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Preview: Philadelphia at Boston, Game 27

12.22.10 at 10:35 am ET
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Up until Tuesday night, the Philadelphia 76ers were cruising right along with a nice little winning run at their backs. They had gone 8-3 in their last 11 games and taken four of the last five. Then, the Bulls happened. The Sixers lost by an astounding 45 points and allowed the Bulls to shoot 65 percent.

In Kate Fagan’s piece in the Inquirer, Andre Iguodala said it was a wake-up call, while coach Doug Collins called it one of those nights. Both of them have a point.

The truth is, the Sixers are not a bad basketball team. They might even wind up being quite good by the end of the season. For now, they have rebounded from a terrible start to become merely decent, which in the top-heavy Eastern Conference is good enough to be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

This has been quite a turnaround since starting the season by winning three of their first 16 games. It’s not hard to see Collins’ imprint all over this team. The key has been defense where the Sixers rank fifth (down from second after Tuesday’s debacle) in effective field goal percentage defense, a stat which accounts for the difference between two and 3-point shots.

The Sixers are not a very good offensive team, but they don’t turn the ball over and there is evidence that they are playing smarter: Thaddeus Young has almost completely cut out his penchant for taking (and missing) 3-pointers, for example.

In addition, Collins seems to have defined roles for his collection of young talent. He turned the team over to second-year point guard Jrue Holiday, who is learning on the job but showing good signs of development, and moved Lou Williams to the bench, where he can create offense for the second unit and provide a nice reserve combination along with Young.

Collins also took No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner out of the starting lineup, where he was horribly overmatched, and replaced him with Jodie Meeks, a 3-point shooter. The Sixers responded by going 6-2 and Meeks immediately went on a tremendous hot streak making, making 15-of-23 from beyond the arc, but he has since cooled hitting just four of his last 25 attempts.

But by far the biggest change for the Sixers has come from Elton Brand. He may never justify the ridiculous five-year, $80 million contract Ed Stefanski gave him after missing almost an entire season because of an Achilles injury — oddly enough, Brand proceeded to miss 53 games in the first of his new deal — but he has played well this season, averaging better than 15 points and eight rebounds a game.

That’s a far cry from Brand’s salad days with the Clippers where he put up almost 25 points and 10 rebounds in 2006, but five years ago Kevin Garnett was still in Minnesota and Ray Allen was still a Sonic. There were still Sonics, period. Times change.

The Sixers are still in the discovery stage. To Iguodala’s point, they managed to beat a handful of decent, but not great, teams during their streak in Portland, New Orleans and the trade-depleted Orlando Magic. Their losses came by eight points against the Lakers, one point against the Celtics and five at Atlanta, so they were playing competitively against the better teams. But mainly they’ve fattened up on so-so competition.

Still, Collins said when he took the job that his goal was to get the Sixers heading in the right direction and he is off to a solid start.

PHILADELPHIA (11-17, 6-4 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 104.1 (22nd)

Defensive Rating: 105.0 (11th)

Pace: 91.8 (18th)

Likely Starters: Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes

Rotation: Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Andres Nocioni, Evan Turner,

Injuries: None

CELTICS: (22-4, 10-0 last 10, 13-game winning streak)

Offensive Rating: 109.8 (8th)

Defensive Rating: 99.4 (1st)

Pace: 91.3 (19th)

Likely Starters: Nate Robinson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal

Rotation: Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden

Injuries: Shaquille O’Neal (Calf, shin, questionable), Jermaine O’Neal (Knee, questionable, Rajon Rondo (Ankle, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Paul Pierce vs. Andre Iguodala

We’ve gone this far and we haven’t mentioned Philadelphia’s most recognizable player in Iguodala. At age 26, soon to be 27, the expectations of stardom are long past Iguodala, but that has allowed him to settle into a role as a very good complimentary player. The problem is, he’s being paid like a franchise player, which will undoubtedly make him somebody else’s player before the Sixers complete their overhaul.

Still, Iguodala is a solid defensive player who is a strong rebounder and playmaker for his position. Where he struggles is shooting, and like Young, Collins has had him rein in his 3-point attempts. Better shot selection has made him a better shooter and he is hitting at a career-best 36 percent clip behind the arc.

Pierce is coming off his first triple-double in four years and he is being asked to take on more of a ballhandling and playmaking role with Rajon Rondo out of the lineup. Pierce is in a nice, comfortable groove right now and it will be up to Iguodala to take him out of it.

KEY NUMBER: Turnovers

Yes, the old problem came back. Over their last seven games, the Celtics have turned it over 116 times. That’s almost 17 lost possessions per game and with the way this team shoots, that’s about 20 points of potential lost offense.  It’s amazing, really, that the turnover issue hasn’t caused them to lose any games during that stretch.

There is some hope, however. Their lowest turnover games came against Indiana on Sunday and Philadelphia, back when the Celtics won by a point on a last-second 3 by Ray Allen.

On the other hand, the Sixers are one of the best teams in the league at not turning it over, and that has helped their offense keep pace, even with a substandard shooting percentage. Both teams want to avoid turnovers, obviously, but the Celtics can survive high-turnover games. Philly does not.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Celtics are going for their 14th win in a row, which doesn’t exactly get them all excited. Doc Rivers has been stressing that the important thing is to continue to get better. Truthfully, they have been inconsistent over the last two weeks. That’s due mainly to two factors: Injuries and a lack of practice time due to said injuries. But the Celtics have been finding ways to win games even when one or more areas have been lacking, and that’s the key takeaway from their hot streak.

All of that leads to the possibility of a trap game with the Christmas Day showdown in Orlando looming. The Sixers were embarrassed Tuesday night in Chicago. You can expect them to come out angry. It will be up to the Celtics to match their intensity.

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