Saturday, May 12, 2012

Celtics-Sixers Preview

Iguodala is one of the best wing defenders in the league,
but he won't be able to shut down the Truth
Tonight the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will square off at the TD Garden for Game 1 of what is shaping up to be an intriguing postseason matchup.  These divisional rivals, meeting in the postseason for the first time in a decade, couldn't look more different on paper.  The Sixers are young and deep, but lack a true superstar (Andre Iguodala is the closest thing they have to one, and he averaged 12.4 points per game).  On the other hand, the Celtics are calcifying before our eyes, but have three surefire Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, as well as an elite point guard in Rajon Rondo.  But despite these differences, they play the same brand of basketball, relying on elite defense to compensate for their so-so offenses.

I've already covered the Celtics rollercoaster season in this space before, so I'll spend some time on their opponents.  The Sixers used their youth and depth to enjoy an 18-7 start while other teams were still getting in shape and learning to play together.  Their strong play turned a lot of heads in the early going, and they found themselves on top of the Atlantic Divsion for the majority of the season as the Celtics and Knicks struggled. But then they got dinged up; Spencer Hawes missed a good chunk of time, Elton Brand regressed after a strong bounce back campaign last season, and Iggy always seemed to be fighting through an assortment of minor injuries.  That, combined with Jrue Holiday's maddening inconsistency and a tough schedule, helped Philadelphia fade during the second half, finish third in their division and make the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 35-31 record (Interestingly it looks like they severely underperformed this season, as their expected win-loss was 43-23). 

Matched up with the Chicago Bulls in the first round, Philadelphia seemed destined for an early exit. Nobody, myself included, gave them much of a chance against the top team in the East, but they caught an enormous break when Derrick Rose tore his ACL during the Bulls Game 1 win.  His absence changed he entire complexion of the series on a dime, and the Sixers capitalized on their good fortune by blasting the demoralized Bulls in Game 2 to even the series at one game apiece as the series shifted back to Philly.

So with Chicago already playing shorthanded, Joakim Noah's sprained ankle in Game 3, another Sixer win, sealed their fate.  Noah did not return, and with him went his elite defense and the Bulls' interior presence.  Philadelphia took Game 4, and for all intents and purposes the series was over.  The Bulls, as predicted, made a stand in Chicago to take Game 5 and emerged on top in a game that was 35-26 at the half and saw Philadelphia shoot just 32 percent from the floor.  Back in the City of Brotherly Love for Game 6, Chicago took Philly to the wire and nearly forced a Game 7. The Bulls were clinging to a three point lead with 25 seconds left when Thaddeus Young got to the rim (would he have if Noah was still patrolling the paint?) for an easy two and Noah's replacement, Omer Asik, was hacked and bricked both his free throws.  Andre Iguodala attacked the basket in transition, drew a foul with 2.2 seconds left, and knocked down his freebies to clinch the series (only the fifth time an 8 seed has ever gotten the best of a number one seed in the first round, and it happened last year too when Memphis upset the Spurs).

So now the Sixers have advanced beyond the first round, something they haven't done since 2003 aka the Allen Iverson era.  Meanwhile, Boston has made it at least that far every year of the Big 3 era, losing only in 2009 when Kevin Garnett was out (forcing Rivers to give Brian Scalabrine far too many minutes) and last season, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh steamrolled them on the way to the Finals.  They have much more postseason experience, and by this point they've pretty much seen it all.

This series is sure to feature close games and defensive minded, grind 'em out slugfests.  Philly has the better bench, but the Celts have the superior starting five.  I give the Celtics the edge on offense, but the two defenses couldn't be more evenly matched. I'm confident that Boston's offense will be able to do just enough, even with Pierce banged up and Allen slumping, and that Philadelphia's lack of a go-to scorer will hurt them in crunch time.  The Sixers really struggled to put the ball in the hole against the Bulls, and the Celtics will be just as stingy.  For what it's worth, the Sixers won the season series 2-1, and all three games were blowouts as Boston lost by 32 and 13, but won by 24.  Doug Collins and Doc are both great coaches, so they essentially cancel each other out.

My prediction: Celtics in six

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