The Boston-Philadelphia second-round series is a battle between two bad offensive teams and two great defensive teams, and so the games have mostly been close and low-scoring. There has been one blowout, in the Celtics’ favor, but these teams are so close and the chances of an offensive explosion so low that even a wheezing, limping version of one of them could walk out with a win in Game 7 given a bit of luck and good shooting.
That’s good news for Boston, which is wheezing and limping home after the double blow of losing Game 6 on Wednesday in Philadelphia and likely losing second-year guard Avery Bradley for the rest of the playoffs because of multiple shoulder injuries that may require offseason surgery. In addition, shooting guard Ray Allen is suffering from injuries to both ankles, small forward Paul Pierce is playing through a strained MCL in his knee and center Greg Stiemsma’s foot problems have acted up again.
You have to wonder now if Boston has reached a tipping point with the injuries. If playing Game 7 at home represented something like a 65/35 proposition for the Celtics (and that’s probably generous), Bradley’s injury knocks that down to something like 50/50. Boston may well eke out a victory on Saturday, but we have likely been robbed of the chance to see a close-to-intact Celtics team — proud champions with a ferocious defense — make one last honest push for an NBA Finals appearance.
The impact of Bradley’s injury spills out in every direction. He is a defense-first player, and the Celtics felt his absence in Game 6 against a Sixers team loaded with rangy wing players, each carrying unique skill sets. Evan Turner bullied the overmatched Allen on the block, getting Allen in foul trouble and producing two key baskets down low to ignite Philadelphia’s game-changing third-quarter run. When Allen went to the bench, Celtics coach Doc Rivers had little choice but to go to the bigger, slower wing combination of Mickael Pietrus and Pierce. The Sixers then shifted their offense away from the bigger Turner to the quicker Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday, both of whom used their speed edge on Pietrus to get into the lane for several key late-game baskets as Philadelphia held off Boston.
Philadelphia is a below-average offensive team that is mostly going to struggle for points running its side-to-side offense against a Boston defense that eats up that kind of thing. Feasting on mismatches here or there can swing a game, and the Sixers know now where to find them.
Boston, despite all of the glittery names, has actually been a worse offensive team this season than Philadelphia. The Celtics ranked 25th in points per possession, in a virtual tie with the punch-line Wizards. The team’s only sustained above-average production on offense came when Rivers inserted Bradley into the starting lineup over the last third of the season. The unit with Bradley and Boston’s four permanent starters — Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, Pierce and Rajon Rondo — scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions in just over 200 minutes during the regular season, a mark even better than what San Antonio’s league-best offense produced overall. The same lineup has hit almost that exact mark over 123 postseason minutes. The only other Boston lineup that has logged more than 20 playoff minutes and produced points at an acceptable rate is a small-ball group that also includes Bradley and the non-Bass starters.
The other lineups? They’ve been mostly dismal, generating points at rates that fall somewhere between below average and sub-Bobcatsian. Those are the lineups that are going to have to win Game 7 for the Celtics and carry them beyond that, if they can manage to advance.
In Game 6, the Sixers sent a clear signal that they will take away one key method through which Boston has created open looks over the years: Allen drawing huge amounts of defensive attention by running off screens. It was alarming to watch in real time, and Rivers mentioned it in his postgame comments: Philadelphia basically ignored Allen, happily allowing him to get free so that his movements didn’t open up holes elsewhere.
Watch Sixers center Spencer Hawes on this third-quarter play on which Allen runs under the hoop and around a pick on the right baseline from Hawes’ man (Bass):
Hawes doesn’t move an inch off Bass in order to jump out on Allen. Turner, roving all night off Rondo, doesn’t bother to crash down and challenge Allen’s jumper. This is Ray Allen, the league’s all-time leader in three-point shooting, and the Sixers are treating him with total indifference. This is the same 76ers team that in the first round had its big men trap Chicago’s Richard Hamilton on similar curl plays as if Hamilton were, well, Ray Allen in his prime. The Sixers treated Hamilton as the most dangerous thing on the court. But in Game 6 against Boston, they made it clear that they’d prefer Allen shooting rather than drawing the sort of attention from Philadelphia’s big men that opens up Boston’s interior passing game and helped spring Bass for 27 points in Game 5.
This was not an isolated thing on Wednesday. Below is a first-quarter play in which Allen runs off a Garnett screen on the left wing. Watch Garnett’s man, Elton Brand, give Allen only a token reach instead of the hard chase/trap that Brand use so often against Hamilton:
And here’s a still from a crucial fourth-quarter possession on which the Sixers send just about everyone at Pierce as he curls into the lane with the ball:
It’s one thing for Turner (No. 12) to crash off Rondo, who had the kind of game Thursday that made quiet mockery of his All-Defensive selection and reminded you why Danny Ainge would have happily dealt him for Chris Paul. But the lack of respect Holiday (No. 11) shows Allen — making him an easy kick-out option for Pierce — is stunning, and very revealing of the Sixers’ priorities.
The Bradley injury doesn’t just mean more of an ineffective Allen, either. (Allen is averaging 8.8 points in the series on 40.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.9 percent from three-point range.) It means more of Pietrus, who is shooting 34 percent in the playoffs and drawing little defensive attention as he camps out on the wing. It could also mean more of the Pietrus/Keyon Dooling combination, a duo that has been toxic to Boston’s offense all season. The Celtics scored just 90.7 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor in the regular season, a lower mark than what the league-worst Bobcats averaged. That duo would be more likely to see some time if the Sixers go small again, as they have for short stretches in both their playoff series, including in Game 6 on Wednesday. But the Sixers might want to avoid that; they’ve been bad when Williams, Turner, Andre Iguodala and Holiday have shared the floor in both the regular season and the playoffs, though the sample size (70 minutes total) is limited.
In any case: Game 7 is a tall order now for Boston, even at home.