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John Schuhmann

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The Sixers and Celtics are poised to engage in a defensive, hard-fought series.
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Unlikely second-round matchup expected to be gritty


Posted May 11 2012 2:57AM

This is not the conference semifinals matchup we expected. But after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the 2012 postseason, the Philadelphia 76ers took advantage and became just the fifth No. 8 seed in NBA history to pull off a first-round upset.

Similarly, the Boston Celtics overcame the Atlanta Hawks' home-court advantage to advance in six games. And after two thrilling finishes on Thursday night, these Atlantic Division foes will have a quick turnaround before Game 1 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

This series won't be pretty, and not just because neither team will have much rest. These are two excellent defensive teams who are below-average offensively.

The Celtics have been here before. In fact, they're the only team to win a playoff series each of the last four seasons (the Lakers will be another if they get past Denver on Saturday). And this is obviously a new experience for the Sixers, who hadn't won a playoff series since 2003.

But though the Sixers struggled in the second half of the season and had trouble knocking out the Rose-less and Noah-less Bulls, they match up pretty well against Boston. Twice in March, the Celtics traveled to Philadelphia with a chance to take over first place in the Atlantic Division. And twice, the Sixers turned them back.

Both of those games came on the second night of a back-to-back for Boston, however. And eventually, the Celtics passed the Sixers in the standings and crushed them in Boston on April 8.

The Celtics are seemingly on a path to meet the Miami Heat in the conference finals. But we already know that nothing is a given this season, and the Sixers aren't a team that will roll over.

Five quick questions...

How much of a concern are injuries for the Celtics?

They're a big concern. Paul Pierce's sprained MCL certainly won't help his chances at keeping up with Andre Iguodala. Ray Allen's bone spurs kept him out of the first two games against Atlanta and probably played a part in his 5-for-18 shooting from 3-point range over the last four. And Avery Bradley also shot poorly after reinjuring his left shoulder in the first round.

How much of an advantage does the Sixers' bench provide?

Not as much as it does over the course of the regular season, especially with Jodie Meeks' effectiveness falling off in the last month.

Can the Celtics afford to play Kevin Garnett less than 40 minutes?

Probably not. In the first round, Boston was a plus-74 with Garnett on the floor, and a minus-46 with him on the bench. And in the regular season against Philadelphia, the Celtics were a plus-27 with Garnett on the floor, and a minus-48 with him on the bench. He makes a big difference both offensively and defensively.

Can the Sixers run against the Celtics?

If they can't, they're in trouble. The Celtics' transition defense was very good in the regular season, allowing just 1.47 fast-break points for every live-ball turnover (fourth-lowest rate in the league). But they allowed about twice that (44/15) in their two losses in Philly.

Are the Celtics unbeatable at home?

Close to it. They've won 16 of their last 17 games at TD Garden, and the only loss came by a point to the Spurs. Pierce missed a shot to win that one at the buzzer.

When the Celtics have the ball ...

It all starts with Rajon Rondo, and the Sixers' first priority is to stop him in transition. Jrue Holiday will also need to put some pressure on Rondo in the half-court offense, so he doesn't have too much space to make any pass he wants. Ray Allen's role is limited coming off the bench and Iguodala will somewhat neutralize Pierce, so it may be up to Rondo and Garnett to carry the offense.

Most important for the Celtics is taking care of the ball, because the Sixers thrive in transition and need easy baskets to keep their offense afloat. But despite their length and athleticism, Philly is not a team that forces a lot of turnovers.

When the Sixers have the ball ...

The Sixers obviously want to run, because they struggle in the half-court. They have a balanced offense, but that doesn't mean it's very good. Like the Celtics, the Sixers are very much a jump-shooting team, but they lack a real 3-point threat. They did outscore the Celtics 124-84 in the paint in the three regular season meetings.

Philly had the league's lowest turnover rate, but also the league's lowest free throw rate. Ball movement and secondary, weak-side actions will be critical against a Boston that likes to load up on the strong side.

In the clutch

Pierce is the Celtics' go-to guy and loves nothing more than to back his man down to his sweet spot at the elbow. But Doc Rivers is always creative with his after-timeout play calls. You have to be wary of Allen coming off pin-downs or flare screens or Garnett and his ability to pick and pop.

Lou Williams is the Sixers' go-to guy, mostly by default. He's the only guy on the team that can really create his own shot. But Williams has shot just 14-for-38 in clutch time this season, while Jrue Holiday has shot 20-for-34.

Wild cards

Mickael Pietrus is known more for his defense, but he'll have the opportunity to give the Celtics' offense a boost from beyond the arc. He hit a lot of big threes in the Magic's run to The Finals in 2009, but shot just 2-for-13 from 3-point range in the first round this year.

For Philly, Evan Turner has the quickness and ball-handling skills to be a go-to guy. But consistency is still very much an issue at the end of his second season, and defensive bulldog Avery Bradley will not make things easy for Turner in this series.

The pick

The Celtics have the stars, the experience, and home-court advantage. But they don't have any great matchup advantages in this series, so it won't be easy. Celtics in 6.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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