Once upon a time, the Celtics-Sixers rivalry was the fiercest in the NBA. From 1980 to 1987, either Boston or Philadelphia represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA's championship series. Four times during that span they met in the conference finals, each franchise winning two times. Their regular-season matchups always seemed "coincidentally" scheduled for the weekend, when it would be the NBA Game of the Week on CBS.
Overall, including the proto-Sixers, aka the Syracuse Nationals, these franchises have met 18 times in the playoffs, the most in NBA history. The Celtics have won 11 of the 18. They've met just once since the the salad days, in a 2002 first round matchup. So this will be the highest-stakes Celtics-Sixers playoff series since the era of Bird, Dr. J, Moses and McHale. Wake up the ghosts of the Garden and the Spectrum!
This season, the Sixers led the Atlantic Division for much of the lockout-shortened campaign while the Celtics floundered out of the gate. Eventually, the Sixers began to sink. Before Game One of Philadelphia's first round series in Chicago, someone asked Doug Collins what the difference was between his team's start and its finish. "It's called weaker opponents," Collins said. The reason Doc Rivers floated for Boston's slow start was a general lack of conditioning on his veteran roster, especially Paul Pierce. But his team got into shape and overtook Philly to win the division.
Collins was eventually able to halt his team's slide and the Sixers won four of their last five games of the regular season, and Philadelphia finished with its best winning percentage in nine years. Then of course came the first round upset of Chicago, which was partially fueled by the Bulls' injuries. But the Sixers played terrific basketball in that series, showing an attacking style that it hadn't featured all season. Meanwhile, the Celtics overcame some missed early steps to stifle the Hawks in the first round.
So here we are. Celtics. Sixers. Winner goes on to play for a berth in the championship series that once was the shared domain of these two marquee franchises. Both teams are playing at close to full health and are functioning on all cylinders. We didn't think we'd see this, but now that it's here, let's gear up for some classic playoff basketball.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.7 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
BOSTON Offensive Rating: 98.9 points per 100 possessions (24th NBA)
PHILADELPHIA Defensive Rating: 96.6 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
There are real questions about how effectively the Celtics can score the basketball against Philadelphia. In the first round, Boston's 95.0 Offensive Rating ranked 11th of the 16 playoff teams, while the Sixers' 92.0 Defensive Rating against Chicago was the third-best of the round. During the regular season, the Celtics managed just a 94.5 mark as Philly won two of the three matchups. However, the Celtics blew out Sixers out in Boston in the most recent game between the teams.
A key battleground will be turnovers. The Celtics have generally accepted a certain amount of turnovers as a necessary by-product of Rajon Rondo's playmaking ability and an overall emphasis on ball movement. Now that the Boston offense is far from elite, turnovers take on added importance, especially when they can fuel a Sixers' fastbreak attack that ran the Bulls dizzy in the first round. Just five teams posted a higher turnover rate than Boston in the regular season, though they did a pretty good job of protecting the ball against Atlanta. For the Sixers, it's more a matter of taking advantage of miscues than it is going overboard to force them, which is what we saw in their win over Chicago.
With the Celtics lacking post scoring and Collins putting an emphasis on taking away the three-point shot, expect to see lots of midrange jumpers in this series, for both teams. These two teams took more midrange shots than any other in the regular season. In first round, the only teams to take more shots from that zone than the Celtics were the Sixers and their opponent, Chicago.
Something to watch will be Jrue Holiday digging in to prevent Rondo's drive-and-kick game. His success in doing so will be a key to the series because it's going to be difficult for Pierce to create offense against Andre Iguodala. In two regular-season meetings (Pierce missed one of three matchups), Iguodala was on the court for 87 of Pierce's 91 minutes, during which the Sixers outscored Boston by 20 points. Pierce actually shot 54.5 percent against Iguodala, but got fewer shots and free throws.
WHEN PHILADELPHIA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.9 possessions per 48 minutes (24th NBA)
PHILADELPHIA Offensive Rating: 101.7 points per 100 possessions (17th NBA)
BOSTON Defensive Rating: 95.5 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
Philadelphia posted the league's lowest FT/FGA rate during the regular season and weren't really even close to 29th-ranked Golden State. The Sixers were the most conservative team in the league, choosing to methodically run through their sets which usually terminated in midrange jumpers. They didn't attack in the halfcourt, nor did they shoot well from beyond the arc. They did post the league's best turnover rate, but that lofty ranking comes with a certain amount of opportunity cost.
Boy did all that change in the first round, and it happened against a Chicago defense that was better than Boston's over the course of the regular season. Let's not too get carried away. It's not like the Sixers' offense was actually good in the first round. After all, their 96.5 Offensive Rating was just one spot above Boston's in the first round.
However, consider that at the league level, playoff offenses lost about three points per 100 possessions from the regular season during the first round. Philadelphia actually scored over a point per 100 possessions more than Chicago allowed before the playoffs. In context, the Sixers' offensive performance was actually very impressive against the Bulls.
Can they keep it up against the Celtics? On the surface, it's tempting to answer that emphatically in the affirmative. The Celtics operate with the same defensive principles as Tom Thibodeau's Bulls, and Chicago is younger and more athletic than Boston. The Sixers should be able to roll out the same game plan and once again score just enough to win, right?
Maybe, but we'll get back to that. First, let's look at what the Sixers did in the first round that was so remarkable. Against an elite defense that doesn't foul much, Philadelphia turned its league-worst FT/FGA rate into the fifth-best of the first round. Attack, attack, attack. And they did this while still posting the second-lowest turnover rate. Philly was third in fastbreak points per game and fourth in points off turnovers even though the Bulls didn't turn the ball over at an excessive rate. The Sixers were selective when they ran, but extremely effective when they did.
Philadelphia ability to turn defense into quick offense is going to be the key to whether they can hang in this series. It's not going to be easy because Boston doesn't crash the offensive glass, preferring instead to limit the very transition opportunities the Sixers will desperately need. It was Philadelphia's ability to limit Chicago's offensive rebound advantage while still leaking guys out into transition that gave the Bulls fits for most of that series. That's not going to be as much of a factor against the Celtics. The Sixers will have to get the majority of their transition points off turnovers, so defensive pressure will be key to Philadelphia's fastbreak offense.
If things get bogged down in halfcourt basketball, the games will be exceedingly ugly and low-scoring, and that will favor Boston. One of Philly's key halfcourt weapons in the first round was Spencer Hawes' ability step out and knock down the midrange shot, but Kevin Garnett will negate that. Avery Bradley and Rondo should be able to corral Holiday and Lou Williams, though Holiday has to stay on the attack. The Sixers have to stay aggressive and exploit their advantage in overall athleticism.
Now that the Bulls are out of the way, I think the consensus is that a Heat-Celtics conference final is the new inevitability. The Sixers-Celtics matchup is much closer than people realize. After all, the Sixers actually had a better point differential during the regular season. Philadelphia is playing inspired ball right now, while the Celtics sort of just survived an ugly series against a battered Hawks team. I'm seeing this as a long, brutal matchup that we'll remember for a long time. And I think the Sixers will find just enough offense to survive and disappoint network executives from coast to coast.
PHILADELPHIA in 7
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
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