Friday, May 11, 2012 Updated: May 12, 4:15 PM ET
Keys to Celtics-76ers East semifinals
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
When the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers tip off Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday night at TD Garden (TNT, 8 p.m. ET), here are four key areas to watch:
Can Ray Allen (and Paul Pierce) be at their best despite nagging injuries?
1. Value the ball
Celtics coach Doc Rivers and his staff will throw a ton of information at their players before this series starts, but here's maybe the only thing that matters: Don't turn the ball over.
The 76ers parlay turnovers into points with alarming ease because of their speed and athleticism. Yes, the stats suggest they're a pretty inefficient transition team overall (averaging only 1.1 points per play, 26th-best in the league, according to Synergy Sports data), but Boston's old legs are clearly not going to win a foot race with this team. Turnovers are unacceptable.
"They want to get into transition, and when they are in transition, they score," said Rivers. "When they are in half court, it's a little more difficult, so that's going to be our task. ... Listen, we're not going to outrun them, they are faster than us, they are going to win the track meet, no doubt about that. We have to find a way to get them to play in the half court."
The 76ers ranked 18th in the league this season in averaging 0.88 points per play in half-court sets. Transition plays accounted for a whopping 14.7 percent of their total plays -- second-most on the team behind only spot-up possessions.
2. Health in focus
We'll let Rivers tee this one up: "[This series is] a challenge because of our bodies. The Sixers are pretty healthy right now, we're not. So that's a challenge. Ray [Allen] is struggling [Friday], Paul [Pierce] is struggling [Friday]. So that's the challenge."
Pierce is battling a sprained MCL in his left knee that he admits isn't going to get better until after the season -- and could always get worse through game action. It's clearly limited his mobility since suffering the injury in a shootaround before Game 4. Having to match up with Andre Iguodala on both ends of the floor is no picnic with two healthy knees, let alone one.
Allen's ailing ankle, meanwhile, has regressed since he first got back on the court in Game 3 of a first-round triumph over the Hawks. After Thursday's Game 6 win, he said the ankle bothered him more than ever and that he wasn't certain of his availability moving forward.
With Pierce and/or Allen at anything less than 100 percent, that's daunting for a Boston offense that has struggled to generate consistent points this season. Someone on the bench like Mickael Pietrus might have to elevate his game moving forward because the Celtics probably won't see 28 points from Kevin Garnett ever again.
Keep in mind, too, that Philadelphia has a guy like Lou Williams off the pine to provide a scoring punch. Boston's bench is more defensive-minded, so it needs an offensive spark from somewhere.
3. Taking care of home
So the Celtics pretty much had to pretend like home-court advantage didn't matter last round (though they would have been singing a different tune if the Hawks had forced a Game 7 back in Atlanta). This time around, Boston can openly revel in the fact that it gets two games at TD Garden to start this series, particularly given the quick turnaround.
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As Rivers noted Friday, "The advantage that we have is that we don't have to get on a plane. Our guys can sleep in their beds tonight and tomorrow night and get some rest."
Even after knocking off the East's No. 1 seed, the 76ers will be reminded often moving forward that they are a No. 8 seed (put in that position by their late regular-season struggles). Boston can put all the pressure on Philadelphia by taking care of business in Games 1 and 2 -- something the Hawks failed to do against Boston in Round 1.
4. Defense vs. defense
If you thought the Celtics-Hawks series was an eyesore at times, this could be even worse. With the shutdown defense that both sides are capable of playing, each game might be a race to 80 points.
The 76ers ranked third in the league in allowing a mere 0.872 points per play this season, according to Synergy data. The team right ahead of them? Boston finished second at 0.857 points per play.
The difference, of course, is that the Celtics have struggled all season long in transition, while Philadelphia is pretty stout regardless of the situation. The biggest area of concern for the 76ers is isolation, the only major play-type category in which they ranked worse than eighth. Philadelphia allowed 0.818 points per play (22nd-best in the league) out of isolation. While injuries could slow it a bit, Boston was a solid isolation team this season, even if only 7.9 percent of its total plays came from that type (the Celtics averaged 0.813 points per play, ranking ninth in the league).
Said Rivers: "You talk about Philly, we keep talking about their athleticism and how they run. I think what people keep forgetting is that they are not a good defensive team, they are a great defensive team. They are going to try to make us struggle to score; we're going to try to make them struggle to score. I don't think if the games are 50-50 and close and competitive, I don't know why that's ugly. I've always argued against that."
As Rivers noted, it doesn't have to be pretty so long as Boston emerges with the win. That's been the major theme of this grit-and-grind season.