Friday, May 11, 2012

Looking Ahead To Sixers-Celtics 19

It is, of course, bad form to look a gift playoff series win in the mouth, especially when it's the first one in eight years (eight years!), and a completely unexpected #8 seed upset.

It is even worse form to feel anything but happy about the chance to ruin Boston Fan's year in a situation where you are completely playing with house money, since absolutely no one expected you to be here.

But if and when this ends like 11 of the previous 18 playoff meetings has ended -- with a Boston win -- we're going to think differently. And that dread is taking a lot of the fun out of tonight's unexpected celebration.

After all, two weeks ago, when Sixers-Bulls started, we were more or less convinced that the team had quit on the year, and that we'd see marginally more interesting playoff series when the Bulls worked over the far more game Bucks.

But then the series started, and Derrick Rose ended his year in the way that he was most likely to -- hurt and on the sidelines. And then Joakim Noah joined him, Spencer Hawes became a factor, and Philly went to work on winning the kind of games that young teams never win.

So.. here come the Celtics.

The last time these teams met in the playoffs, it was 2002, and the Sixers were the #6 seed in their hangover year after going to the Finals. In a best of five series, Boston rained down threes in a Game Five blowout, and Allen Iverson was burying his career in a post-season rant about practice. Seeing how Paul Pierce is the only player of consequence from either team that's still around, we don't need to talk about it very much.

Looking at the regular season games also doesn't teach us a ton. On March 7 in Philadelphia, the Sixers played what might have been their last really good game of the regular season, rolling the hot visitors with a 32-point win. Boston had come in winning seven in a row and looking to put the hammerlock on the division they would eventually win, but Evan Turner's career-high 26 and Elton Brand's efficient 18 were more than enough to turn the tide.

They did the deed again 17 days later in Philly, as Boston couldn't hit from distance, Brand had another great game, and Mikael Pietrus suffered an awful injury. Three weeks later in Boston, the Celtics returned the favor with a 24 point win, with Rajon Rondo leading the way with 15 assists, and Kevin Garnet getting 20; the Sixers shot 38.2% from the floor and never threatened.

So other than giving us the hint that both teams might enjoy home court a lot, the Sixers will have some confidence, and that garbage time might happen more than your usual playoff game, there's not much else to glean from the regular season.

From the team stats, we get a little more to the story. Neither team is going to score enough to excite; these are the 22nd and 26th ranked offenses in the Association, mostly due to pace issues. The Celtics have a slight edge in a lot of other categories (free throw shooting, three point shooting, assists), while the Sixers are historically excellent at preventing turnovers, keeping the game away from becoming a ref battle. and bench scoring. Boston also has home court, of course, and more playoff experience in one of their big three than the Sixers have on their whole team.

Surviving 8th seeds do not, as a rule, do all that well once the first round music stops. Last year's Grizz took out a wounded Spurs team, then lost in a war with OKC. The Warriors punked the Mavs in 2007, then got taken to the woodshed by the Jazz in five. The '98 Knicks were an 8 seed in the 50-game strike year, and got all the way to the Finals before losing to the Spurs; that's your most successful 8 seed ever. And finally, there's the '93 Mutumbo Nuggets, who took out the #1 seed Sonics, then came from 3-1 down against the Jazz before losing in Round 2. So three out of four teams lose in the second round, one goes to the Finals, and none ever win it all. They usually give a good effort, but not much more than that.

So there's not much to keep you from thinking that the Celtics win this in five ugly and infuriating games, all the while cackling over how much easier they've got it over the Heat having to face the Pacers. But the Sixers are still the youngest team in the league, and the Celtics are far from a flawless unit. They can look positively awful against athletic teams in a running game, not that this ever happens in the playoffs. Philly can defend; they can also win ugly. Finally, they might believe in destiny, catch Rondo in another ejection offense, or make the soft belly Boston bench a factor.

But when push comes to shove, there's a reason why 3 out of 4, and soon 4 out of 5, surviving 8 seeds lose in the second round.

Celtics in, sigh, five.

And man alive, it would be so nice to, once again, be wrong...

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