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May 15, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Fair Fight

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Boston 92, Philadelphia 91 (Celtics lead 1-0)
Pace: 92.1
Offensive Ratings: Boston 99.9, Philadelphia 98.9

In my series preview, I promised a close, brutal series. With both teams approaching a point per possession in Game One, I'm not sure how brutal it was, but it sure was close. For the Sixers, whom I picked to win the series in seven, the contest has to be looked at as a gigantic missed opportunity.

The Sixers led by as many as 13 points and by 10 in the fourth quarter. They came out in attack mode, building up early advantages in second-chance points, fastbreak chances and points in the paint -- all manifestations of Philly's athletic edge.

All the Celtics were getting were Kevin Garnett jumpers, and that was by design. Doug Collins has since said that he's willing to live with all those jumpers. Garnett scored 29 points on 12 for 20 shooting. He was 8 for 9 on long twos, a zone from which he hit 49 percent during the regular season. Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were the only two players who made more shots from the 16- to 23-foot zone and of the high-volume mid-range shooters, only Nowitzki was more accurate. You have give up something on the defensive end, but Collins might pick his poison a little more wisely.

Seven of Garnett's jumpers came off Rajon Rondo assists, which tells you a little bit about Doc Rivers' play-calling. Pick-and-pop, drive-and-dish -- the methodical Rondo-centric offense Boston has been running for years. This year, as I've written several times, the Celtics were a bottom-10 offense during the regular season. So while you might not be able to account for everything on the defensive end -- even against a poor offensive team -- I'm not so sure Collins needs to go out of his way to concede anything.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Barnett found room to work in was that Ray Allen came off the bench to play over 30 minute, and the Sixers paid him the type of respect his long career as a sharp-shooter demands. Allen's box score stats were modest. He scored 12 points on 4 of 10 shooting. However, the Celtics were +17 with him on the floor and their offense basically didn't function without him. Get this: the Celtics averaged 1.2 points per possession during the 33 minutes in which Allen was on the court. During the other 15 minutes, Boston barely cleared a half-point per trip.

Rondo posted a headline-grabbing triple-double and generally outplayed his point guard counterpart, Jrue Holiday. The two really didn't go head-to-head that often, with Lou Williams or Elston Turner often checking Rondo while they were on the floor, and several Sixers took turns initiating the offense. Still, in terms of raw point guard production, Boston' edge was substantial. Rondo had 13 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists, a haughty line undermined by his 15 field-goal attempts and seven turnovers. It was much better than Holiday's eight points on 13 shots, however, and Rondo's playmaking was the only offensive constant the Celtics could count on. Even Garnett's marksmanship owed a significant debt to the looks Rondo created. In the preview, I had mentioned that Holiday needed to keep Rondo from penetrating the lane at will. He didn't, nor did Turner or Williams.

Andre Iguodala did a bang-up job on Paul Pierce, holding him to 3 of 11 shooting, and generally won the small forward battle. However, if Rondo keeps shredding the Sixers defense with his penetration, Collins may have to switch Iguodala over to him and let Turner take a shot at the bigger Pierce. Rondo also was excellent in transition, a key part of why Boston outscored Philadelphia 14-13 in fastbreak points. This is a category the Sixers have got to win more often than not in this series, and they've got to do it by outrunning the Celtics at the four non-point guard positions.

Still and all, the Sixers would have likely pulled out the first game with better fourth quarter shot selection. Midrange jumpers launched from all over; Iguodala was 1 for 3, Turner was 0 for 2 and showed a disturbing insistence on going at Avery Bradley. Holiday went 1 for 4 and Williams 1 for 5. The Sixers hit some hero shots in the final minute to close the gap, but they would have been the chasees rather than the chasers had they executed their offense better in the middle part of the fourth quarter. Speaking of chasing ... probably not a good idea to give Rondo the entire court in which to run when you've got to foul in someone in the final seconds.

