Game Preview: 76ers at Celtics

BOSTON – The playoffs begin next weekend, and there may be a preview of Game 1 taking place in Boston tonight. If the playoffs tipped off today, the Boston Celtics (53-23) and Philadelphia 76ers (40-37) would face off against each other in the first round. Those two teams are set to collide with each other at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Tonight’s game, as well as that possible playoff series, should be highly competitive. The C’s and Sixers have played three games against each other this season and the margin of victory has been one, four and three points in those contests, respectively. Boston won two of those games, but lost the most recent meeting.

Ray Allen believes that such a fact should be in the forefront of the Celtics’ minds tonight and that his team should use that loss as motivation.

“I expect to get a lot (out of tonight’s game) because I’m mad they beat us the last time,” said Allen. “So that’s got to be fresh in everybody’s mind that we’re home, and we’ve got to right the ship.”

Allen also believes that in order to steer the ship back in the right direction, the Celtics need to be able to open and close the game in strong fashion.

“I’d like to see us have great energy to start the game and great energy to finish the game,” Allen said. “How we played in San Antonio, I thought we played that way throughout. They jumped on us early, but we still consistently – we got the ball up the floor, we played great defense. Regardless of who we play, that’s the way I want to see us play for the rest of these games.”

That victory in San Antonio that Allen is alluding to is actually the only game out of Boston’s last four contests in which it has outscored the opponent in the fourth quarter. During the last four games overall, the Celtics have been outscored in three of the four first quarters and three of the four fourth quarters. They are 2-2 during that stretch.

Allen clearly sees that trend as troublesome and he would love to see it change tonight against a red-hot Sixers team. Boston prides itself on the fact that it hasn’t lost three consecutive games all season, but Philadelphia hasn’t experienced such a streak since all the way back in November. The 76ers began the season with a 5-13 record, and they are 35-24 since.

One of those victories came against the Celtics back on March 11 in Philadelphia. The 76ers won that game, which was close throughout, by a score of 89-86. Each team had five players score in double-figures during that contest, yet neither shot better than 42 percent from the field.

That wasn’t the first time these two teams have played a nail-biter that was highlighted by staunch defense. Through three games against each other this season, neither team is averaging more than 91 PPG and the Celtics and 76ers are shooting just 44.9 percent and 43.4 percent, respectively.

Philadelphia’s offense may experience even more struggles tonight, as it will be playing without its offensive spark plug off the bench, Lou Williams. He is currently sidelined with a strained right hamstring and may be tabled until the playoffs. Williams averaged 12.0 PPG on 50.0 percent shooting in three contests against the Celtics this season.

The Celtics will also be missing a spark off of the bench, but fortunately their injured list will likely be limited to just one player. Shaquille O’Neal suffered a strained right calf during Sunday’s win over the Pistons and will not return until the end of this week, at the earliest. However, Boston had its other 14 players fully participate in Monday’s practice and, pending no setbacks, they should all be available tonight.

This means that Nenad Krstic, who suffered a bruised knee Thursday night in San Antonio, will likely return to the lineup tonight. That could be a huge boost for Boston, because Krstic had his best game in a Celtics uniform on March 11 against the Sixers. He finished that contest with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Those 15 boards were more than double that of any other teammate and helped the C’s hold a 45-44 advantage in the rebounding department.

While there will be a couple of key players missing from this game tonight, it should still be a great game to watch. Boston and Philadelphia have matched up evenly throughout this season, and the odds are that they will do the same again tonight in a possible playoff preview.

The Celtics Need KG

Kevin Garnett hasn’t had his best games of the season against these 76ers. In fact, he hasn’t had a great game in any of the three contests. Garnett is averaging just 13.3 PPG and 6.3 RPG against Philadelphia this season, and both of those numbers are a significant drop off of his season averages.

Elton Brand is the man who Garnett will be facing off against throughout the majority of the game, and KG has a size advantage in that matchup. Brand stands at just 6-foot-9, while Garnett is pushing 7-feet. Brand has a stockier body, but KG has greater length. Despite the size advantage for Garnett, Brand has still been able to average 14.3 PPG on 50.0 percent shooting as well as 10.3 RPG against Boston this season.

The Celtics haven’t been able to witness Garnett dominating that matchup yet this season, but they would love to see that change tonight. Boston operates at its finest when it’s playing inside-out basketball, and Garnett will be the key cog in establishing that play in this game.

Deadline Acquisitions

Boston’s newest players will undoubtedly play a large role in this game. If Krstic plays, he will certainly be relied on for solid minutes in the paint, while Jeff Green will also be looked at to provide a boost off of the bench.

Green and Krstic were Boston’s best players against Philadelphia on March 11, as they were the team’s leading scorers with 18 and 16 points, respectively. They also combined to grab 19 rebounds on the night.

In order to win this game, as well as be successful in the playoffs, Boston will need those two players to be effective. Neither has been able to produce on a consistent basis since that last meeting with the 76ers, and the C’s would most certainly love to see that type of play return tonight.

Pierce vs. Iguodala

The matchup of Garnett and Brand is very important in this game, but the two most dynamic players in the contest will be facing off at the other forward position. Paul Pierce and Andre Iguodala have taken each other’s scoring abilities away this season, and thus made each other find other ways to affect the game.

Pierce and Iguodala are averaging just 10.3 PPG and 12.0 PPG, respectively, during three games against each other this season. Iguodala has won the battle overall, though, as he has been able to rebound and assist on a more consistent basis than Pierce. During Philadelphia’s win last month, Iguodala nearly finished with a triple-double when he recorded 13 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He also flirted with that achievement in these teams’ first meeting of the season, when he finished with 14 points, five rebounds and 11 assists.

Boston’s captain has done a great job of taking away Iguodala’s scoring, but the rest of Pierce’s game hasn’t been very strong against the Sixers. He hasn’t scored the basketball and he hasn’t been able to limit Iguodala’s ability to facilitate. Depite that trend, however, the C’s have won two of the three meetings. If Pierce can bounce back and provide his typical play tonight, it should be enough to give his team a third win over the Sixers this season.