Wednesday April 6th, 2011

BOSTON -- Midway through the third quarter Tuesday, with the Celtics surging ahead to their first double-digit lead, Sixers guard Jrue Holiday signaled to referee Ed Malloy for a timeout. As his teammates trudged toward the Philadelphia bench, Holiday dribbled up to the three-point line and took aim at the rim. As he elevated, a nearby Ray Allen grabbed Holiday's arm, sending the ball careening off to the left.

The message, delivered by a 35-year-old playoff veteran to a 20-year-old newbie, was simple: nothing easy, even the ones that don't count.

There will come a time when Philadelphia runs right through Boston. A talented rotation featuring seven players 24 or younger; it won't be long before the Sixers are really, really good. Coach Doug Collins has done a masterful job rebuilding the team after a 3-13 start, plugging Andre Iguodala into a point forward role, moving Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams to the bench and empowering Holiday as the team's primary playmaker.

His guys are good. Boston's are just better.

That's relevant, of course, because it's distinctly possible these two teams will meet again, in two weeks, in the opening round of the playoffs. Philadelphia's 99-82 shellacking in Boston officially ended its pursuit of the fifth seed while the Celtics are neck and neck with Miami in the race for No. 2. But in beating the Sixers for the third time in four meetings, Boston was nearly flawless. The Celtics shot the ball well (52.6 percent) and defended better, holding the Sixers -- who were without super sub Lou Williams -- to 39.3 percent shooting and their vaunted up-tempo attack to just nine fast break points.

"They just lock in on you," Collins said.

The Celtics' problems at the pivot will continue to be a storyline, especially with a hobbled Shaquille O'Neal watching from the sidelines. But for one night, Boston looked solid. With just 20 games under his belt, Jermaine O'Neal looked pretty good in No. 21, scoring nine points (on an economical 4-of-6 shooting) and grabbing three rebounds in 13 minutes. So, too, did Nenad Krstic, who returned to the lineup after missing two games with a scary looking knee injury to chip in eight points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. That's 17 points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes from the Celtics only healthy centers.

"J.O. was terrific," said Doc Rivers. "He was aggressive, he was attacking and his defense was phenomenal. He's been really good since he's been back. He just buys in; we rarely go to him, but he gets the ball in the right places because he's in the right spots."

Perhaps there was a lesson learned here, too: Boston may not be able to beat the Magic, Bulls or Lakers without Shaq, but it certainly can beat the Sixers, especially with Williams -- who is out for at least the rest of the regular season, if not longer -- still on the mend. Spencer Hawes didn't have his best night -- six points on 3-14 shooting -- but even at the top of his game ,Philadelphia's center is containable, someone that doesn't require a double-team or any unusual defensive strategy. A (reasonably) healthy Jermaine O'Neal and Krstic should be enough, giving Shaq an extra couple of weeks to let his aching body heal.

Yes, it could be a fun first round, this Acela Express Series, but it's clear that, for now, these teams are on two different levels. Before the game, Collins talked about the value of the postseason and the kind of teaching tool it could be for his young group. Several Sixers players said they hoped the team wouldn't take a "just-happy-to-be-there" mentality into the postseason, but none could say for certain that wouldn't be the case.

It's certainly not for Boston. It's championship or bust in Beantown. And Philadelphia may be the first stop.

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