BOSTON - Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins warned his team about the Celtics' third-quarter prowess this season.
Perhaps that advisory should have been extended into the fourth quarter as well.
Leading for most of the game and by as many as 10 early in the fourth, the 76ers could no longer contain Kevin Garnett or Rajon Rondo, who ignited a 23-7 surge to start the final quarter, helping the Celtics steal Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 92-91 victory Saturday night.
Game 2 is today in Boston.
"I think they're the top third-quarter team in the league this year and Coach really stressed that," Philadelphia forward Elton Brand said. "So when we pushed that lead back up to 10, it was just a feeling like we had a chance there."
Rondo had other ideas.
The fleet-footed point guard collected 17 assists, 13 points and 12 rebounds, notching his eighth career playoff triple-double. Six of those points, five assists and four rebounds came in the fourth quarter, fueling the late-game run with three long-range jumpers that turned a double-digit deficit into a six-point lead with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining.
"I think we shot ourselves in the foot. That's what you learn, pretty much," Sixers guard Evan Turner said. "We were up 13 a couple times, we weathered the storm, went back up 10, and just think we shot ourselves in the foot.
"Especially the Celtics, they're always going to fight. You just have to keep them down."
There's been no slowing Garnett lately.
The 35-year-old forward submitted another age-defying performance on the heels of one of his best all-around efforts in recent memory. On Thursday, in closing out Atlanta, he had 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and three steals. Less than 48 hours later, Garnett scored a season-high 29 and added 11 rebounds against Philadelphia, playing the entire fourth as Boston improved to 4-0 on its home court this postseason.
Garnett is averaging 20.1 points and 10.6 rebounds in the playoffs.
"We are going to ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off," Boston forward Paul Pierce said. "He understands the sense of urgency with this ballclub and he's giving it everything he's got out there for us."
Brand seems to agree.
"I think he's the hottest guy in the league right now," he said. "The closeout game in Atlanta and how he played last night? It was pretty amazing."
Andre Iguodala scored 19 and Turner added 16 and 10 rebounds for the Sixers, who became just the fifth No. 8 seed to win a first-round series against the top-seeded team when they knocked off the Chicago Bulls. Philadelphia took advantage of Chicago's injuries and took a 3-1 series lead before eventually capping the upset in Game 6 at home Thursday.
The Celtics are different, though - a sage squad seeking its third berth in the East finals over the past five seasons. Boston did not practice Sunday.
Philadelphia owned a 77-67 lead with 11 minutes to go before Rondo drained a pair of outside jumpers in a span of two minutes to hand Boston an 83-82 edge. Garnett later put Boston in front for good on a layup and Pierce and Rondo helped seal it with back-to-back jumpers.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers wasn't sure if his players had one last run in them. When they did, though, he wasn't surprised.
"It's funny, when we cut the lead the first time and then they pumped it back up to seven, nine . I didn't feel bad about the game," he said. "I didn't know if we were going to win or lose. I did feel like, mentally, our guys were still very much in the game, and, to me, that's a good sign."
The Sixers learned a valuable lesson, too.
"We played well, but they're a weathered team. They're a championship team," Brand said. "Most of those guys have been on a championship team, so they know how to execute. They know to finish at the end, which we've done better at, but that's what we have to do against this Boston team."