Game Preview: Celtics at 76ers

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BOSTON – Much like their first meeting of the season, the Boston Celtics (25-21) and Philadelphia 76ers (26-21) will have a lot on the line when they meet at 8 p.m. tonight at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Celtics will be hoping for a different result this time around.

The winner of these teams’ March 7 meeting in Philadelphia was guaranteed to head out of the arena in the top slot in the Atlantic Division. The Sixers took advantage of that setting with a 103-71 win.

The same scenario exists heading into tonight’s game, as Boston, which trails Philadelphia by a half-game in the standings, can leapfrog the Sixers for first place with a victory.

Much like the Celtics team that will head into tonight’s game, the one that took the floor on March 7 was riding high. It had just won its fifth consecutive game out of the All-Star break one night before and was ready to put its name atop the division with a momentous victory in Philadelphia. The Sixers, however, had a different plan.

Thanks to Boston playing its third game in four nights, the young 76ers dominated the matchup and took home the victory. The M.O. of the Sixers, balance, played a large role in the Celtics’ loss. Six Philadelphia players scored in double-figures and five grabbed at least four rebounds.

Evan Turner was the biggest spark of all for the division-leading 76ers. He poured in a career-high 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting to go along with nine boards. His performance, combined with solid games from several other Sixers, proved to be too much for Boston.

The Celtics clearly played on heavy legs and shot just 35.0 percent from the field in that game. No one on Boston’s roster grabbed more than five rebounds and only one player, Avery Bradley (2-for-3), made more than half of his shots.

A performance like that is unlikely to resurface for the Celtics tonight. After two days off, Boston came out and smothered the high-powered Milwaukee Bucks last night in a 100-91 victory. The C’s shot 48.3 percent from the field and three of their players recorded double-doubles. Their defense grabbed 13 steals and limited Milwaukee to just 40.0 percent shooting.

Paul Pierce, who scored a game-high 25 points, believes that rest played a large factor in his performance, and the rest of his teammates likely echo his feelings.

“That’s what a couple of days off will do to me,” Pierce said after the win. “I get in there with some fresh legs. I had a little zip in my step tonight.”

Boston obviously played last night, but there should be plenty of zip left in the team for tonight’s game. Only one of the team’s starters, Brandon Bass, eclipsed 35 minutes of playing time last night. The team will also have some extra motivation as they look to avenge their awful loss to this Philadelphia team that took place about two weeks ago.

Many of the facts surrounding this game are eerily similar to those of the first matchup between these two Atlantic Division rivals. However, some of the most important factors of all, highlighted by Boston’s recent time off, may contribute to a very different ending this time around.

Different Teams

The first meeting between these two teams took place pretty recently, but both teams will look very different when they take the floor tonight. Boston’s lineup will be missing a key player, while Philadelphia’s will add a pair of important ones.

Chris Wilcox’s last game of the season was ironically the March 7 loss in Philadelphia. Wilcox, who was getting better and better as the season progressed, was diagnosed with an aortic heart condition just days after that game. He is now out for the remainder of the season and will undergo heart surgery on Thursday.

On the other side of the ball, two of Philly’s most important players are back in the lineup. Starting center Spencer Hawes has returned from an Achilles’ tendon injury and has played four games, including a double-double Monday night against Charlotte. He is averaging nearly 10 PPG and 8 RPG this season to go along with a 54.7 percent shooting clip.

The Sixers will also have Thaddeus Young, one of the highest-scoring reserves in the league, available for tonight’s game. He missed the March 7 matchup due to an illness.

Big Minutes for Stiemsma

When Wilcox went down for the season, joining Jermaine O’Neal on that list, Boston became ultra thin at the center position. It forced Doc Rivers to turn Kevin Garnett into the team’s full-time center and Greg Stiemsma has taken over as the backup center. No one could have predicted what has happened since.

Stiemsma, a rookie who had previously seen his best days as a basketball player in the NBA Development League, has been fantastic. His numbers won’t jump off the stat sheet, but he is contributing each and every night. Stiemsma is coming off of the best overall game of his professional career last night in Milwaukee. He stuffed the box score with six points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals and five blocks.

The big rookie probably won’t log a box score like that again tonight, but the C’s still need him to play well while he’s on the floor. Against a team like Philadelphia, which ranks fifth in the league in rebounding, Stiemsma’s contributions will be as important as ever.

Execute on Offense

The Celtics are at their best when they are “running their stuff,” as Rivers likes to say. They did not run their stuff against the Sixers in the first go-around.

As noted earlier, Boston shot just 35.0 percent from the floor back on March 7. The team totaled just 16 assists. Since that date, however, the offense has been clicking at an astounding level. The Celtics are averaging an incredible 27.4 assists in their eight games since the loss in Philadelphia.

That type of team offense and great execution will need to continue tonight if the C’s want to grab a win. Philadelphia owns the best defense in the league in terms of opponent scoring and opponent field goal percentage. The only way for Boston to overcome that great defense is by sharing the ball and running its offensive sets to perfection.