WALTHAM – Short of winning Game 5 in Atlanta and earning a couple of days off, you couldn’t have scripted a better first round playoff scenario for the Celtics. Not only did they finally get past the Hawks without having to get on a plane for a Game 7, they also managed to avoid their nemesis in Chicago after the upstart 76ers eliminated the Bulls in six games.
Quick turnaround notwithstanding, the Celtics are more than fine with getting homecourt advantage in the second round. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are looking past Philadelphia.
“They’re a good team, kind of similar to Indiana,” Rajon Rondo said. “Not just one guy’s a star, five or six guys score in double digits. They’re a good team coached by a good coach and they play extremely hard.”
They met three times in the regular season and each game was a blowout, but don’t expect that trend to continue in this series. Each of those three meetings had one or both teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back and each game also had odd circumstances surrounding it.
In March, Philly drilled the Celtics at the end of a long road trip. There was the Mickael Pietrus concussion game a few weeks later, notable also for the absence of Ray Allen and a shoulder injury to Avery Bradley that has dogged him throughout the season. Then in April, the Celtics ran the Sixers off the court when Philly was going through its most difficult stretch of the season.
“The two in Philly, we didn’t learn much,” Doc Rivers said. “We got blasted in the first game especially. Regular season games, both of them were coming off back-to-backs and stuff like that. Those are tough games to gauge. We know how they want to play. They know how we want to play. It’s going to be a battle of that, who can establish the pace.”
Shorter version: The Celtics can’t let Philly run. That’s really what this series is all about. The Sixers’ main offensive attributes are a strong transition game and a lack of turnovers. Rivers wants to make this a halfcourt game where Philly is noticeably lacking in jump shooters.
“We’re not going to outrun them,” Rivers said. “They’re faster than us. They’re going to win the track meet, there’s no doubt about that. We got to find a way of getting them to play in halfcourt.”
In order to do that, the Celtics have to limit turnovers – something they did well against the Hawks – and they also must find a way to get Avery Bradley on the ball, defensively. Ideally, Bradley would guard Jrue Holiday fullcourt, but the Sixers can also use Evan Turner and Lou Williams in that role.
“They’re all good players,” Bradley said. “Like I’ve been saying, we just have to have the right mindset. Whoever’s bringing the ball up, I’m going to try to make it hard on them.”
Bradley can guard all three, but the key is finding the right defensive matchup for Rondo. Rivers got creative in Game 6 against the Hawks when he put his guards on Marvin Williams, who obliged by rarely venturing inside the 3-point arc. If Bradley is guarding the ball, Rondo will have to switch to a bigger player, like Turner.
“Avery and I will have our hands full,” Rondo said. “But we’ll be ready.”
The other side of this is that the Sixers are just about as good defensively as the Celtics. They ranked third in points allowed per possession and field goal percentage defense and were fourth in defensive rebounding percentage.
“We keep talking about their athleticism and running, what people miss is they’re not a good defensive team, they’re a great defensive team,” Rivers said. “They’re going to try to make us struggle scoring and we’re going to try to make them struggle scoring.”
Get ready for a lot of first-team-to-80 wins type of games, much like the previous series with the Hawks. It may not be aesthetically pleasing basketball, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“I don’t know what ugly is,” Rivers said. “If we win, I don’t think that’s ugly at all. Whatever you want to call ugly, if winning is part of it I’m all for it.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Paul Pierce vs. Andre Iguodala: The key question for Pierce, and for the Celtics as well, is how healthy is Pierce’s knee.
“It’s probably not going to heal until the season’s over,” Pierce said. “I’m just doing the necessary steps that I can just to make sure I don’t overdo it or put myself in the position to where it could really hurt my career moving forward being at the age I’m in, but I’m confident in the way I feel. I’m capable of going out there.”
Iguodala is one of the best defensive forwards in the league, but Pierce had success against him during the regular season, shooting 55 percent and averaging 20.7 points per 36 minutes in the time the two were matched up together.
Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass vs. Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes: Garnett dominated Brand during the regular season, but he figures to see some time on the 7-foot Hawes who would be a tough cover for Bass. This is a matchup the Celtics need to win decisively, considering their injury problems.
The benches: The Sixers are essentially seven players deep with rookie big man Lavoy Allen also seeing time, but reserves Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young are game-changers offensively. That’s a concern for the Celtics who are deeper, but lack that kind of dynamic player on their bench.
Rivers used 12 different players in key situations against the Hawks, but he figures to tighten things up in this round. Pietrus will have to guard multiple positions in order to matchup defensively when Philly goes to its bench and he could see time on everyone from Turner to Iguodala to Young.
Just because each game figures to be close, doesn’t mean the series will be a long one. Philadelphia is more than capable of stealing a game in Boston and making this a six or seven-game series, but the feeling here is that getting past the first round was the 76ers true accomplishment, while the Celtics have their eyes on something bigger. The pick: Celtics in five.