With the Chicago Bulls losing key players in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, and the Miami Heat now in a dead-heat battle with the Pacers without Chris Bosh, the Eastern Conference was sure to be Boston's for the taking. However, Atlantic Division rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, have put up a fight in the Conference Semifinals that now sees the two teams even at three games a piece and both one win away from the Eastern Conference championship series.
In game four of this series the Celts had a lead of 18 at one point in the game and were poised to take complete control of the series. But their second half meltdown and the complete turnaround of the young, athletic and dynamic Sixers saw the series even up at two games each in the Wells Fargo Center.
In game six the Celtics had a chance to finally close the series out again in Philadelphia despite an incredibly ugly game by both teams and a shooting percentage of only 33 percent for the Celtics. The young and more athletic 76ers were able to rally in the fourth quarter to put the Celtics away and force the biggest game of Boston's season so far.
In order for the Celts to move on to the Conference Finals there is an endless list of elements of their game that need drastic improvement. However, there are three key facets of the game that will ultimately decide whether or not Beantown hosts a Conference Finals game this season.
Mickael Pietrus' ability to score is perhaps the make-or-break point for the Celtics offense in Game seven. Pietrus saw roughly 35 minutes of action in Game six and should expect to see the same kind of minutes in Game seven. Ray Allen is clearly limited on both sides of the court with his ailments and the return of shutdown defender and brilliant off-ball runner Avery Bradley is doubtful to say the least.
Pietrus was brought to Boston back in December to be a defensive nightmare for opposing teams, as he has the ability to guard both twos and threes and to be an offensive threat from the corners. While he was able to hold his own defensively against the Sixers Wednesday night, his only offensive production was anything but sufficient as he took just six shots.
Although his looks were limited, he was able to connect on a corner three right before the half that accounted for one of his two buckets during the game. Pietrus will need to not only take more shots, but also make more timely shots for the Celtics to take the wind out of the sails of the high flying 76ers on Saturday night in the TD Garden.
The Boston Celtics were able to uncharacteristically win the battle on the boards in Game six, out-rebounding Philadelphia 48 to 37 total rebounds and 14 to 7 rebounds on the offensive glass. While the boards kept the Celtics in the game, Garnett's inability to score in the paint and Bass' inability to find his shot kept the Celtics from closing the series out.
Brandon Bass had a career night in Game 5. His 18 point third quarter catapulted the Celtics to a three to two game advantage in a game that was otherwise a stalemate. In Game 6 Bass never looked comfortable shooting the basketball. He totaled just eight points, and never showed up on the glass, totaling just five rebounds.
Keep in mind, until Wednesday night Brandon Bass was the only Celtic to score in double digits in each game of the Conference Semifinals. If the Celtics are to have a shot in Game 7, Bass needs to find his shot and pad his stat line with a double-double.
According to the box score Kevin Garnett had a pretty standard KG night with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Although his numbers looked good, his play was streaky and he was never able to hit a shot within ten feet. Doc Rivers described his scoring as not coming at the right times. In the games that the Celtics have won in this series, Kevin Garnett has been a dominant player and ultimately a deciding factor.
Garnett knows this is potentially his last and best chance to win a title and will do anything within his ability and then some to pull out the win in the TD Garden Saturday night.
Rajon Rondo said earlier this season that he plays his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Rondo is also known for his ability to bounce back from subpar performances and perform the infamous "Rondo-Takeover" in those games.
In Game six Rondo was undoubtedly subpar. Despite quietly hovering around another triple-double (nine points, nine boards and six assists), he was a non-factor. Along with his own bleak performance, he was outplayed by the Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, who totaled 20 points and six assists.
Rajon Rondo is the floor general, leader and future of the Boston Celtics franchise. He is an incredibly confident player and strives to be the best point guard in the league every time he takes the floor.
An NBA player's worth and legacy is measured by what he can do in crunch time, when the whole world is watching, and when his team needs his best effort the most. Game seven against the long time postseason rival Philadelphia 76ers is absolutely crunch time for the Boston Celtics. Rondo has a chance to prove just how effective he is in the limelight.
As the only Celtic who can keep up with the Sixers in transition, Rondo will need to be running on all cylinders for at least 42 minutes of Saturday's matchup and put up a high numbers triple double for the Celtics to win and advance to the Conference Finals.