The second round of the NBA playoffs opens tonight when Boston hosts Philadelphia in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-finals. Both teams won their opening series without the benefit of homecourt advantage and closed the deal in last-second Game 6 finishes on Thursday. The Celtics and Sixers have had some epic playoff battles in their history, especially 1981 and 1982. TheSportsNotebook previews the 2012 edition of this rivalry…
A Saturday night opener was an interesting choice by the schedulemakers. The first round is not actually over, with the Lakers-Nuggets Game 7 going right after Boston-Philly tonight, and then the Clippers-Grizzlies going tomorrow. With both Boston and Philadelphia having played on Thursday night you wonder why this game couldn’t have been played on Sunday night and have a clean break between the first and second rounds. Or if nothing else, why Indiana and Miami, who locked up their series on Wednesday, couldn’t have played in the Saturday night slot. Whatever the logic, it works in favor of Philadelphia. Ray Allen is doubtful tonight with his bad ankle and Paul Pierce is wearing a knee brace. A Celtics team that is rested can win the East. A Celtics team that is tired could lose this series in short order. Furthermore, Boston’s age and lack of depth stands in sharp contrast to Philadelphia’s youth and quality bench. The Sixers got key contributions in their win over Chicago from Thaddeus Young on the boards and sixth man Lou Williams has been instant offense all year. The schedule dynamic decidedly favors the underdog.
Before I allow pessimism over my favored Celts overrun me, let’s remember they didn’t close the season strong and win the Atlantic Division for no reason, and that Philadelphia clearly benefitted from Chicago’s playing without Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the first round. The 76ers were able to make hay in the backcourt, with Jrue Holiday being the team’s best player in the series, and Evan Turner coming up with some unexpected big games. With Rose in the lineup that doesn’t happen. And Boston’s guards—even without Allen—are a big strength, thanks to Rajon Rondo’s ability to control a game and the ability to lock down defensively. Philadelphia’s only chance to get effective production from the guards will be if the fatigue factor kicks in, and even here, Rondo and Avery Bradley don’t have the aging problem their more heralded teammates do.
Up front, Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes rebounded well after Noah was out, but Boston’s Kevin Garnett was his team’s best player in the first-round win over Atlanta. It’s a problem for the Sixers that Elton Brand was not a real factor in the Chicago series. If he and Hawes combine to play well, they can give their team the same formula Atlanta did, when Josh Smith and Al Horford keyed a Game 5 win over the Celtics. But it’s going to take both Philly inside players, because Garnett will eat up either in a one-on-one situation.
The 76ers may be seeded #8, but the outline we’ve put together now looks pretty good for them. Now let’s go to the small forward spot. Andre Iguodala and Paul Pierce are complete contrasts. Not only is Pierce a much better player on the face of it, but the Celtic veteran has a way of lifting his game when the team needs it most—his 36-point effort in Game 2 against Atlanta came with Rondo suspended, Allen out and the team in a 1-0 hole. It will be a part of Boston sports lore. Iguodala should be Philadelphia’s go-to player, but he faded in the second half of the season and only had a couple good games against Chicago. Sixers fans can put hope in the fact that one of those games was a 20-point effort in the Game 6 clincher, so maybe he’s going to get hot. But in any big situation down the stretch, Boston’s going to have a decided edge.
This last statement underlines why I think Boston will ultimately survive. I think this series is going to be a war, and given that both teams are oriented to defense and neither hits the offensive boards all that well (or at all), the games are going to be ugly. Both fan bases are hungry for a crack at Miami and neither fan base wants to be left alone with their city’s baseball team just yet. There’s going to be tough, physical games, raucous arenas and seven full games. But Boston survives in the end.