By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The Boston Celtics have the experience, the home court and four All-Star players. That should be enough for them to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But the playoffs are all about matchups and the Celtics have a true advantage at only one position in this series. Therefore, this has the makings of a very close series.
Both teams are well coached with experienced playoff leaders. Both teams play tremendous defense, so each and every basket will be hard earned. This series will not be pretty, and it will not be high scoring. In fact, some of these games might be played in the high 70s to low 80s due to the healthy defenses and anemic offenses of both teams. That said, this promises to be extremely entertaining series because each and every game should be close.
Give the 76ers credit for taking out the Chicago Bulls in the first round. The critics will say they beat the Bulls because of the injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, but they beat one of the very best defenses in the NBA. The second round will be a different type of test for this young team. They will be going up against Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, a group of veterans that knows this may be their last chance to win an NBA championship.
It will be extremely difficult for the 76ers to defeat the Celtics because the C’s have home court advantage and Philly will need to win a game in Boston. The Celtics went 24-9 at home this season and have won 16 of their last 17 home games. That in itself is what could decide this series, the 76ers ability or inability to win a game in Boston.
One of the biggest keys heading into this series will be the health of the Celtics. They have three important players who are not at 100 percent. The health of Pierce, Allen and Avery Bradley could be a big factor. If Pierce is not 100 percent he will have tremendous difficulty defending Andre Igoudala who is one of the most athletic and explosive forwards in the game. Ray Allen’s bone spurs hindered his offensive effectiveness in the first round. He shot only 27 percent in his four games against the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics need him to make jump shots against the stingy Philly defense in this series. Avery Bradley who had been spectacular during the latter stages of the season was extremely pedestrian in the opening round. He shot only 20 percent from the 3 point line compared to his 40 percent during the regular season. The Celtics will need Pierce and Bradley healthy to defend the 76ers' athletic perimeter players, and Allen healthy to make open shots which would drastically improve Boston's very mediocre offense.
Kevin Garnett may be the most important player for the Celtics in this series. He helped the Celtics close out their first round series with a dominating 28 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks performance in Game 6 against the Hawks. Garnett has been impressive this season against the 76ers and in the first round of the playoffs. Doc Rivers played Garnett an average of 31.1 minutes per game this season but upped that to 37.7 in the first round. In that series Garnett averaged 18.7 points per game and 10.5 rebounds. The Celtics were a plus 74 when Garnett was on the court. When he was on the bench the Celtics were a minus 46. In their three games versus the 76ers this season the Celtics were a plus 27 when he was on the court and a minus 48 when he was on the bench.
Rivers needs to find a way to extend Garnett’s minutes in this series because he is a mismatch problem for the Sixers. Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young will all have problems with Garnett. Garnett cannot get 24 and 14 every game, but he can establish a post presence, get all important paint points and earn trips to the free throw line. If Garnett continues to play at a high level in the second round of the playoffs the Celtics will advance.
Limiting turnovers and especially live ball turnovers will be extremely important for the Celtics in this series. They ranked 17th in the NBA in the regular season with 14.7 turnovers per game. Against the Sixers this season the Celtics have averaged 14.3 turnovers per game but those turnovers have led to 18.3 points. There is a 10 point difference between the Sixers 11.3 turnovers that were converted into only 8.3 points. That is a huge disparity in a playoff matchup where every game may be decided by one or two baskets.
The Celtics must be exact in their transition defensive principles. They do not send more than two players to the offensive glass, so they should have excellent defensive balance. They must be careful when Rondo attacks the paint because they are vulnerable if he misses a shot, having only two players back at that point. The Celtics only allowed 11.7 points in transition during the regular season which was 5th best in the NBA. In addition they only allowed 1.47 fast break points for every live ball turnover which was the 4th best in the NBA. However they must be extremely careful against the 76ers, because in their two losses to Philadelphia they allowed 44 points on 15 live ball turnovers which is twice as much as their regular season allowance.
It is imperative that the Celtics get to the free throw line in this series. They only averaged 19.8 free throws per game during the regular season. But for them to beat the Sixers they need to get the ball to the rim either on drives into the paint or post ups. The only players that can do this are Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Garnett. Pierce is capable of getting 10 to 12 free throws in a game if he puts his mind to it. If Pierce's jump shot is falling, Andre Igoudala will have to get into his air space and it will open up drives to the rim for Pierce. If Rondo is in attack mode and can force the action, he can get to the free throw line. And finally, Garnett needs to chip in with strong moves to the rim mixed in with his patented jump shot. If Garnett’s jump shot is falling he can also mix in the pump fake and rip through move to the rim that can draw contact and fouls. It is important that the C’s get to the line because it will allow them to dictate tempo, slow down the 76ers and force them to play more half court basketball.
