Game Preview: Celtics at 76ers

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Who would have thought that the Boston Celtics (20-17), who headed into the All-Star break on Feb. 23 two games under .500, would have an opportunity to take possession of first place in the Atlantic Division on March 7?

The answer is probably no one, but as we’ve learned since December, you can’t rule out anything in this crazy NBA season.

The fact of the matter is that the Celtics are now riding a five-game winning streak and will take on the 76ers (22-17) at 7 p.m. tonight in Philadelphia with sole possession of first place in the division on the line.

Boston has roared out of the break with soaring confidence and strong play. They have knocked off five straight opponents and won in every situation, from blowouts to overtimes (two of them). It’s clear that this team is coming into its own, and Doc Rivers loves what he sees.

“We’re starting to play good basketball,” Rivers said after Tuesday’s win. “And we’re starting to win basketball games when we don’t play good basketball, and that may be more important.”

That is the hallmark of great basketball teams. The Celtics have won several games during this stretch when they haven’t had their best stuff. Somehow they’ve been able to overcome their deficiencies and march into victory lane.

Tonight, however, they’ll need to bring their A-game to knock off the 76ers on the road.

Philadelphia has been atop of the Atlantic Division nearly all season long. It owned a record of 20-9 at one point, which was one of the best in the NBA. Right now, though, the Sixers are in the midst of a funk and have lost eight of their past 10 games.

The 76ers have not beaten a team with a record better than .500 in more than a month. Their last such victory came way back on Feb. 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite the lull, Philadelphia’s statistics have been relatively consistent throughout the season. The only blip on the radar is a dip in their scoring average to 89.0 PPG in February. Other than that, Philadelphia has been remarkably steady. What seems to have sent the team on its tailspin is the absence of starting center Spencer Hawes.

Hawes last played on Feb. 6 and has been sidelined ever since with an Achilles’ tendon injury. As Boston fans learned last season with Shaquille O’Neal, those injuries are difficult to overcome. The 76ers are 4-10 since he went down.

Even without Hawes, though, Philadelphia possesses one of the deepest rosters in the league. But much like the Rockets team Boston knocked off Tuesday night, the 76ers do not possess a single star. Andre Iguodala was voted into the All-Star game this season by the coaches, but he is averaging a mere 12.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 5.4 APG. That’s a solid season, but it’s far from superstar status.

Rather than lean on one player to carry the team, the 76ers have been successful because of their balance. They have six players scoring in double-figures, led by Lou Williams’ 15.7 PPG. They also have nine players grabbing at least 3.2 RPG, with Hawes’ 8.3 RPG leading the way.

Hawes obviously will not be on the floor tonight, which takes away an important piece of Philadelphia’s success. The Celtics, meanwhile, will have everyone available who has participated in their recent five-game winning streak.

It hasn’t been easy for the Celtics to get to where they are today, but the truth is that they’re here. Now they have an opportunity to march into Philadelphia and take hold of the division if they can continue the trend of these two teams heading in opposite directions.

Bench Play

One thing Boston hasn’t had during this streak of success is great play from its bench. Rivers has been forced to rely on his starters for big time minutes in order to win the past two games. In fact, three of Boston’s starters have logged more than 80 minutes of playing time over those two overtime victories, and Kevin Garnett was on the cusp of joining them (79 minutes).

The reason those starters have needed to play so much is because the bench isn’t providing a whole lot of punch at the moment. Boston’s reserves have tossed in just 15.5 PPG over the past two games.

Greg Stiemsma was the lone bright spot from Boston’s bench on Tuesday, as he scored eight points in 13 minutes. As Rivers alluded to after the game, he knows that he’ll need solid minutes from Stiemsma and his fellow reserves tonight.

“It is a game where honestly, I’m thinking ‘til [Wednesday],” said Rivers. “[Stiemsma’s] going to have play some minutes and his confidence had to be high, and it should be good tomorrow.”

The rest of the bench’s confidence isn’t quite so high, but they’ll need to deliver tonight, too.

High Volume Lou

Many Philadelphia fans are celebrating the emergence of Williams as the team’s sparkplug off of the bench. He is the Sixers’ top scorer and he does not even start. But with Williams, the bad comes along with the good.

He is averaging a career-high 15.7 PPG, but those points are arriving in an inefficient manner. Williams is shooting just 40.4 percent from the field, including an ugly 41.9 percent on 2-point shots. To give you an idea how bad that number is, only three Celtics have worse 2-point shooting percentages, and two of them are not even in the rotation.

Williams can be explosive, but he can also be errant. The C’s need to force him into tough shots and make him a high-volume shooter.

Start the Game Strong

The Celtics have shown over and over again this season that they have the firepower to fight back from large deficits. Tonight they will need to do everything they can to avoid the need to show that skill off again.

As outlined earlier, Boston’s starters have played big minutes over the past couple of games. Their proverbial tanks will surely not be full tonight. We know that Rivers is going to need to limit their minutes, so a strong start to this game is that much more essential. Boston cannot afford to rely on its bench to fight back from a deficit in the second half.