Five Factors: Celtics-76ers Playoff Preview

We haven’t had a 76ers-Celtics playoff series in 10 years, so there is a whole generation of NBA fans who may not understand the historical significance of their Eastern Conference semifinal showdown: They once hated each other. This is the 19th playoff meeting between Boston and Philadelphia and should be just an intense as all of the previous matchups. The fourth-seeded Celtics appear to have an edge in experience over the eighth-seeded Sixers. But there is a fine line between experienced and old, and the C’s have to make sure they don’t cross it.

  1. 1. THE WALKING WOUNDED FACTOR: Neither team is at the optimum of health, although the Celtics appear to be worse off than the 76ers. Philadelphia’s only injury issue is Andre Iguodala, who has a sore Achilles tendon that didn’t seem to bother him when he played the entire second half of Game 6 vs. Chicago. Boston’s situation is more widespread, with Paul Pierce (knee), Ray Allen (ankle) and Avery Bradley shoulder all nursing injuries. In Game 6 vs. Atlanta, Pierce had trouble coming off downscreens and Allen had difficulty keeping up with Kirk Hinrich; imagine the trouble he will have with Philly’s quick guards.
  2. THE DEFENSE FACTOR: The Celtics were last in the NBA in rebounding this season, for a number of reasons. One is coach Doc Rivers’ desire to have his team retreat after offensive sets and set its defense, which ranked first in opponents’ field-goal percentage and second in points allowed. It has been no different in the postseason, and that must continue against the Sixers, who look to run at every opportunity to compensate for their mediocre half-court sets. Philadelphia’s defense also is outstanding, ranking third this season. The Sixers rely on their quickness in rotations and playing the passing lanes to get into their transition game. Expect plenty of games in the 80s – or even lower.
  3. THE FRONTCOURT FACTOR: Who would have thought that the most effective center in the postseason would be Boston’s Kevin Garnett? Injuries forced the long-time power forward to move to the pivot, where he has been outstanding, averaging 18.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks vs. Atlanta. Meanwhile Brandon Bass’ playoff production of 9.0 points and 5.7 boards has been better than either of Philadelphia’s tandem of Elton Brand (8.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Thaddeus Young (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), each of whom has to be better in this series if the Sixers want to stay with the Celtics, who have a big advantage here. Philadelphia runs a lot of its offense through center Spencer Hawes, who had a pair of strong games vs. Chicago and appears to be back to his early season form. Both teams can go small, but the Sixers would be the quicker team in that scenario.
  4. THE BENCH FACTOR: This is where Philadelphia has an edge, because most of Boston’s bench is injured or starting. Sixers coach Doug Collins marginilized the minutes of rookie big men Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen in the first round, but his bench still includes sixth man extraordinaire Lou Williams and Young. Don’t be surprised to see Sam Young take a turn on Pierce now and again. The Celtics have made a reserve out of Allen, whose conditioning should improve as this series progresses. Mikael Pietrus needs to be more of a factor than he was vs. Atlanta (1.7 ppg), and bigs Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins aren’t doing much besides boxing out and fouling.
  5. THE ENDGAME FACTOR: Celtics coach Doc Rivers is among the best at drawing up late-game plays, partially because he has so many weapons at his disposal in Garnett, Pierce, Allen and playmaker Rajon Rondo, forcing defenses to stay honest instead of keying on a singular go-to guy. The Celtics also don’t rattle in the clutch and simply run their stuff as well as any team in the NBA. The Sixers’ shortcomings in close games have been well-chronicled; before their clincher over the Bulls, they were 1-8 in games decided by four points or less. They usually go to Iguodala or Williams as playmakers, but a better option may be 6-7 Evan Turner, who often has a size advantage when he plays alongside Iguodala and draws an opposing guard. It would be a surprise if Philadelphia wins a game in this series through its late-game offensive execution.

PREDICTIONS: 

 SHERIDAN: Celtics in 4.

HUBBARD: Celtics in 5.

HEISLER: Celtics in 5.

BERNUCCA: Celtics in 6.

HAMILTON: Celtics in 6.

PERKINS: Celtics in 6.

ZAGORIA: Celtics in 6.

PARK: Celtics in 5.

 

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