Celtics-Sixers could spark old fire

BOSTON -- It's an article of faith in the NBA that the playoffs are really, really, really different from the regular season. They are. You play the same team at least four games in a row. There is limited travel. There are no back-to-backs. Someone wins and moves on.

But there are times when regular-season meetings between teams offer a true harbinger of what might transpire should those same two teams meet in the playoffs. All those Boston-Philly series in the 1980s? They mirrored the games of the regular season, which were always wars.

Back then, however, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers usually met for all the Eastern Conference marbles. It was the natural order of things. They were the two best teams in the conference. Their exhibition games were hate-fests; one, in 1983, had three fights and resulted in Boston patriarch Red Auerbach charging the floor from his loge seat in pursuit of Moses Malone.

This time around, with both teams well removed from the Larry Bird-Julius Erving days, the Celtics and Sixers could meet in the playoffs once again -- and for the first time since 2002. They could meet in a 3-vs.-6 matchup (which is where they were in the standings going into the game Tuesday) or in a 2-vs.-7 series (given that Philly now is even in the loss column with the Knicks and the Celtics are tied with the Heat).

The fact that the Sixers are even in the playoff discussion at this point of the season is a story unto itself. They looked unfit for the D-League after a pathetic performance in the exhibition season at Manchester, N.H. ("I was wondering that night if we were going to beat anybody," team boss Rod Thorn said.)

They then broke from the gates losing 13 of their first 16. But heading into Tuesday night's game, the Sixers had the same post-All-Star break record (13-8) as the Celtics and had already clinched a playoff berth.

If these teams were to meet in the first round, it would be without the mutual loathing and antipathy that characterized the battles in the 1980s (and also in 2002, as uber-villain Allen Iverson was with the Sixers.) No one fights anymore. And how can you hate a team with Elton Brand, coached by Doug Collins and run by the amiable Thorn?

Hate? No. Fear? Quite possibly. How about this for a factoid? Not until the third quarter of the fourth meeting between the teams did the Celtics get so much as a double-digit lead. In the first 14 quarters these teams played, the Celtics' biggest advantage was six points. (The Sixers' was 10.)

In the first 14 quarters, there were 34 ties and 63 lead changes. And the first three games were decided by a total of eight points. The Sixers came to Boston in December, one night after losing by 45 in Chicago, and led the Celtics by four with 4:43 to play before losing 84-80. (And in Philly's subsequent visit to Chicago, on March 28, it beat the Bulls by 12.)

Tuesday night, it was close for a half before the Celtics pulled away in the final 24 minutes for a 17-point win, 99-82. But the Sixers still feel they can play with Boston if they should meet again.

"I think we've played them well," Collins said before the game. "They've beaten us twice. We know what we have to do against them. They beat us on a lob [to] [Kevin] Garnett in Philly [102-101 on Dec. 9]. We were up four here with about five minutes left. And then we played them for the first time with [Jeff] Green and [Nenad] Krstic, and beat them by three in Philadelphia. So we feel like we've played them well, but you don't wish for the Celtics, I know that."

The Celtics' biggest opponent these days is, well, the Celtics. They really don't care whether they play the Sixers or Knicks. They have to get healthy, get their rotations set and then, if it's Philadelphia, play like they did in the second half, when they held the Sixers to 32 points on 28.6 percent shooting.

Asked whether the Celtics sent a message to Philly, Doc Rivers responded, "We sent a message to ourselves." He was referring to the dominating second half.

The Sixers present specific problems for the Celtics, a point that was driven home in the four meetings. They are incredibly athletic. They like to get the ball up the court in a hurry (which they should, given their athleticism) and they can be very effective with a small lineup.

They're also utterly unpredictable. They have six players who average in double figures but not one who averages as many as 15. Nine players have led them in scoring this season, and only twice in 78 games has a Sixer scored as many as 30 points.

"They don't have that No. 1, All-Star player," Paul Pierce said. "They just have a lot of really good players."

The Sixers entered the game ranked eighth in the league in field goal defense, third in 3-point field goal defense and an acceptable 12th in points allowed. They've already won 13 more games this season than last season. As Rivers noted before the game, "For a team to change the way they've changed, without making a personnel change, tells you they've given up the individual thing. They're playing as a team."

OK, they've made a few changes. Spencer Hawes is new. Evan Turner is new. Andres Nocioni is new. But it's basically the same crew from last season's 27-55 train wreck, with a new conductor in Collins.

He's got them into the playoffs already. They're not going to end the championship drought in Philadelphia this year, but if they brought back a little of the old Celtics-Sixers acrimony, well, what's the matter with that?

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.