Posted May 26 2012 10:15AM - Updated May 26 2012 11:32AM
BOSTON -- For one team and its fans, victory would take them to a place they probably never dreamed of going with a young and incomplete roster.
For the other team and its fans, victory would be more of a relief, the avoidance of a humbling finish to a proud era.
The Philadelphia 76ers probably shouldn't be here. And if they advance to the conference finals, we'll likely find out they shouldn't be there. But as much as the Sixers match up poorly against the Miami Heat, they have what it takes to knock out the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics feel like they're the team to take down the Heat. But they're still trying to figure out how to get past the scrappy Sixers.
When Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals tips off at 8 p.m. Saturday, the Celtics will have two distinct advantages. First, they'll be playing on their home floor. The home team has won 87 of the 109 Game 7s in NBA history and these Celtics have won 18 of their last 20 games at the TD Garden.
Second, the Celtics have three guys -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo -- who can potentially carry them offensively in what will likely be another ugly game between two great defensive teams.
The ball will be in Rondo's hands, so he has the best opportunity to put his stamp on the game and make us forget his sub-par performance (nine points, six assists, 4-for-14 shooting) in Game 6.
To prevent a patented Rondo game, we can expect the Sixers to clog the lane defensively, daring Ray Allen and Boston's other wings to beat them from the perimeter. It's a formula that worked in Game 6, bringing Brandon Bass back to earth and forcing Garnett to take all 20 of his shots from outside the paint.
The Celtics have shot just 28-for-99 (28 percent) from 3-point range in the series. And in their three wins, the difference has been how much they've scored in the paint.
So Allen is as much of an X-factor on Saturday as anybody. If he can summon the strength he needs in his achy ankles to hit a few threes, the Celtics should be in good shape. But Allen is just 7-for-27 (26 percent) from beyond the arc in this series, including 3-for-14 in the last four games. And whether he's open or not, he can't be counted on as he has in the past.
The Sixers really don't have anybody who can go off on the Celtics' defense, but that's not the way they win games anyway. They found a way to score in the second half of Game 6 when their guards attacked the depleted Boston backcourt in the post and off the dribble.
On both ends of the floor, the Sixers hope what worked on Wednesday will carry over to Saturday. But there has been little carryover in this series from game to game or even quarter to quarter. What has worked in one game hasn't necessarily worked in the next.
"There's not going to be major adjustments. I don't see that happening," Sixers coach Doug Collins said Friday. "You get to this point in time, you basically have to be who you are and do it well."
Essentially, every player on the floor will be an X-factor, because we really don't know what we're going to get from any of them. For Boston, Rondo has been inconsistent, Garnett's mid-range game has come and gone, and Pierce has sometimes been bottled up by Andre Iguodala.
Philly must move the ball and not settle for contested jump shots. If Evan Turner, shooting 34 percent in the series, can actually finish off his dizzying moves with made baskets, the Sixers become a much more dangerous team. But if they go through another one of their typical scoring droughts, it could very well end their season.
"We have to do a good job of managing the game," Collins said. "We've got to limit our dead possessions and our turnovers, and make sure that we get good shots at the basket."
The young and inexperienced Sixers have never been in this situation before. And maybe they're too naïve to know that they're not supposed to win a Game 7 in Boston.
"I don't think we have any fear," Collins said. "I think they're excited about the chance to go in there and have this Game 7 and see what we can do."
This is the sixth time that this Celtics core has played a Game 7. It's their game to lose, and surely they'd provide a tougher test for the Heat in the next round. But Boston has never looked more vulnerable than they did just three nights ago in Philadelphia.
Still, maybe they're too stubborn to realize that the end is near.
"We all believe that we can win tomorrow's game," Rondo said Friday, "and the championship."
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