Sixers, Celtics Style of Play a Thing of Beauty for Fans of Rugged, Fundamental Defensive Basketball


Sixers, Celtics Style of Play a Thing of Beauty for Fans of Rugged, Fundamental Defensive BasketballWALTHAM, Mass. — If defense wins championships, the Eastern Conference semifinal series that opens Saturday in Boston may be a clash of the favorites for the NBA title.

Rather than being regarded as two behemoths, though, the Celtics and Sixers enter the second round facing questions about their abilities to contend for the championship due to their occasional difficulties scoring. The shortage of offense could lead to a wrestling match of a series, with scoring totals stuck in the 70s. Just don't call that style "ugly."

"They're going to make us struggle scoring, and we're going to try to make them struggle scoring," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said at Friday's practice. "But if the game's 52-50 and close and competitive, I don't know why that's ugly. I've always argued against that. I guess 121-120 is a lot more exciting. I don't know — I think being competitive is more exciting."

The Celtics allowed only 95.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the second-lowest defensive efficiency rating in the league behind the Chicago Bulls. The Sixers were third at 96.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Offensively, it was a different story. Of all the teams to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics and Sixers scored the fewest points per game and had the lowest offensive ratings.

The Celtics were in the bottom quarter of the league by scoring less than 99 points per 100 possessions, while the Sixers were an average offensive team with 101.7 points scored per 100 possessions. Not surprisingly, scoring has been even harder to come by for both teams in the playoffs, when the pace slows and defenses clamp down. Both teams averaged about 86 points per game in their first-round series. The other five playoff teams that averaged 87 points or fewer all got bounced in the first round.

The Celtics have chosen to focus not on what the two teams do poorly, but on what they can do well, and that is defend. Even with statistically unimpressive offenses, both teams were among the best in the league in point differential and efficiency differential. Their defenses are simply that good.

The Sixers are led by Andre Iguodala, and, according to some observers, that is part of their problem. Iguodala is a singular defender, as capable of shutting down small forwards and shooting guards as Avery Bradley is capable of shutting down backcourt players. He is not an isolation-type scorer like many all-stars, however, and even some of his hometown fans are critical of that absence in his game.

The Celtics are fresh off a playoff series that featured just such a premier one-on-one scorer. Joe Johnson has made the isolation play such a prevalent part of his game, it has spawned a pejorative nickname, "Iso Joe," as a reference to the unimaginative offensive systems he has played in over his career in Atlanta.

"Iso Joe" is now at home, and his team has been eliminated from the playoffs, while Iguodala and the Sixers are very much alive. If the Celtics see the Sixers' lack of a clear No. 1 scorer as a weakness, they did not express that Friday.

"This is a team that nobody knows which guy on the team will play well," Ray Allen said. "They've got guys that play hard. They've got a deep bench. They've got about five guys. You go into a playoff series with these guys playing well together, it's not about one guy taking the shot. Those are the teams that are more dangerous, because you have an all-around attack."

Points may be hard to come by in this series, so for fans of pure offense, the games could truly be ugly. Fans of smart, aggressive defense will find this series a thing of beauty.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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