Both teams got first round close-out victories on Thursday night. So there is very little time for them to prepare before Saturday night. This could be a distinct advantage for the 76ers. In order for them to win this series they must win at least one game at TD Bank Garden. After about the third game in a playoff series, teams settle into their matchups, keys for the series and player tendencies. But the first game or two can be a crap shoot. The 76ers best chance to get a win on the road in this series is in Games 1 or Game 2 in Boston.
This upcoming series for the Celtics will be totally different than the Atlanta series. The 76ers series with the Bulls has many more similarities to their matchup with the Celtics. The Bulls are a great half court team that makes their opponents work for every shot just like the Celtics. The Bulls are a half court, jump shooting team without Derrick Rose which is exactly what the Celtics are. If the Celtics are to win this series it is imperative for them to steal a game in Boston before the Celtics get settled in. As this series progresses it will become harder and harder to steal a game on the road.
This is shaping up to be a brutal offensive series with extremely low scoring games. Boston and Philly are two of the best defensive teams in the NBA and also two of the worst offensive teams. This series will come down to little things. Offensive rebounds, fast break points, free throws, and 3 point shooting are areas in which a team can manufacture extra points throughout a game. So let’s see how these two teams fared in those areas in their head to head matchups during the regular season.
A. Offensive Rebounds: The 76ers outrebounded the Celtics by 10.7 rebounds per game. The offensive glass was exactly the same story where the 76ers averaged 13.3 offensive rebounds in their three games compared to the Celtics only grabbing 4.0 per game. Sixers big men can attack the glass and make a difference in this series.
B. Fast Break Points: The Sixers scored 15.6 points per game on the fast break during the regular season. However in their three games with the Celtics this season they averaged 19.3 points on the fast break. The C’s scored nine fast break points per game. The better the defense and rebounding is for the Sixers, the better they will be in transition. The Sixers must dominate the Celtics in fast break points in order to win this series. They have young, athletic bodies and they need to utilize them in the open court versus the Celtics.
C. Free Throws: The Sixers were 29th in the NBA this season in free throw attempts. They only attempted 18.8 during the regular season. In their three games with the Celtics this season they shot 19 free throws per game compared to the Celtics 16.6 per game. That's just a slight 2.4 per game difference. However, in the first round of the playoffs the Sixers perimeter players of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams were able to help Philadelphia attempt 25.7 free throws per game. The Sixers attempted 6.9 more free throw attempts than the Bulls in the opening series. If the Sixers can continue to attack the paint and rim and put enough pressure on the Celtics it will help them immensely against the stingy Boston defense and give them another weapon to score some easy points.
D. 3 Point Shooting: The Sixers are a low 3 point attempt team averaging just 14.6 attempts per game. In their three games with the Celtics this season they attempted just 12.6 3 point shots and shot only 28.9 percent. The Sixers are obviously not a high volume 3 point shooting team, however they do need their better perimeter shooters in Holiday, Igoudala, Jodie Meeks and Williams to knock down shots in this series. If those four players could shoot even at their season average of 36.2 percent it would give their team another weapon to defeat the favored Celtics.
Paint points will be one of the biggest keys to this series. Both Philly and Boston are two of the worst teams in the NBA at generating points in the paint. If either team can establish a low post threat and get the ball into the paint and score or drive it from the perimeter into the paint and score they will have a distinct advantage in this series. The Sixers dominated the Celtics in paint points in their three regular season meetings outscoring them 124-84 or by a difference of 13.3 points per game. Paint points are an important ingredient to winning basketball and if the Sixers can continue to dominate this phase of the game they can beat the Celtics.
Spencer Hawes could be an X factor in this series for Philly. When he is engaged and scoring the Sixers are a much better offensive team. He can stretch the defense with his outside shooting and open up driving lanes for their perimeter players. Hawes averaged 15.5 points per game and shot 53.3 percent from the field over the last four games of the Chicago series. It would help the Sixers offense in this series if Hawes could score at with the same efficiency. His ability to score off pick and pops will make Garnett come farther away from the basket and open up the 76ers offensive opportunities.
The Sixers bench has been a key to their success all season. Their bench was the 4th rated bench in the NBA this season with a plus 10.1 differential. In their three-game series with the Celtics this season, the Sixers bench outscored the Celtics bench 36.3 points to 23.0 points. Although a bench is not as big a factor in the post season when rotations are shortened and rest is equal for both teams, the Sixers have Williams and Young who can change a game.
