped up and made shots against Boston's half-court defense, something that teams don't do very often -- in the playoffs or otherwise.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 76ers shot 50 percent from the floor (11-of-22) against Boston's half-court defense in the fourth quarter, including 3-of-5 beyond the 3-point stripe. After averaging a mere 0.57 points per play in half-court situations over the first three quarters while shooting just 25 percent and turning the ball over eight times, the Sixers averaged a whopping 1.16 points per play in the half-court set in the fourth quarter. They scored 29 of their 33 fourth-quarter points in half-court sets, and didn't turn the ball over at all.
The Celtics' goal this series has been to limit their turnovers and prevent transition points. They have often noted they feel like they can win games by forcing the 76ers to play against a typically stout half-court defense.
But fueled in part by the momentum of Philadelphia's 18-point comeback -- which the Celtics certainly aided with turnovers and fouls -- the Sixers stepped up late and made tough buckets, even when Boston was able to set its defense.
"They made some shots; I give them credit," Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo said. "They made a lot of big shots down the stretch. They outworked us on a couple of possessions and got offensive rebounds. They played hard. They kept fighting. It was a good team effort from Lou Williams to Thaddeus Young to the [Lavoy] Allen kid -- and [Andre] Iguodala hit those two big 3s. They played well as a team."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said the Celtics didn't do anything schematically different down the stretch, but they did give the 76ers confidence in the second half.
"You think about it, our defense didn't really change," he said. "[The 76ers] did make some shots down the stretch and that was more because their confidence was sky-high at that point, but they got second shots, they got loose balls, and they forced turnovers. They got out on the break and they got easy baskets, and they got to the foul line. To me, that's what allowed them to score."
Nine of Philadelphia's fourth-quarter points came off 3-pointers, and six more came at the charity stripe. Maybe most frustrating for Boston, 12 of the remaining 18 points came in the paint, as the 76ers were unafraid to attack Boston's small lineup under the basket.
Meanwhile, the Celtics generated just six of their 20 fourth-quarter points in the paint. Even as the lead disappeared, they were content to keep shooting jumpers. The team was a cringe-worthy 11-of-35 shooting -- 31.4 percent -- from the floor after the intermission.
Paul Pierce knows Boston's offense went cold, but he put this loss where it belongs: on the team's defense.
"I really don't blame it on the offense," he said. "If you look at it, defensively, we gave up 28 and 33 points in the third and fourth quarters. Regardless if we score  and 20 points, our defense should be able to win the game. Our defense didn't come through. We weren't rebounding the ball, we didn't play at a high level in the second half. We allowed them to get into rhythm, gave them free throws, gave up the 3, and then turned the ball over."
This is the second time in four games that Boston's defense has relented in the fourth quarter. You'll remember that Philadelphia made its final five field goals, and its final six free throws, over the final four minutes of Game 2 to escape with that win in Boston.
Philadelphia's ability to generate late-game buckets is a big reason this series is tied at two games apiece as it returns to Boston for Monday's Game 5.
The Celtics have thrived in the playoffs in large part because of their late-game defense. It wasn't the only reason they lost Game 4, but it was a big one.
The Celtics often say they're a defense-first team, and the defense is the first thing they need to tighten up moving forward if they're going to win this series.