Two basketball teams walk into a bar, one old and one young, and the old one says, "Are you ready for a bar fight?" The young one responds, "No way, we're too sensitive."
But seriously, the sensitive Philadelphia 76ers have come a long way. At one point this season, the Sixers were riding high and sitting pretty in the playoff race. Fast forward to April, and Philly was clinging to the last playoff spot in the East.
Philadelphia did back into the playoffs, but no one expected them to stick around against Derrick Rose and the No. 1 seeded Chicago Bulls. It would take an injury to Rose and about half the city of Chicago to make that happen. Oh, wait ... it happened? Indeed, it did, and the Sixers moved on.
Now, the Sixers face a tougher test -- the Boston Celtics -- in the conference semifinals, and you better believe the Celtics (Kevin Garnett in particular) are ready for a fight. Mentally, that is.
Boston, like Philly, won its first round series in six games, ousting the Atlanta Hawks from the playoffs once again, although it wasn't easy. Boston did take a 3-1 lead in the series, but the return of Al Horford sparked the hawks to a Game 5 win. Atlanta nearly forced a seventh game back in Atlanta in Game 6 on Thursday, but the Celtics squeaked out a victory to win the series.
Of course, the Celtics' series victory came at somewhat of a price. Boston didn't lose any players in the series -- it actually gained one in Ray Allen -- but half of its Big Four, Allen and Paul Pierce, are injured. Allen missed several weeks with a right ankle injury, and he said at Friday's practice that he feels no different than he did two weeks ago. Pierce suffered an MCL sprain during shootaround before Game 4, and while he didn't miss any games, he's taking it day by day.
Having a healthy Pierce and Allen is critical for the Celtics, who rely on the star duo for a significant portion of offense. Pierce, the team's leading scorer in the regular season, is also the Celtics' top scorer through one round of the playoffs, averaging 21.2 points in six postseason games. Allen is looked upon for offense off the bench, with second-year guard Avery Bradley -- the defensive specialist and occasional maker of jumpers -- taking his spot in the starting rotation.
And then, there's Garnett and Rajon Rondo. No doubt, both are also important to the Celtics' success. With hobbling stars Pierce and Allen playing limited roles in Game 6, the Celtics relied on their old (but don't call him that because it's disrespectful) big to carry the team, and he did. However, they won't be able to count on performances like that one every night. As for Rondo, he's practically a lock to have a good games, just as long as he's motivated (not always a given).
What does Philadelphia bring to the table? For starters, they're young, and they're athletic.
"We've got a bunch of gazelles coming in here, they only beat us by a thousand in two of our three games," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers after Game 6. "I can tell you the key to the series right now is we can't turn the ball over. If you do, it's a guaranteed basket against them."
Doc's right (except for the one thousand point differential -- but, he's close). Philadelphia ranked in the NBA's top ten (No. 7) in fast break scoring this season, averaging 15.6 fast break points per game. Boston, by comparison, was 19th in the league, averaging 12.2 fast break points per contest. In Philly's first two games against Boston, which it won by a combined 45 points, it held a significant edge in fast break points (26-10 in the first game and 18-3 in the second). Even in the Celtics' lone win against Philly this season, the fast break points were even at 14.
Offensively, both teams are similar in that they spread the wealth. Neither team has a go-to star, like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, instead relying on multiple players to get the job done. Jrue Holiday was Philly's regular season scoring leader and has picked up his game in the playoffs, averaging 18.2 points through six games. In total, the Sixers have five players averaging double-digit scoring (Holiday, Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes). Pierce, Garnett and Allen will carry the brunt of the scoring load as usual for Boston.
Defensively, the Celtics and Sixers were No. 2 and 3 in the league this season, respectively, and both allowed fewer than 90 points. Boston still appears to have a hand up defensively, with guys like Garnett, Rondo and Bradley, but don't expect a high scoring series. Boring, I know.
PREDICTION: It's tough to predict a series in which health is in question. If healthy, there's no question that Boston would win the series. The Big Four, when firing on all cylinders, are just too much. But if Pierce and Allen can't produce, the scoring will suffer, and the run-and-gun Sixers will walk all over the Celtics. It's looking less likely that Boston will be totally healthy, leading one to believe that this series will be drawn out. Boston defeats Philadelphia in six games.