Marcus Hayes: Sixers should leave fear behind for Game 6

Spencer Hawes (left) and Elton Brand defend against Paul Pierce during Game 5. RON CORTES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Spencer Hawes (left) and Elton Brand defend against Paul Pierce during Game 5. RON CORTES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 24, 2012

IT COULDN’T last. Not for the Sixers.

The beauty of the game played by both teams Monday lay in the abandon with which each passed and caught and shot the basketball.

The Sixers lost the game when they lost their abandon.

The season will be lost Wednesday night if they don’t find that freedom again.

The Celtics won Game 5 because they were refreshed, yes, but also because they were confident in their capabilities. Similarly, the Sixers controlled the first portion of the contest because they played without a thought of failure. And then, they started thinking too much.

Wednesday night, playing with house money, the Sixers should roll.

It is equally encouraging and damning that former scoring threat Lou Williams acknowledged how the Sixers erased an 18-point deficit in the second half of Game 4:

“When you’re down [by 18], the basket gets bigger because there’s not really a lot of pressure on that next shot. Everybody just played like that.”

Encouraging, because it showed how well the Sixers can play.

Damning, because it illustrated why they have not yet played that well in the series for a full game.

“Everybody just played like that” in the first half of Game 1, which led to a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Then the Sixers tightened up, feared failure and, ultimately, failed.

“Everybody just played like that” until 8 minutes remained in the third quarter Monday.

Everybody should play like that Wednesday night, facing elimination.

Because they can.

Jrue Holiday, in the spotlight for the first time in his brief career, went play-for-play against Rajon Rondo until the Celtics’ killing run Monday. Holiday was effortless4-for-5 with one turnover and six assists at that point; after that, he attempted just one more shot, had just one more assist and turned the ball over three times.

Andre Iguodala was 3-for-7 with a dunk in traffic that should be his signature, and he had collected all three of his steals. Then he disappeared. He missed his last three shots.

Evan Turner started 4-for-8 then went 1-for-5.

“We have to get into our sets, and execute, which we didn’t do,” said Elton Brand.

Yes, the Celtics started trapping outside the three-point line, daring the Sixers’ guards to find the open forward … but too often the Sixers panicked, and turned the ball over; hesitated, and didn’t swing the ball around the perimeter; froze, when they had the shots the Celtics conceded.

Only Brand remained faithful to his ability.

Only Brand had a reason to turtle up.

Early in the third quarter Kevin Garnett fouled Brand, hard, on a fastbreak. It was the sort of foul that stuns even a healthy man, and Brand is not that.

Garnett wrenched Brand’s left shoulder backward, seemingly not coincidentally; Garnett knows Brand’s shoulder and neck are killing him. Brand landed on his butt, another jolt to his joint.

As Brand stood at the free-throw line, doubt creased his face. He shrugged his shoulders to loosen them. Would he be able to get the ball to the rim?

Barely. Miss.

He adjusted on the second. Swish.

Brand plays and practices with a taped left trapezius muscle. If you ask him a question from his left side, he has to shuffle a little to turn so he can catch your eye and answer. He is like a whiplash victim, minus the cervical collar.

Nothing alleviates the ache: not Advil or ice or electric stimulus.

“The pain is there. Constantly. Twenty-four/seven. It’s about regaining the range of motion,” Brand said. “I think it’s getting there.”

It got there Monday night.

After playing 16 minutes per game and scoring 4.3 points in the first four against Boston, Brand played 18 minutes in the first half Monday. He had 12 points, as many as he’d had in any two games combined since the injury happened early in the Chicago series.

He finished with 19 points. He shot 8-for-13. He scored seven of his points after Garnett clobbered him. He played 30 minutes. It was Brand’s best night of the postseason.

In a loss.

Because nobody followed him.

With Brand, either on the high post or the low, the Sixers’ possessions have a fulcrum. Their possessions last longer. Their cuts and their screens take on real meaning.

Without Brand, the Sixers’ post options shrink to zero. That means no double-teams, which means no kick-out passes to the perimeter, which means fewer spot-up jumpers. These days, almost everything comes off the dribble.

Simply, the Sixers need Brand on the floor, and they need him to be competent. How his shoulder responds to that hard foul from Garnett will spell the difference for the Sixers in Game 6.

Asked Monday if being slammed by Garnett aggravated the injury, Brand replied, “Not more than usual.” Ask him Wednesday if it hurts more now, and he will say the same thing.

He will be on short rest, so his neck will be stiffer than ever … but so will the ancient Celtics.

Once again, the door opens for the younger Sixers.

They should be feral in their desire.

And fearless in their play.

Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com

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