Game Preview: 76ers at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (31-24) crept one game closer to the third-seeded Pacers with a win Saturday night in Indiana. Now they’ll look to take another step away from the Philadelphia 76ers (29-26) when the teams meet at 6 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

The Celtics head into this evening’s Easter Sunday matchup with a two-game cushion for first place in the Atlantic Division. However, the 76ers have been victorious in the first two meetings between these two teams this season.

Philadelphia hosted the Celtics twice in March and recorded double-digit victories on both occasions. The average margin of victory in those games was 17.0 PPG. Since the Sixers and Celtics meet just three times this season, Philadelphia already holds the tiebreaker if these two tie for the Atlantic Division’s best record. That fact makes tonight’s meeting that much more important. A win would put the C’s three games ahead of the Sixers with 10 games to go. The likelihood of that happening is comfortingly high.

Boston has been climbing up the standings since the All-Star break and heads into tonight’s game having won six of its last eight games overall. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is trending downward. The Sixers have lost six of their past 10 games and are coming off of a loss last night to the previously-reeling Orlando Magic.

It was a tough Saturday night for Philadelphia’s starters. Shockingly, none of the team’s five starters scored more than seven points in the game. The fivesome combined to score just 31 points on the night. That’s quite a difference from their two performances against the Celtics this season, as four Philadelphia starters scored in double-figures in both of those contests.

Slowing down the Sixers’ starters will be important for Boston, but containing Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams might be an even higher priority. Williams, who leads the 76ers in scoring with 15.3 PPG, has averaged 17.0 PPG against the Celtics this season. Philadelphia has outscored the Celtics by 24 points during his 58 minutes of playing time in those two games.

Although Williams already has a reputation around the league for being a super sub, the Celtics now have their own such version. Ray Allen has been relegated to the bench for the past two games and has played fantastic in that role. He has scored 16.5 PPG in those two contests and is coming off of a 19-point outburst against the Pacers last night.

The fact that Allen is coming off of the bench means that this Celtics team will look much different than the one that has fallen to the 76ers twice this season. Avery Bradley is now in the starting lineup and disrupting opposing offenses, while Allen is bringing a solid scoring punch off of Boston’s bench. The dynamic of this Boston team has shifted with the new lineup and the C’s have proven that they can compete with – and beat – anyone in the league.

Now they need to prove that they can defeat this Philadelphia team. The 76ers have gotten the best of Boston this season, but for the first time in 2011-12, Philadelphia will head into a matchup against the Celtics while looking up at them in the Atlantic Division standings. The C’s hope that when Easter Sunday comes to a close, there will be even more separation between the two teams as they head into the final 10 games of their seasons.

In the Same Boat

This will be the third meeting of the season between the Celtics and the 76ers. In all three meetings, Boston will have played in the second night of a back-to-back. Finally, for the first time, Philadelphia will be in the same boat.

The 76ers are coming off of an 88-82 loss to the Magic Saturday night in Philadelphia. The close game prompted Doug Collins to play seven of his players at least 27 minutes, and Andre Iguodala logged a whopping 43 minutes. On the other hand, not a single Celtics player eclipsed 36 minutes of playing time Saturday night in Indiana. Keyon Dooling, who is likely to see some action against Philly, did not even enter the game last night.

The fact that both of these teams will be playing for the second time in as many days will certainly put them on a much more level playing field than they have been on this season. Both of them would rather be coming off of a day of rest, but this is probably the next best thing.

Execute in the Second Half

An issue that has plagued the Celtics on and off this season is their performance in third quarters. That issue has showed face as recently as Thursday night when they blew an 11-point halftime lead in Chicago. The good news is that on Saturday, the C’s were able to withstand a second-half push by the Pacers and hold on for the win.

Still, though, Philadelphia knows all about Boston’s propensity to struggle in third quarters. In these teams’ last meeting, on March 23, Boston led by six points at halftime before the 76ers dominated the third quarter. Philadelphia outscored the Celtics 37-17 in that period and ran away with the victory from there.

No matter what the halftime score is tonight, Boston will need to come out and execute in the second half. The Celtics need to compete for 48 minutes and not allow themselves to fall into any lulls. Doing so could cost them an important victory.

Boston Needs Balance

A quick look at Saturday’s box score would not indicate a double-digit victory for the Celtics. Only two starters scored in double-figures, and three of them actually scored four or less points on the night. Boston cannot afford a similar performance on Sunday in the second night of a back-to-back.

The C’s will be playing against a deep team tonight that possesses two weapons on its bench. Williams and Thaddeus Young are fantastic players and combined to score 31 points off the bench against the C’s when these teams last met on March 23.

There’s a pretty good chance those two will put up a similar performance tonight, and that makes Boston’s balance even more of a focal point. Playing on tired legs, the C’s will need everyone who steps onto the court to contribute solid minutes.