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Celtics can’t overlook what’s before them

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 12, 2012
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There was a collective deep breath after the Celtics eliminated the Atlanta Hawks in six games Thursday night with a 3-point win. Those weren’t sighs of relief, however, over their next opponent.

While the Philadelphia 76ers are the eighth seed and barely made the playoffs after a collapse in the final month, they present a definite challenge to the Celtics despite their youth and inexperience. The 76ers beat the Celtics by a combined 45 points in two games at Wells Fargo Arena during the regular season, outclassing the Celtics with athleticism and defense.

The Celtics’ excuse - and it’s legitimate - is that they played the 76ers in the first meeting March 7 one night after an overtime home victory over the Houston Rockets. Philadelphia was rested and determined to hold on to first place in the Atlantic Division.

In the second meeting 16 days later, Mickael Pietrus sustained a concussion on a scary fall during the second quarter, Avery Bradley tweaked his ankle, and Ray Allen did not play because of his bothersome ankle, and the 76ers won, 99-86.

The Celtics realize that injuries and fatigue cannot be used as primary excuses for those losses.

The Celtics have historically struggled with more athletic teams and what makes the 76ers so difficult to defend when they are playing well is that Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Lou Williams, or even Spencer Hawes or Evan Turner can score the critical bucket.

It’s not that the 76ers are the most talented team the Celtics will face, but they have the athleticism that allows them to compete with the league’s elite.

“They want to get into transition and when they get into transition, they score,’’ coach Doc Rivers warned. “When they get into the halfcourt, then it’s a little more difficult. And that’s going to be our test. Listen, we’re not going to outrun them, they are faster than us. They are going to win the track meet.’’

The 76ers are not as exciting as they were 30 years ago when Celtics fans could pick on Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, or even Clemon Johnson for their disdain. Celtics fans hated everything Philadelphia, but the 76ers have been so insignificant since the end of the Allen Iverson era that they are virtually an anonymous team.

They have tried to attract superstars through free agency, but the best the organization could do was sign Brand to a $90 million deal to be a solid power forward. Iguodala was tabbed as Philly’s next superstar when Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2006, but he couldn’t live up to that billing. He was a No. 2 guy who never wanted much to do with No. 1, and 76ers fans pelted him with disapproval until Doug Collins took over as coach before the 2010-11 season.

Collins has used the team’s youth and athleticism to its advantage defensively, becoming one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. Now, that doesn’t exactly wow the home fans who are more captivated with the Eagles and Phillies. It’s a team with little star power, but after Derrick Rose blew out his left knee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and the 76ers won Game 2 handedly, the Philly faithful began to embrace the scrappy Sixers.

The Celtics are hardly looking past their former archrival, knowing they have been embarrassed over the past few seasons by athletic teams that piled up points on the fast break. The 76ers may not be a gifted offensive team but they are able to turn turnovers into easy points, using their fresh legs to dart past the methodical Celtics.

“I think it’s going to be a great matchup,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “The Sixers have really played us tough. They’ve beaten us convincingly a couple of times so we can’t take them for granted. They’ve got a great team. They’ve got five or six guys who can beat you and I think we have the same.’’

The Sixers revel in their anonymity. Their leading scorer, Williams, didn’t start a game this season and received only three first-place votes for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. Philadelphia had eight players average at least 8.4 points per game during the regular season but none has a reputation around the league. While a potential conference finals matchup with the Miami Heat will generate an overflow of antagonism by fans for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, the Philadelphia series has no real villain except for the history of the rivalry itself.

That lack of intrigue may not make this a sexy series but the Sixers are hardly a team to overlook. The Celtics have been guilty of mentally bypassing opponents (Atlanta, 2008) and nearly paid a costly price. They seem intent on not making that mistake again.

“A tough team, man,’’ Kevin Garnett said of Philadelphia. “They probably have five to seven guys who average double figures that can kill you night in and night out and they play very, very hard. They play with a lot of energy. They play together. Doug has those guys believing. They’re not talking a lot. They’re coming out, showing up to play. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.’’

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