Game Preview: Celtics at 76ers

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics are hoping a day off will pay off in their attempt to bounce back from one of their worst losses of the season.

Doc Rivers canceled Thursday’s practice after the team fell to the Clippers at home Wednesday night – a game in which the C’s trailed by as many as 23 points – and hopes that he will see a rejuvenated team take the court tonight. Boston (46-16) is in Philadelphia to take on the streaking 76ers (33-31) at 7 p.m. tonight in the Wells Fargo Center.

Speaking of rejuvenated, the arrival of head coach Doug Collins has turned Philadelphia’s organization around in a hurry. With 20 games remaining on the 76ers’ schedule, the team has already surpassed its win total from last season by six, and, barring any meltdowns, the team will most certainly make the playoffs this season.

With the Sixers fighting for any of the final four seeds in the East and Boston clinging to the top seed, it’s conceivable that these two teams could meet in the first round of the playoffs. Considering how difficult it was for Boston to win its first two contests against Philadelphia this season, the C’s may want to avoid such a matchup in April.

The Celtics are 2-0 against the 76ers this season but those wins came by an average of just 2.5 points. One of the wins, on Dec. 9 in Philadelphia, came after Rajon Rondo hit Kevin Garnett for a game-winning alley-oop with 1.4 seconds left on the clock. The other win for Boston, an 84-80 triumph on Dec. 22 in the TD Garden, was a game that featured 14 lead changes and 10 ties.

Ray Allen was the man who carried the Celtics to both of those wins, as he put up an averaged of 22.5 PPG. Rondo, who did not play in the second meeting, must get his due for the first victory as well after dropping 19 points, six rebounds and 14 dimes on the Sixers on Dec. 9.

Philadelphia has played neck-and-neck with the C’s this season with thanks to strong play from Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. Brand averages 14.5 PPG and 13.0 RPG against Boston this season and Iguodala flirted with a triple-double in the Dec. 9 matchup with 14 points, five rebounds and 11 assists.

Although those two players have played well against Boston this season, the C’s will have a lot more to worry about than just them. Philadelphia is one of the hottest teams in the league and has won 13 of its past 18 games thanks to its overall balance. The 76ers have six players averaging between 10.0 PPG and 15.2 PPG, and that balance has prevented them from losing consecutive games since way back on Jan. 19 and 20. That’s not great news for Boston, because the Sixers are coming off of a 110-105 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma City was able to knock off Philadelphia thanks to huge performances from Kevin Durant (34 points) and Russell Westbrook (27 points). Boston has plenty of players who can put up numbers like those, but the C’s typically win with more of a team effort. That’s exactly how they have beaten the Sixers this season, as no Celtic player scored more than 23 points in either of Boston’s two victories over Philadelphia.

With a day off to refuel, the Celtics will take the court tonight looking to bounce back from that tough loss to the Clippers. Boston has lost consecutive games only four times this season, and they can avoid upping that number to five with a big win on the road tonight against a hot Sixers team that no one wants to see in the playoffs.

Keep Them Off the Line

Philadelphia’s athleticism has helped them get to the line for an average of 24 free throw attempts per game against the Celtics this season. Elton Brand’s eight attempts against the C’s on Dec. 22 were the highest of any Philadelphia player in either of the two games, and that gives you an idea of how balanced the Sixers are offensively.

The 76ers love to share the ball and they love to attack the defense. With so many long and athletic players at nearly every position, they are able to spread the wealth offensively and force opponents to commit fouls. The Celtics haven’t been able to avoid such a deficiency against the Sixers’ offense this season, and they’ll certainly have that in the back of their minds tonight.

Significant Small Forwards

Both teams’ best overall player is their small forward. For the Celtics, it’s Paul Pierce, who leads the team in scoring and can step it up on defense when he’s facing a premier talent. That will be the case tonight as he defends Iguodala, who has returned to his playmaking ways.

Iguodala had a very solid overall performance in these teams’ first matchup of the season, with that near triple-double, but his second game was very underwhelming. He notched only nine points, two rebounds and four assists against the C’s on Dec. 22 in Boston.

Despite that poor performance from Iguodala, he has outperformed Pierce overall when these teams have met this season. Pierce has scored a total of only 21 points against Iguodala and the 76ers this season. When Pierce isn’t scoring big points, he usually finds other ways to impact the game, be it rebounding or assisting, but he hasn’t figured those areas out against Philadelphia this season either. Pierce has grabbed 6.0 RPG and dished out 2.0 APG against the 76ers in the two games.

Both Pierce and Iguodala are relied on heavily by their teams to provide great defense and efficient offense. Neither has been able to provide the offense consistently when these two teams have faced off this season, and you can bet that they’ll both be looking to change in this game.

Take Away Passing Lanes

Collins’ arrival in Philadelphia has helped the young 76ers mature at an incredibly high rate. The 76ers ranked 17th in the league last season in turnovers per game, and they’ve matured enough this season to move all the way up to fifth in that category. Philadelphia enters tonight’s game turning the ball over only 13.4 times per game.

The Celtics, however, have done a great job of taking away passing lanes for the Sixers, which eventually leads to some turnovers. Boston, which ranks third in the league in steals per game with an average of 8.6, grabbed eight steals in each of the first two meetings against Philadelphia.

Although the Sixers have limited their overall turnovers against the C’s this season, averaging just 12 per game, those steals have allowed Boston to get out in transition. Boston has scored 17.0 PPG on the fast break in the first two meetings. Taking away passing lanes and forcing those steals and turnovers will again be an integral piece of the Celtics’ bid to knock off the Sixers for a third time this season.