Atlantic Division Race To The Finish: Celtics & Sixers

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have twelve games apiece left in the regular season and their battle for the Atlantic Division title remains the most compelling in the Eastern Conference. The winner gets the #4 seed and homecourt advantage for a first-round series. The loser is presently seeded #7 and facing certain elimination against Miami if the playoffs began today. The Celtics, with a record of 30-24 lead the race by one game. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at each team and the rest of the schedule…

These teams really couldn’t be more different in terms of personnel. If you look at the minutes played, Boston is as advertised—a team almost exclusively dependent on contributions from their aging stars, who all have a  lot of pressure to not just play well, but play for long stretches. On the other hand, Philadelphia’s rotation goes eight deep. The flip side of this is that the Celtics have several players very comfortable with the ball in their hands at the key moments in a game, while the Sixers really need someone to step up as a clear go-to option in the crunch.

Lou Williams is the top scorer for Philadelphia at 15 ppg. Boston has two players, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett who exceed that, and Ray Allen is next on the list at 14 ppg. In a league that’s star-driven in big games, Boston has a huge edge. But the 76ers have the aforementioned eight-man rotation, which just includes players who log at least 20 minutes per game. And these are productive minutes. Doug Collins’ bench includes backcourt players like Evan Turner, who gives 10 ppg and Jodie Meeks who can provide some offensive spark. And while Garnett is the top rebounder among the two teams, Philly has the next best two, in Elton Brandon and Spencer Hawes. In a league with a compressed schedule that values fresh legs at this point in the season, Philadelphia has a huge edge. So what way do you play it?

As dissimilar as the rivals are in personnel, their bottom line remains essentially the same. Each team plays terrific team defense—in fact in terms of defensive efficiency (points allowed adjusted for tempo), the Sixers and Celtics are 1-2 in the NBA. Neither is very good at rebounding the missed shots they force, with the Celtics being particularly awful. And neither team will win any trophies for its offensive efficiency, though Philadelphia ranks a little higher.

The 76ers rank higher in both offense and rebounding, but let’s not forget that a lot of that was compiled when they were playing genuinely excellent basketball through around the end of January. Andre Igoudala is having a solid year at 12 points/6 rebounds/6 assists, but he was playing even better then. Jrue Holiday is a solid point guard, capable of leading a championship team, but he’s at his best when he can focus on distribution rather than scoring.  Igoudala is going to have to lift his game if the Sixers want to avoid finishing an embarrassing regular season collapse and then avoid repeating their playoff futility against Miami from last year.

Collapsing is what Philadelphia is doing right now. While the struggles have been going on for a couple months, the team has lost three straight, which include defeats at the hands of Washington and Toronto, each by over twenty points! The Celtics have taken advantage. While they’ve lost their last two, both were tight games against conference leaders Chicago and San Antonio (yes, the Spurs have moved past Oklahoma City in the West). Prior to that Boston won five straight against a mix of two patsies (Washington & Charlotte), two decent teams (Utah & Minnesota) and one big game (Miami).

This weekend is going to be tough. It starts tonight when Boston matches up with Indiana, as the Pacers have caught fire and moved past Orlando into the 3-spot. Speaking of Orlando, the circus that is the Magic plays host to Philly tonight at 7 PM ET on ESPN. Then tomorrow, Boston-Philly go head-to-head at 6 PM ET on NBA-TV, their final regular season game of the year. My guess is that they’ll be tied for first when that game tips off.

Going into next week, Philadelphia gets a temporary schedule advantage. While the Sixers play two games against the Nets and one against the Raptors, the Celtics mess around with Miami and Atlanta, before getting  a game at Toronto themselves. The following week it balances out, with the Sixers having to deal with Orlando and Indiana, while Boston matches up with New Jersey and Charlotte. This all plays out over the next ten day, so we’ll see if either team can create some space in the standings. If not, it’ll be a big nine-day ride to the finish line on April 26.