Rajon Rondo: Rondo is the one player that makes the Celtics go. He leads the league in assists and over the last ten games of the season he averaged 15.1 assists per game. Rondo needs to be aggressive from the start of this series putting pressure on the 76ers by pushing the ball, attacking and getting into the teeth of the defense and making plays. The Sixers do not have shotblockers so Rondo must attack the rim. He has improved his field goal percentage this season to 44.8 percent making it more difficult to play off of him in the half court. Rondo averaged 16.8 points, 11.8 assists and 3.4 steals in the first round versus Atlanta.
Jrue Holiday: The Sixers need consistent scoring from Holiday if they are going to beat the Celtics. He may be the most talented player on the roster and he must take over games when needed. Holiday needs to pressure Rondo and cut down his vision, passing lanes, and his ability to get into the paint and make plays for others. Holiday averaged 18.2 points and 4.7 assists in their series with the Chicago. Although he is not utilized as the go to guy Holiday is 20-34 in clutch time shooting during the regular season. Clutch time is defined as the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game where neither team has a lead of more than five points.
Avery Bradley: Bradley has taken full advantage of his opportunities this season with the Celtics. With Allen injured in the last ten regular season games, Bradley moved into the starting lineup and averaged 34.2 minutes per game. In those ten games he averaged 16.7 points per game and shot 54 percent from the field. His shooting numbers have dropped drastically in the first round of the playoffs due to injury. He shot only 20 percent from the 3 point line. Bradley is a terrific on-the-ball defender and he combines with Rondo to give the Celtics one of the top defensive backcourts in the NBA. The C’s need Bradley to put extreme pressure on Evan Turner and make things difficult for him offensively. Turner has a size advantage on Bradley and he must be aware of any post ups or slice cuts into the post for scoring opportunities.
Evan Turner: Turner may be the second most talented player on the Sixers roster. He was inserted into the starting lineup of Game 2 of the Chicago series because of his size, playmaking and scoring abilities. He scored 11.7 points per game but only shot 39.4 percent from the field. He is at his best when he has the ball in his hands, scoring and doling out assists. He is an excellent rebounder who averaged 6.3 rebounds in the first round of the playoffs. Philly will need players that can make plays against the Celtic defense and Turner is one of those players that can create offense by himself.
Paul Pierce: Pierce has been a consistent scorer for the Celtics his entire career. This season he logged 34.5 minutes and averaged 19.5 points per game. Although Pierce handles the ball a ton for the Celtics he is a careless ball handler and passer. He averaged 3.5 turnovers per game in the first round. If he is lazy with the ball against Philly it will cost his team. Paul is the go-to scorer for Doc Rivers in the fourth quarter. They will isolate him or put him into 1-3 pick and rolls to create switches to get Pierce matched up with a smaller defender. Pierce has always been a big time shot maker who is not afraid of taking or making the last shot.
Andre Igoudala: Igoudala made the All-Star team this season, but he scored a career low of 12.4 points per game. He is a terrific defender and will be called upon in this series to keep Paul Pierce in check. He will utilize his tremendous athleticism, length and wingspan to keep Pierce in front of him and contest his shots. Igoudala does a little of everything: scoring, rebounding and dishing out assists. His 3 point shooting numbers are up this season to 39.4 percent from his career average of 33.1 percent. His team will need a big series from him in order to defeat the Celtics. Igoudala is $13.5 million a year player who gets criticized for not being a go-to guy and/or closer, but he did close out the series against the Bulls with several huge plays on Thursday night.
Brandon Bass: Bass has been a terrific pick up by the Celtics in the off season. He is averaging 12.6 points per game and 6.1 rebounds during the regular season. He plays with energy and enthusiasm and is a perfect compliment to Garnett. Bass is a scorer who can knock down the mid-range jump shot. He scored 9.7 points per game in the first round versus Atlanta. Bass will be called upon to neutralize Brand in the low post. He is not as tall or big as Brand and must work diligently to deny him easy low-post touches and contest every shot attempt.
Elton Brand: Brand led the Sixers in scoring and rebounding a year ago, but this has been a tough year for him. He attempts to overpower power forwards and centers but due to wear and tear to his body he no longer has the ability to do it. He does bring toughness to the Sixers frontcourt and Doug Collins attempted to manage his minutes to keep him healthy all season. Brand has a high basketball IQ, and has utilized it to score 11.0 points and grab 7.2 rebounds per game this year for the Sixers. The Celtics do not have a true low post player and Brand will be called upon to defend farther from the basket and be involved in numerous pick and rolls. His numbers were down to only 8 points and 5.5 rebounds versus Chicago.
