NBA Playoff Preview - Boston vs. Philadelphia

For younger fans, the rivalry between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics doesn't exist.

But, older followers of The Association know better and if you grew up as a Sixers or Celtics loyalist in the 1960s or 80s, you were a part of the greatest rivalry in sports.

If you think the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees' enmity is intense now -- you would have been captivated by the Sixers and Celtics. You see, comparing anything to Wilt's Sixers versus Russell's Celtics or Dr. J with his hands around Larry Bird's throat would be like saying Mayweather-Cotto was the equal of Ali-Frazier.

The Sixers and Celtics had it all -- history, passion, hate, envy and perhaps what fuels a rivalry most -- similar talent on both sides.

That storied conflict will be renewed in the Eastern Conference semifinals when the two Atlantic Division combatants square off.

Boston, the No. 4 seed which has won five straight Atlantic crowns since bringing in future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team with Paul Pierce, punched its ticket to the semis by jettisoning fifth-seeded Atlanta in six games.

Garnett swished a turnaround jumper with 30.4 seconds remaining to put the Celtics in front during the clincher and they held on from there for a dramatic 83-80 victory at TD Garden.

"Anytime you go through a series and you're able to come on top, that's always a plus," Garnett said. "Sure now we'll relax and enjoy this a little bit and then get back to work tomorrow, but yeah, it feels good."

The Sixers, meanwhile, also advanced in six games, becoming just the fifth eight-seed in NBA history to dispose of a No. 1 by taking out the injury- plagued Chicago Bulls.

The embattled Andre Iguodala drained two free throws with 2.2 seconds to play in Game 6 to lift Philadelphia in a thrilling 79-78 win.

"I don't know how you could write a better script," said Sixers head coach Doug Collins. "(Andre) struggled all year at the foul line, stepped up and made two free throws to win a playoff series to get to the second round for the first time."

Many consider Philadelphia topping Chicago as fool's gold since the Bulls were without superstar point Derrick Rose and starting center Joakim Noah for most of the series. That said, the Bulls still thought they had enough pieces to beat a flawed Sixers team and is instead looking for tee times.

"Things change so quickly," Collins said. "Joakim Noah the other day steps on an ankle. We saw Derrick Rose blow out a knee. You've got to take care of your business."

So far the 76ers have and their next order of business is in Beantown.

"I think it [winning in the first round] was just a stepping stone for a young group of guys to come together," Sixers guard Lou Williams said. "Obviously we have had our ups and downs. We started out the season on fire and then we didn't' have as much success, so it has been a rollercoaster. It just feels good to prevail and move on to the second round."

This rivalry starts all the way back in 1949-50 when the Sixers franchise called Syracuse home. Since the team relocated to the City of Brotherly Love, the 76ers and Celtics have met in the postseason 11 different times and eight of those were Eastern Conference finals. Boston has taken seven of the 11 series and is 35-30 overall in the playoffs against Philadelphia.

This season the Sixers won two of three over the Celtics with each team holding serve on its home floor. Philadelphia routed Boston in the first meeting of the season at Wells Fargo Center on March 7 and won easily again 16 days later, in South Philly, before the Celtics rebounded on Easter Sunday by routing the Sixers 103-79.

"Well, at least we don't have to travel, we can look at it that way," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And that's not the greatest team to pick to play. We've got a bunch of gazelles coming in here; they only beat us by 1,000 in two of our three games. I can tell you the key to the series right now is we can't turn the ball over. If we do, it's a guaranteed basket against them."


POINT GUARD: Rajon Rondo is the game's best pure playmaker, a true quarterback that was the first Celtic to lead the NBA in assists since Bob Cousy turned the trick in 1960. Opposing coaches usually want to turn Rondo into a scorer since his jumper is still below average and he's so dangerous when distributing the basketball.

"He can control a game by getting assists or by scoring. He's definitely the leader of the team and he plays with a little chip on his shoulder because they always talk about the Big Three," Former Boston center Shaquille O'Neal said of Rondo.

The Sixers thought Jrue Holiday was a future star but the UCLA product took a major step back this season. He started slow off the lockout and really never found his game until the first round against Chicago where he was the Sixers' leading scorer and played solid defense throughout. When right, Holiday is one the top 10 defensive point guards in the league and will make big shots in the guts of the game. At just 21 years old, however, Holiday remains far too inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.


SHOOTING GUARD: Evan Turner is a multi-talented player that isn't one of Collins' favorites but when on, he can score, distribute and rebound the basketball. Turner, in fact, may be the best rebounding two guard in the NBA and is a one-man fastbreak without the outlet pass, making things very difficult for a slow-footed team. He is, however, like most of the Sixers' younger players at being far too inconsistent. Turner tends to start looking at the referees when things aren't going his way.

Ray Allen played in just 46 games this season and has struggled with a sore right ankle, which opened the door for Rivers to get second-year guard Avery Bradley into the mix. Despite being undersized, Bradley is a dogged defender that also brings much needed youth and athleticism to the aging C's. Bradley has continued to start in the playoffs with Allen providing much- needed offense off the bench.

"Avery Bradley has been one of the best stories in the NBA this year," former player and general manager Steve Kerr said. "Last season, he couldn't make a shot. He was a world-class defender but couldn't earn any time because he didn't know what he was doing offensively and didn't have much confidence. This year, he's exploded. It started with his weak-side cutting, finding ways to get easy baskets and he's got his confidence [up]."


