- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Then again, the Celts will win, because they have the stronger killer instinct. They're 38-0 in games in which they've led through three quarters. "We strike fear in other teams' hearts," Carr said after a rare Boston loss, a 111-103 stumble at Portland on Feb. 12. "You could see it in their faces tonight when we got within five." Philadelphia, on the other hand, is more likely to lose late leads and games it shouldn't—like those home-and-home losses to Cleveland within 67 hours in mid-February.
The Sixers will win because Cunningham uses 10 men, while the Celtics' second six—everyone but the starters plus McHale—don't carry their weight. Why, for instance, did Boston's lesser half play only 11 minutes and not score in a 108-97 beating of the Knicks on Jan. 7? Could it have been out of fear of New York centers Ron Cavenall and James Bailey? If the 76ers, as Pat Williams, their general manager, says, are "one ligament away from mediocrity," the Celtics are even more vulnerable to injuries like the ones that sidelined starters Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish last week. Parish missed only two games with a turned left ankle, but Maxwell, the 6'8" forward who sparked Boston's seventh-game victory over the Lakers in the NBA finals last spring, is out for a month after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
The Celts will win because they've finally settled on a regular backcourt pairing. With the trade of starter Gerald Henderson to Seattle during the preseason, Boston unburdened Danny Ainge of the pressure to prove himself while coming off the bench. Ainge, for his part, voluntarily indentured himself to a couple of summer leagues and has become what he never was, not even as a Toronto Blue Jay—someone who hits for average. A lifetime .462 marksman coming into this season, he's now shooting .545. "When defenses go down to double on us big guys," says the 6'10" McHale, "Danny sticks the heck out of that jumper."
The Sixers will win because they have a better third guard and a real backup center. Henderson's departure may have given Ainge peace of mind, but it also robbed Boston of its only source of raw speed. Neither of the Celtics' backcourt substitutes, Quinn Buckner and Carlos Clark, has proved to be a match for Sixer sub Clint Richardson, who scored 15 in the teams' most recent meeting, a 122-104 Philly runaway on Jan. 30. Similarly, McHale is most effective playing forward alongside Parish, the center whom he must also back up. The 76ers have two players—forward Bobby Jones and center Clemon Johnson, who's temporarily laid up with a sciatic-nerve problem—who specialize at one or the other of the two jobs McHale must do.
The Celts will win because they've developed a mental edge. "They've avoided that insidious disease of championshipitis," says Williams, whose Sixers suffered a terminal case last season. Over the long haul, that could make the difference in the divisional race. And by winning the Atlantic, the Celtics would not only secure the home-court edge in the playoffs but also get the better seeding in what promises to be a gruesome Eastern Conference playoff, where the Celts, in the Milwaukee Bucks, and the 76ers, in the Nets, have historical nemeses. At the moment, the team finishing with the best conference record would get Atlanta as a first-round opponent; the divisional runner-up—and third seed behind the Central Division winner—would draw Washington, New Jersey or Chicago, all tougher customers than the Hawks.
The Sixers will win because they play the best pressure defense in the league, and they apply it where Boston is weakest, on the backline. While pressing upcourt or doubling down when the ball goes into the post, the Sixers' guards, led by Maurice Cheeks, cause all sorts of mischief. Case in point: At Washington on Jan. 13 the 76ers were down 91-75 with 13 minutes left when they decided to D it up. Andrew Toney rang up nine points and Malone grabbed seven rebounds in the fourth quarter, and the Sixers held the Bullets to 3-for-23 shooting in the quarter en route to a 115-104 victory. Cheeks, who's sinking a career-high 57.5% of his shots, had 25 points in that game and keyed the defense that has given the Sixers a league-best 21-8 road record.
The Celts will win because they're the Celtics. Their coach has as many championship rings as he does fingers.
The Sixers will win because their center feasts on Boston. Injuries dogged Malone last season, but now he's back in MVP form, averaging 25.5 points and 13.1 rebounds. He has been particularly imposing against the Celtics (28.8 and 15.8). Meanwhile, Parish perishes against Philly, scoring six points fewer than his 17.3 season average. On Jan. 30, Malone drew nine fouls from Parish and McHale, went 16 for 16 from the line and finished with 38 points and 24 rebounds. "Moses is healthy this season," Cunningham says. "It's as simple as that."
The Celts will win because Red Auerbach will make some great, late personnel addition—like acquiring free-agent guard Ray Williams, who signed an offer sheet with Boston late last week. As usual, there'll be initial skepticism at the move; as usual, Red will look clairvoyant when it's all over.
The Sixers will win because the Celtics' delicate chemistry will suffer from trying to integrate a volatile element like Williams at such a late date. And what is Boston's pursuit of Williams if not an admission that management doesn't feel it has a solid third guard?