76ers Celtics

Sixers edge Celtics with (surprise!) balanced offense

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The Philadelphia 76ers’ 92-83 Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics may be remembered for many things: altogether brutal offensive play, defensive flurries, or even a pair of huge Andre Iguodala makes in the closing minutes of a game where points were precious.

Or, more realistically, this is exactly the kind of game that might be swept under the playoff rug altogether. Our basketball memories don’t exactly cling to these 48-minute slogs, and though this was a crucial win for a Sixers team fighting for the possibility of a potential upset, it was ultimately the kind of contest that holds more weight in narrative worth than it does in strategic or aesthetic relevance.

And if this game really is destined to be forgotten in the playoff mass, I only ask that a few important footnotes be worked into the total playoff tales of these two battle-hardened clubs. Friday night brought no revelation or reinvention, but if we cast a light on certain spots, it did offer bits of valuable affirmation.

  • The Sixers, scoring in balance: As mentioned above, Iguodala (16 points) was able to dole out the killing blows, but his late-game success provided a stark counter to his early ineffectiveness. The same could be said of Evan Turner (16 points), who was slow to start but ultimately instrumental. Or Lou Williams (15 points), who orchestrated the offense to startling effectiveness in the second half. Throw in Thaddeus Young (12 points), who functioned as the Sixers’ most productive big, and Jrue Holiday (11 points), and Philadelphia managed five double-digit scorers in a game where points were fairly rare. There was no anchor for the Sixers, save their defensive system; Iguodala may get to play the hero after laughing last, but it was the collective and persistent work of his team’s offense that finally pulled this game out. Philly’s offense may not be the most secure out there, but they managed to knock down the vaunted Boston D in the second half — a feat which shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  • The Boston Celtics are — even at their best — utterly inconsistent: The Sixers are by no means some monument to basketball stability, but their prospects also aren’t considered as seriously as Boston’s are. As such, Philly is allowed its flaws, while Boston must answer for its own. Due to prestige and familiarity, the Celtics are still regarded as something resembling an elite team; they hold the same core and the same Celtic green, and as such we’re apparently supposed to pretend that they still have a notable chance at this year’s title. It’s simply not so, and this is one area in which Boston’s regular season performance is particularly telling. These Celtics are simply too erratic to take a series against a more proficient opponent; it’s one thing to take down the Atlanta Hawks or even these Sixers, but the prospect of toppling the Heat or Pacers is incredibly slim, and the chances of beating the Spurs or Thunder even more so given Boston’s volatility.
  • Kevin Garnett’s carriage reverts to a pumpkin: KG had been among the finest performers of the postseason, and his offensive progression gave Boston’s offense a surprising buoyancy. With Garnett operating so consistently and efficiently from the block, the chronically injured Celtics were finally able to bank on the slightest offensive foundation, and build leads with something other than the strength of their ever-impressive defense. Not only did that defense break down a bit in Game 4, but so too did Garnett. KG finished the evening with nearly as many turnovers (seven) as points (nine), as the defense he anchors also ceded a ridiculous advantage to the creatively limited 76ers offense. Garnett’s hardly done yet, and if nothing else, we should expect the Celtics’ defense to bounce back in both spirit and scheme for Game 5 on their home floor. But it remains to be seen if he can hold up with such a substantial offensive workload going forward; Boston already relies on Garnett to maintain so much of their defense, and considering his wear and age, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see the Celtics’ star fade ever so slightly. As much of a unique joy as it’s been to see Garnett turn back the clock, these futile fights against time itself can only last so long.

NBA Playoffs Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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SEASON RECORDS

Boston: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)
Philadelphia: 35-31 (8 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Philadelphia took it 2-1, with the home team winning easily in each game.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Paul Pierce has a sprained knee that will not be right until this summer, Ray Allen is battling through ankle pain that may need surgery, and Avery Bradley has a bum shoulder. They will all play but the Sixers are banged up.

Sixers: Nothing that will cause players to miss a game.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)
Sixers: Off. 103.9 (20th in NBA); Def. 99.2 (3rd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Paul Pierce: He was at the best we have seen him in a while during the first round, averaging 21.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game while Ray Allen was slowed with an ankle injury. The Celtics are going to need the same out of him in this round — but he’s going to have to do it with Andre Iguodala draped all over him. That’s a much tougher task.

Rajon Rondo: He also was dynamic in the first round and picked up his shooting pace, averaging 16.8 points and 11.8 assists per game. He has a matchup he can exploit with Jrue Holiday but he also may be called upon to play some defense on Lou Williams, the Sixers potent bench scorer.

Kevin Garnett: Boston is better when he is playing the five spot, and he stepped up and scored 28 points in Game 6 to help close out the Hawks. They are going to need offense from him in this series, and they are going to need him to play good defense on Spencer Hawes — laugh if you want Celtics fans but Hawes ability to step out and hit shots and his ball movement is key to making the Sixers halfcourt offense work.

Note to Philadelphia ownership — don’t insult him through the media. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

THREE KEY SIXERS:

Andre Iguodala: In a series where points will be hard to come by the Sixers need him to excel at both ends of the floor. He needs to slow down Paul Pierce on defense, then get some transition and opportunistic points on offense. And maybe getting a few jump shots to fall as well. He is the guy who has to step up big if the Sixers are going to win this series.

Lou Williams: He comes off the bench but he is the one Sixer who can just light up the scoreboard, and he is the guy with the ball in his hands on crucial plays at the end of games. He averaged 12.8 points per game in the first round, but his three point shooting was off, he needs to knock down the looks he gets in this series.

Spencer Hawes: People are just starting to realize how key he is for Philly. He averaged 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in the final four games of the Bulls series, but he didn’t have to do that against Joakim Noah… or now Kevin Garnett. If KG shuts him down the 76ers halfcourt offense stagnates — he is the guy that gets the ball moving side to side and gets them open looks. Philly needs him to be on.

OUTLOOK

Bet the under. Look at the statistical ranking above — two top-three defenses and two bottom-10 offenses. These are going to be low scoring, ugly affairs.

What it really comes down to — whichever team can get some consistent offensive spark is going to win. One way to do that is creating turnovers with their defense — something Boston was much better at during the season. Boston forced the other team to turn the ball over on 14.9 percent of their possessions (4th best in NBA), the Sixers on just 13.5 percent (19th). The problem for Boston is Philly was the best team in the NBA at taking care of the ball last season (10.9 percent of possessions ended in a turnover). If either side coughs the ball up and those become easy transition points the other way, it is a huge advantage.

It just seems to me Boston has more consistent weapons when it comes to getting those points — Rondo, Garnett, Pierce can all step up on a given night with a huge game. And Ray Allen is still lurking out there and could catch fire. Philly has Iguodala and Williams, and Jrue Holiday has had good games (and needs to have a monster series if Philly is to win) but it’s just not as many weapons.

The games will be low scoring and close, it will be the little things that decide it in the end. Like having home court advantage so your role players may give you a boost in more games. Or just having savvy veterans who have been through the wars and seem to make plays at key times. All things Boston has.

PREDICTION

Celtics in 7 games.