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May 24, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Tired Legs

by Bradford Doolittle

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GAME FOUR

at Philadelphia 92, Boston 83 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 89.5
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 102.8, Boston 92.8

GAME FIVE

at Boston 101, Philadelphia 85 (Celtics lead 3-2)
Pace: 82.4
Offensive Ratings: Boston 122.5, Philadelphia 103.1

GAME SIX

at Philadelphia 82, Boston 72 (Series tied 3-3)
Pace: 85.9
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 95.5, Boston 87.3

No, it wasn't pretty, but the Sixers staved off elimination on Wednesday in a game played exactly the way they needed it to be played. The Celtics looked old, slow and battered, and Boston's 33-percent shooting seemed as much a product of their own lack of energy as it was Philadelphia's defense.

Boston's tired legs manifested in several ways, on both ends of the court. First, there was the shooting: 3 of 14 from deep and just 8 for 23 in the paint. However, it was just as big of a problem at the other end. With Avery Bradley still unavailable and likely out for the rest of the postseason because of his shoulder injury, Doc Rivers was forced to play a gimpy-ankled Ray Allen for 26 minutes on a night he probably shouldn't have been playing at all. The Sixers went at Allen on the offensive end, attacking him off the dribble and in the post with Evan Turner. The Sixers' ability to get into the lane consistently gave them just enough offense to win.

Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams were the keys to the dribble penetration. Holiday was aggressive at keeping his dribble alive and working into the paint. Doug Collins ran a ton of ballscreens to set up Holiday up and even though he's not the best decision-maker against the kind of traps Boston threw at him, the Celtics just didn't have the legs to rotate quickly enough to cut off his path to the paint. Williams provided a huge spark of energy in the second half, going right around Boston's defense to create shots for himself and others. Williams' six assists were as big as his 11 points.

The game could have been a blowout and perhaps should have been. The Sixers missed 11 of their 28 free throws, hit just 1 of 9 from three-point range and gave up a startling 14 offensive rebounds. Philadelphia wasn't playing with optimum energy, either, but with more of an athletic base and fewer injury problems, the Sixers were better able to withstand Wednesday's slugfest.

In our series preview, I predicted a seven-game series. Here's what I wrote:

Now that the Bulls are out of the way, I think the consensus is that a Heat-Celtics conference final is the new inevitability. The Sixers-Celtics matchup is much closer than people realize. After all, the Sixers actually had a better point differential during the regular season. Philadelphia is playing inspired ball right now, while the Celtics sort of just survived an ugly series against a battered Hawks team. I'm seeing this as a long, brutal matchup that we'll remember for a long time. And I think the Sixers will find just enough offense to survive and disappoint network executives from coast to coast.

In predicting a seven-game series win for the Sixers, obviously that meant I believed that they could take a Game 7 on Boston's home floor. If that's really going to happen, they'll have to break a series that has fallen into some clear-cut patterns:

GAME 1: at Boston 92, Philadelphia 91 ; Pace: 92.1; ORTG: Boston 99.9, Philadelphia 98.9
GAME 2: Philadelphia 82, at Boston 81 ; Pace: 90.0; ORTG: Philadelphia 91.1, Boston 90.0
GAME 3: at Boston 107, Philadelphia 91; Pace: 85.1; ORTG: Boston 125.2, Philadelphia 106.5
GAME 4: at Philadelphia 92, Boston 83 ; Pace: 89.5; ORTG: Philadelphia 102.8, Boston 92.8
GAME 5: at Boston 101, Philadelphia 85; Pace: 82.4; ORTG: Boston 122.5, Philadelphia 103.1
GAME 6: at Philadelphia 82, Boston 72 ; Pace: 85.9; ORTG: Philadelphia 95.5, Boston 87.3

The first two games were very similar, with both teams playing faster than anticipated and splitting a pair of nail-biters that came down to the final minute. Since then, the games have alternated based on home floor. Boston has exploded offensively in the last two games at the Garden, while the Sixers have taken a pair of grinders on their home floor. To me, the key question is whether the Celtics have enough left for another offensive burst. Will they be able to feed off their home crowd and rely on their years of high-level playoff experience to get on another roll? Or will playing for a third time in six nights, with a pair of plane trips thrown in, be too much to overcome?

With Bradley out, the temptation will be to lean on Allen for big minutes again. However, if he's not able to defend better than he did on Wednesday and can't knock down shots he normally hits, Rivers may have to turn to Mickael Pietrus early on Saturday and ride him hard. Pietrus wasn't much of a factor on either end of the floor in Game 6, scoring five points on six shots in 35 minutes and not really helping a whole lot on the defensive end, either. Will there be a surprise contribution? Could Rivers dust off Sasha Pavlovic, or even give E'Twaun Moore some run? I like the latter idea, for at least 8-10 minutes. I'd also like to see Boston activate JaJuan Johnson instead of Sean Williams. Young, fresh legs deployed at just the right time on Saturday could be the spark Boston needs.

The battle on Boston's offensive end will decide the game. Philly has been reliably in the 0.9 to 1.0 point per possession range through the series and only a spate of turnovers or a hot shooting night from deep is going to skew those numbers one way or another. Boston has a 110.6 Offensive Rating in its wins this series, but just an 85.8 mark in its losses. The bellwether player is Kevin Garnett, who scored 20 points in Game 6, but needed 20 shots to get there. He's averaged 25.3 points on 59 percent shooting in Boston's wins. He's at 14.7 and 43.2 percent in the losses. The Sixers continue to give Garnett the midrange jumper, and if he doesn't knock it down, the Celtics might not turn the scoreboard often enough to win. Rajon Rondo has been similarly up and down, but that kind of works hand-in-hand with Garnett's success at converting jumpers off the pick-and-pop.

Paul Pierce has actually played much better in Boston's losses in this series, but he'll almost certainly come out hyper-aggressive on Saturday. It will be essential for Andre Iguodala to get him off his game early. The start of Saturday's game will be key. If Boston can get on an early roll, then those old legs might not feel quite as heavy.

The Sixers just need to focus on their lock-down defense and their specialties on the offensive end: ball sharing and ball protection. When they've gotten in trouble in the series, it's been because someone decides to Step Up. The Sixers just need to execute Collins' play calls and let the offense feed off their defensive energy. Philly doesn't have that go-to player like Pierce who is going to try to carry his team on his shoulders. Someone may emerge as that kind of player, for one night, but if so, he's going to come to fore through the flow of the game. In particular, Turner needs to watch his Ps and Qs and not try to do too much.

It's hard to know what to expect on Saturday because we just don't know how much the Celtics will have left to give. But we do know that they've come through in similar games many times over the years, occasionally just when it appeared that they were on their last legs. It will be incumbent on the Sixers to come out in Game 7 and remind the Celtics just how old they are.

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

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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