Kevin Garnett: Garnett has been terrific for the Celtics in the second half of the season. Since the injuries to Jermaine O’Neal, Garnett has played the center position for Boston and has been largely responsible for the C’s going 24-10 since the All-Star break. He was terrific for the Celtics in the opening round series against Atlanta averaging 18.7 points per game on 50.6 percent from the field. Garnett is a matchup nightmare for the Sixers because Hawes, Brand and Young cannot defend him. The Celtics need to make Garnett a focal point of their offense throughout this series. This is the one true matchup advantage the Celtics have in this series.
Spencer Hawes: Because of a strained Achilles, Hawes missed major time this season. Earlier in the year, he was able to get Doug Collins 10 points and 10 rebounds, but that production was curtailed late in the season. However, Hawes came on in the first round versus the Bulls and gave the Philly offense a boost. He played in six games, starting five of them. In those six games he averaged 11.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and shot 52.0 percent from the field.
Ray Allen: Allen missed two of the six first-round games against the Hawks. Allen’s numbers have dipped this season averaging 14.2 points per game. If Rondo, Pierce and Garnett are scoring for the C’s against the 76ers it will open up shots for Allen. The Celtics will utilize him as a spot up shooter or run him off multiple screens. He only shot 28.0 percent from the field in the first round versus Atlanta. Allen must continue to adjust to coming off the bench if Doc Rivers decides to keep starting Bradley.
Mickael Pietrus: Although Pietrus has struggled to stay on the court this season he could prove to be an important piece to the Celtics roster in the playoffs. Doc Rivers may need him to defend Igoudala, especially if Pierce has any issues with his knee. Pietrus can stretch the court and knock down open perimeter shots. However he struggled in the first round only shooting 15.4 percent from the 3 point line.
Ryan Hollins: Hollins is a younger, athletic body who can eat up some minutes and keep Garnett rested. Hollins played in five of the six games in the first round averaging 11.8 minutes and grabbing 2.4 rebounds.
Keyon Dooling: Dooling has seen very limited minutes with the play and durability of Rondo. Dooling played only 9.5 minutes averaging 3.5 points in the first round.
Greg Stiemsma: He has been a pleasant surprise for the Celtics. He has proved to be a dependable frontcourt rebounder and defender. In ten minutes per game he averaged 3.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks a game versus Atlanta.
Sasha Pavlovic: If Allen falters at all in the playoffs due to his bone spurs, the Celtics could lean on Pavlovic for shooting. He can space the court and make open shots.
Marquis Daniels: Will get limited action in this series. Played only 12.7 minutes and averaged 2.7 points per game in the first round.
Lou Williams: Williams is a big time scorer that produces. He may be a one-dimensional player, but he is the Sixers leading scorer (14.9 points per game). The fact that Williams comes off the bench says all you need to know about the Sixers offense. He is not a superstar but he is a productive perimeter player and could easily be a starter for this team. Williams is the Sixers go to player in crunch time due to his ability to create his own shot. Unfortunately for the Sixers he has shot just 14-38 in clutch time. He also struggled a bit against Chicago’s defense only scoring 12.8 points and shooting 37.0 percent from the field.
Thaddeus Young: Young has had a pretty consistent year for the Sixers. He is a gifted athlete, with tremendous bounce. He needs to continue to develop his skill set to improve his overall offensive game. It is obvious he has gotten worn down going up against bigger, stronger opponents this season. He struggled in the first round against the Bulls scoring only 7.2 points, and shooting 41.5 percent from the field.
Jodie Meeks: Meeks who started for the Sixers during the regular season was demoted to the bench after the first game against the Bulls. He averaged just 5.3 minutes per games in the first round series. Doug Collins utilizes Meeks to space the floor and his ability to shoot from deep range helps creates driving/post opportunities for Holiday, Igoudala and Brand. He is shooting 36.5 percent from the 3 point line this season.
Lavoy Allen: Collins inserted Allen into the starting lineup for the first game versus the Bulls but then changed it up by bringing him in off the bench the rest of the series. He is a strong, banger who can defend the low post and rebound. He averaged 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in the first round.
Nikola Vucevic: Vucevic was able to help the Sixers early in the season, but struggled as the season progressed. He started 15 of the 51 games he has played in this season. Vucevic averaged 13.4 minutes, 4.6 points and shot 38.3 percent in the 11 games he played in April. Vucevic did not play in the first round.
Prediction: Celtics in seven games