The Celtics and 76ers are gearing up for a Game 7 in a series that has been as competitive as hoped, if not always aesthetic as we'd like. It's a classic experience versus youth matchup, at least in terms of recent playoff experience. The Celtics will be playing in their sixth Game 7 during the five years of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen era. They're 3-2 so far, with the last one a seventh-game defeat against the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals.
The Sixers, meanwhile, haven't been in a Game 7 since 2001, when they knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks to earn a trip to the Finals. Philly's Doug Collins has never led a team to a Game 7 as a coach, and experienced only one as a player -- he scored 10 points when the Sixers knocked off Boston in the seventh game in the 1977 Eastern Conference semifinals.
For Philadelphia to overcome the experience deficit, it'll have to break some patterns in this back-and-forth series. The teams have alternated wins for six games, and the last two Boston victories have been very similar. In each case, the Celtics broke out of the defensive tug-of-war that has marked the series to put up big numbers on the offensive end on their home floor.
If the Sixers can keep the Celtics' shooters from gaining confidence early, the balance swings their way. Both teams have played a number of close games in the postseason, but it's the upstart Sixers who have fared better. Philadelphia is 6-1 during the postseason in games that have been within five points during the last five minutes, and only San Antonio has put up a better offensive efficiency in those situations. That's not really what you'd expect, but Philly's egalitarian offense has held up well during crunch time.
What else have we learned so far that might indicate how the deciding game could go?
1. The spotlight is on Boston's offense.
Clearly, the focus will be on the Celtics' scoring, or the Sixers' ability to prevent it, however you want to look at it. On its end, Philadelphia has put up offensive efficiencies between roughly 90 and 100 points per 100 possessions in each game of the series. It's possible they could up that by a point or two if someone gets hot from 3-point range, but the Sixers have shot just 4 for 18 from there combined over the last two games. Their efficiency could finish under that range if they suffer a wave of turnovers, but taking care of the ball is the Sixers' specialty on offense. Chances are, Philadelphia will put up an offensive efficiency somewhere in the 90s.
Will that be enough to win? It depends on which Celtics offense shows up. During Boston's three wins, the Celtics have scored 110.6 points per 100 possessions. During its three losses, that figure has sunk to 85.8. The Sixers' ability to get stops and turn Game 7 into a defensive battle will be the most important factor of the deciding game.
2. Boston's bellwether player isn't Rondo.
How Rajon Rondo goes, so go the Celtics, or at least that's a common observation made about the Celtics' attack. That hasn't entirely been the case in this series. Rondo has averaged 16.3 points on 51 percent shooting and 15.0 assists in Boston's wins. In their losses, he's put up 10.7 points on 37.5 percent shooting and 11.3 assists. Because Rondo only forces the scoring part of his game when the Boston offense is struggling, it's telling that they've relied on him to put up monster numbers.
However, Garnett may have emerged as the pivotal player in this series, though his numbers kind of go hand-in-hand Rondo's playmaking. Garnett has averaged 25.3 points on 59 percent shooting in Boston's wins. He's at 14.7 and 43.2 percent in the losses. Twenty-two of Garnett's 51 field goals in the series have come off Rondo assists, and more than 40 percent of his attempts have come from 15 to 19 feet. Philly generally traps Rondo after Garnett sets a ballscreen and closes to the 3-point shooters off the ball. Garnett's long jumpers are what's left, so Boston needs a good shooting night from him to win.
3. Small forwards are the key matchup.
Since Andre Iguodala outscored Pierce during the first two games, Pierce has had the upper hand in the last four. Counter intuitively, Pierce has performed better in the Celtics' three losses, getting 18 points on just 34 percent shooting when Boston wins, and 18 points on 46 percent shooting when they don't. In the victories, Pierce has overcome his poor shooting by attacking and getting to the line, to the tune of over 10 foul shots per game. It's important that Pierce occupy Iguodala with his attacking style to keep him from playing the passing lanes and getting out in transition.
At the other end, Pierce will be content to let Iguodala take long jumpers. Iguodala is just 8 for 27 from midrange in the series and has gotten 61.5 percent of his points either on fastbreaks or for 3-point range. Iguodala is 9 for 15 on 3s above the break, mostly in catch-and-shoot situations, but that's not his game. Pierce will live with a couple of 3s as long as Iguodala isn't breaking down the defense and throwing down some of his vicious dunks.
4. Ray Allen is not himself.
The Sixers have had a lot of success by attacking Ray Allen and his gimpy ankle both with dribble penetration and in the post when he's matched up with Evan Turner. The Sixers will continue to go at Allen until he proves he can keep the ball in front of him. If he can't, then Doc Rivers may be forced to play Mickael Pietrus heavy minutes again, something that didn't work out so well in Game 6. The Celtics have been virtually identical offensively during the playoffs with Allen on the floor versus the bench, but they've been about 12 points per 100 possessions better on the defensive end when he sits. Boston is still scrambling to fill the void of Avery Bradley, who is out for the rest of the playoffs with a shoulder injury.
5. Lavoy Allen has outplayed Elton Brand.
Collins has continued to start Brand out of respect for the veteran's role in Philadelphia over the last few years, but Brand has been thoroughly throttled in his matchup with Garnett. The numbers are remarkable. With Garnett and Brand both on the floor, the Celtics have outscored Philadelphia by 45 points in the series. Brand has done fine defensively, but Garnett has shut him down on the other end. Philadelphia has scored just 82 points per 100 possessions with Brand on the floor against Boston, by far the worst mark on the Sixers.
Meanwhile, Allen has posted Philadelphia's best plus-minus numbers against the Celtics. With him on the bench and Garnett on the floor, the Celtics have outscored the Sixers by 58 points. When Allen plays against Garnett, the Sixers actually hold a narrow advantage. Overall, Collins has basically split minutes between Brand and Allen, but it's pretty clear that the he needs to tilt the playing time heavily in Allen's favor, whether or not he keeps Brand in the starting unit.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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