Philadelphia 82, at Boston 81 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 90.0
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 91.1, Boston 90.0

After two one-point games in Boston, it's on. This is shaping up to be the classic series we'd hoped for, a worthy addition to the library of great Sixers-Celtics matchups over the years. If anyone thinks the Sixers have the Celtics on the ropes, however, that person only needs to look back one round when it appeared the Hawks had a golden opportunity to go up 2-0 on Boston. These Celtics won't die easy. After two tremendous, intense fourth quarters, it's going to be a lot of fun watching the upstart 76ers try to put the Big Three era out of its misery.

Game Two followed the same script as Saturday's lid-lifter, only this one had a twist ending. The Sixers led by eight points early in the fourth quarter only to see the Celtics once again stage a late comeback and seize the lead. This time, the Sixers stayed on the attack and overcame Boston down the stretch. The Celtics got late threes from Garnett and Allen to make the score closer but the Sixers were in control during the final minute.

Philly took a page out of its first-round win over Chicago by pounding the Celtics on the line, getting 21 free throws to Boston's nine. Fastbreak points weren't a factor this time, with Celtics holding a 6-4 edge, but the Sixers' 11 offensive rebounds helping them overcome an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers.

The first half was ragged for both teams and the Celtics' stupor extended into the third quarter, when Philly held them to 4 for 17 shooting. The Sixers outscored Boston 21-11 in that period and it could have been worse had Philadelphia not missed five of its nine free throws. Iguodala went 1 for 5 from the charity stripe in that period. However, he once again stymied Pierce in what has become the key matchup of the series. Pierce scored just seven points in 37 minutes on 2 of 9 shooting and committed five turnovers.

Rondo racked up another 13 assists, but the Sixers did a much better job of harassing him, even though he only turned the ball over once. According to MySynergySports.com, the Celtics had 13 plays off pick-and-rolls and the ballhandler used up 11 of those, getting an average of just .55 points per play. Some of that was Rondo, some Pierce, but looking at the video the one thing you notice is that the Sixers were sticking with Boston's shooters away from the ball. The on-ball defender was fighting through the ballscreen and making his man take a tough shot. Rondo made some floaters, but the Celtics got just .76 points per 21 plays on spot-up jumpers. Garnett, after his scorching performance in Game One, was held to 15 points on 7 of 12 shooting. The number of shots is more important than the percentage.

As if to demonstrate the vagaries of small-sample plus-minus numbers, Allen's offensive impact was greatly diminished in the second game even though his box score line was better. In this instance, it may be more than coincidence as the Sixers seemed to do a better job of playing Boston straight up, closing up the lane when necessary, but not overhelping at the risk of leaving wide-open jump shooters. Allen can still create for himself and that's where some of his 17 points came from, but overall Boston hit just 9 of 26 from midrange. That offset the Celtics' 8 for 18 showing from deep after it was 2 for 18 in the first game.

The last three minutes were furious, with the Sixers outscoring Boston 13-12 to steal the win. In one three-possession stretch, Bradley hit a corner three off an inbounds to put Boston up by two. Holiday answered with a three that was, frankly, a bit of a hero shot, then Allen hit another three to put Boston ahead 75-74

The Sixers used Turner to initiate the offense most of the time during the final minutes and he proved to be capable of creating against Boston's staunch halfcourt defense. His ability to drive the ball and his natural instincts as a distributor play well in clutch situations, even if his initiative sometimes overcomes his reason. Boston tried Rondo and Pierce on Turner, who proved to be too strong for the former and too quick for the latter. Turner played the third-most fourth quarter minutes for Philly during the regular season, but he was a team-worst -81 in final periods. That combination of metrics has held up in the playoffs, but perhaps Monday's finish will signal a new trend.

Or maybe not. Nearly a quarter of the points scoring in Game Two came in the last half of the fourth quarter. The Celtics outscored Philly 20-17 during this span and the teams combined for 13 for 20 shooting, including 5 for 5 from beyond the arc. These are numbers that aren't likely to hold up going forward. The Celtics have accumulated a half-decade of evidence that they can execute in important situations, so really those results are more encouraging for the Sixers. If they can keep scoring in crunch time, they can win the series. Meanwhile, Boston has to get Pierce going.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

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