|Paul Pierce's Celtics and Andre Iguodala's Sixers will pick up their rivalry in the East Semis. (Getty Images)|
Previewing the Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Boston Celtics: No team put up better defensive efficiency numbers during the first round of the playoffs than the Celtics, not even the San Antonio Spurs, who swept a No. 8 seed and won by an average margin of 16 points per game. That's been the calling card of the Kevin Garnett era, of course, but their performance against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round was particularly impressive. Despite the absence of a quality center on the roster, a one-game suspension for Rajon Rondo and injuries of various sorts to Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley, the Celtics never allowed more than 87 points. The Hawks, who were a slightly above-average offense during the regular season, ranked dead last in offensive efficiency during the postseason.
Philadelphia 76ers: Like the Celtics, the Sixers also advanced on the strength of their defense, springing the upset on the depleted No. 1 seeded Bulls by holding Chicago under 80 points in three of the six games. Philadelphia was one of the league's leaders in defensive efficiency all season long, finishing No. 3 overall, thanks to perimeter stopper Andre Iguodala and a concentrated, focused approach instilled by coach Doug Collins. This series between two division rivals looks as if it will be the grinder of all grinders.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics probably have more questions about their health than any team remaining in the postseason. The biggest is Paul Pierce, who was asked to play 37.7 minutes per game against the Hawks despite dealing with a knee sprain as the series progressed. Guard Ray Allen's ankle seems to have improved since the playoffs began, but he clearly hasn't been himself -- shooting 1 for 7 from deep during Game 6 -- even if his overall postseason averages approximate his regular season performance. Doc Rivers has relied heavily on his starters in the postseason, with good reason, and it's difficult to envision a scenario where Boston is able to advance if they are getting only fractional contributions from Pierce and Allen given the available reserves.
Philadelphia 76ers: Philly's offense is merely alright, but a bigger concern could be the mental battle. It's rare to see a coach exhibit the kind of emotions that Collins did after the Sixers finished off the Bulls on Thursday. Sure, no one foresaw Philadelphia pulling the upset, but the extenuating circumstances of Derrick Rose's torn ACL in Game 1 quickly swung the series in Philly's favor. That the Sixers would be so triumphant and elated given the circumstances raises the question of whether they are simply "happy to be here" and if they will be ready for Boston's ever-present mind games and intimidation tactics. With the series starting on Saturday, there's no real down time to process those emotions and prepare, either. Straight into the fire.
Boston Celtics: Celtics guard Avery Bradley shot 37.2 percent against the Hawks and averaged less than an assist per game, and yet he still managed to emerge as a new household name thanks to his aggressive on-ball defense and near-constant harassment of Joe Johnson. Bradley is well-equipped to defend Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams and Evan Turner, and he showed impressive maturity and steadiness in standing in for Rondo during his Game 2 suspension. Philly laid a massive egg on offense in a Game 5 loss to the Bulls, scoring just 69 points for the game and only 26 in the first half while shooting 32.1 percent from the field. Normally, you wouldn't expect to see those numbers repeat, but Bradley and company will surely make their lives difficult.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers generally lack explosiveness on offense but Lou Williams, one of the top vote-getters for Sixth Man of the Year this season, has the ability to score in bunches. Of course, he didn't show that at all against Chicago: his scoring and shooting numbers were down, and he shot just 15.4 percent from deep. If Williams can't cut out that clanking, Philly will be in a world of hurt in the halfcourt offense.
Boston Celtics: Jrue Holiday is no bum, but he's also no Rajon Rondo. Holiday averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists in the opening round series against the Bulls, and he did a nice job of limiting his turnovers, commiting just 10 over six games while playing heavy minutes. Rondo is a totally different challenge than C.J. Watson, obviously, and Holiday will have his hands full. Rondo averaged 6.0 points, 13.3 assists and 1.7 steals in three regular-season games versus Philadelphia. He averaged 16.8 points, 11.8 assists and 3.4 steals against the Hawks, though, while controlling the gameflow for much of the series.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers didn't go particularly deep into their bench against the Bulls, but they do boast a raw talent advantage over the Celtics when it comes to reserves, thanks to Williams and forward Thaddeus Young. Unfortunately, Williams wasn't at his best against the Bulls and neither was Young, who averaged 7.2 points and 5.3 rebounds against Chicago after scoring 12.8 points and grabbing 5.2 rebounds during the regular season. The problem for the Sixers is that Boston matches up well with both Williams and Young. Their best bet is to hope that the Celtics starters get into foul trouble, so the pair can feast on weaker -- and in some cases no-name -- reserves.
Will Win If...
Boston Celtics: The Celtics will win this series if they can keep Paul Pierce healthy, if Rajon Rondo can keep his head in the game and if they continue to bring the effective team defense they played against the Atlanta Hawks. Boston has homecourt advantage, significantly more playoff experience, the best player in the series (Rondo) and the most influential player in the series (Garnett). The series should be played in their style -- all-defense, methodical -- and they have more proven closing weapons (Pierce and Allen) than Philadelphia. An Eastern Conference Finals birth is Boston's for the taking.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers will win this series if they get some help, either in the form of an injury to a key member of the Celtics starting lineup, some late-game luck like they enjoyed during Game 6 against the Bulls, or a meltdown from one of Boston's volatile stars (Garnett and Rondo). The Sixers are more likely to gimmick out a series victory than they are to win it based on the merits.
Prediction: Celtics in six.