CENTER: Boston pulled the plug on the oft-injured Jermaine O'Neal late in the season and has been playing small with Garnett in the middle for major minutes. While not nearly the player that he once was, Garnett has been playing solid basketball and put an impressive 28-point, 14-rebound performance against Atlanta in game 6.

Philadelphia's Spencer Hawes was one of the most improved players in the NBA during the Sixers' hot start to the regular season but back and Achilles' problems stopped him in his tracks, so much so that Collins benched him for rookie Nic Vucevic late in season. Vucevic, who doesn't have functional NBA strength, never seized the job, however, and Hawes got another chance and came through against Chicago, playing two really impressive games against the Bulls. The Sixers need him badly since they lack depth up front and are at their best when Hawes, a wide body with a high basketball IQ, nice shooting touch and the ability to pass from the pivot, is playing well.


SMALL FORWARD: Iguodala remains Philadelphia's best all-around player, and is one of the best two or three perimeter defenders in the NBA. More than a few stars have had bad nights on "Iggy Island" but his offensive game and free throw shooting, never the strength of his game, have regressed mightily this season until the series with the Bulls. That said, Iguodala can stuff the stat sheet like few others but Collins would like him to stop relying so much on the jumper and become more of a slasher who can get to the charity stripe when things are bogging down.

Paul Pierce remains one of the game's best closers and has always been an underrated defender. His tremendous body control and ability to bury free throws makes him a nightmare in the half-court, especially in late game situations. Pierce has also made himself into more than a capable defender but is dealing with a sprained MCL in his left knee.


POWER FORWARD: Before a devastating Achilles injury Elton Brand was a horse on both ends of the floor. These days Brand still has a sweet mid-range stroke when feeling good and is an underrated defender thanks to his smarts and an innate shot-blocking ability. His lift and explosion just wasn't there against the Bulls, however, and the jumper was flat, often finding the front rim.

Brandon Bass gives Boston some toughness and strength up front along with a solid mid-range jumper himself.


BENCH: The Sixers had two big-time players coming off their bench in Lou Williams, an extremely talented offensive player that provides instant offense and was second in the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year voting, as well as forward Thaddeus Young, a whirling dervish on the blocks that confounds opponents with a wide array of low-post moves.

Williams struggled shooting the ball in Round 1 but can go off at any time.

"Williams is a versatile player because he can play both guard positions," NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony said. "Obviously a natural scorer of the basketball. The kind of guy you win with on your basketball team."

Young, meanwhile, struggles mightily with lengthier players that are as athletic as him and was shut down by Chicago's Taj Gibson but Boston doesn't have a player like that.

Collins also has sharpshooter Jodie Meeks, who he calls a glue-guy but no big bodies. Vucevic, has potential and great court savvy for a young player but he's just not ready. Fellow rookie Lavoy Allen, a decent rebounder and defender, will get the extra big man minutes.

Boston's depth looks shaky on paper but Allen can turn that around by himself when he heats up. Unfortunately the veteran is playing on the balky right ankle that will likely require surgery after the season.

Two-way guard Keyon Dooling, swingmen Marquis Daniels and Mickael Pietrus as well as young big men Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins also get minutes from Rivers and all think defense first.

"Doc Rivers takes Kevin Garnett out of the game early and when he puts him back in the second unit is on the floor," ex-NBA coach Mike Fratello said when talking about how Rivers utilizes his bench. "[Ray] Allen and Garnett together provide enough offensive punch to the second unit that they can either hold their own or they build up the lead that they have to that point."


COACHING: Collins is a passionate, intense mentor that has had his ups and downs with his young players this season. There's no question that Collins is a good, perhaps very good NBA coach, but his previous three stops featured quick spikes and a leveling off period before his players finally tuned out. To be blunt, shelf life is always a concern with Collins.

"I think Philadelphia played above their head," Former Sixer and current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber said. "I think their team is better than their individual talented coach Doug Collins has done a great job. I think they are scrappy and they play hard."

Rivers, on the other hand, is one of the most even-keeled coaches in the game and a perfect fit for a veteran-laden team. Doc is as cool and calm as it gets and he's never going to be overwhelmed no matter the stakes. Rivers is also probably the classiest coach, perhaps in all of professional sports.


PREDICTION: Offensively, these two teams are polar opposites. The Celtics are a veteran group that thrives in a set offense and has a natural quarterback distributing the ball to proven players in the spots they like it. The Sixers, on the other hand, are by and large a young, athletic group that's much deeper than Boston on the wings and needs to get out in transition to generate offense. In the half court, Philadelphia tends to bog down and settle for jump shots from below average marksman.

"That's where they are at their best, in the open floor," Anthony said. "[Evan] Turner, [Andre] Iguodala, [Jrue] Holiday, those guys all have the versatility to make plays in the open floor."

Defensively both teams are in the upper echelon with Boston ranking No. 2 in the NBA and the Sixers just a step behind.

"It is going to be very ugly," former NBA sharpshooter Robert Horry said when discussing the series. "Philly is a team that is very active. They can play a lot of positions and a lot of different roles."

Boston has the proven options to go to in a tight situation and in the end the Celtics experience and home-court advantage should tell the tale.

"I like Boston to win that series," Former Sixers star and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "I don't think the Sixers can beat the Boston Celtics. Philadelphia plays extremely hard and are very well coached, but they just almost lost to a team without their two best players. Unless Boston loses their two best players, they are not going to beat them."