BOSTON -- Is the Eastern Conference becoming a three-team race? Last week the Celtics generated their first signature win of this cluttered season, beating Miami, a contender at full strength. On Sunday, they celebrated Easter with their first win against the agonized 76ers. This one was a 103-79 beating that will make the Heat and Bulls wary -- for the moment, at least.
"Everybody's looking at Chicago and Miami as the two teams, but I would not blink on Boston," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "This team has taken it to another level."
So, too, has his team. The Sixers were an inspiring 20-9 not so long ago, and two times in March they were able to clobber the visiting Celtics. But Sunday's loss was Philadelphia's fourth straight. Since the All-Star break, the Sixers have gone 9-18 while succumbing to a lopsided schedule that inflated their confidence while they were winning consistently at home early in the season. Now their goal is framed in the negative -- all they can hope for at this late stage is to stave off the No. 9 Bucks, who trail them by a game with 10 remaining.
The Sixers are a young team with no time for practice amid the compressed schedule, and they suddenly look incapable of avoiding the lottery. "I told our guys, the next game we win is going to be the toughest game we've won all season," said Collins.
Philadelphia's problems remind the Celtics of themselves not so long ago, when they were losing five straight to enter the All-Star break at 15-17. They've since gone 17-7 while reinventing their defense around the ball pressure created by Rajon Rondo and his new fellow starter in the backcourt, Avery Bradley. They're a small team that continues to have trouble rebounding -- "our one true weakness," said Paul Pierce after the Sixers outrebounded them 10-1 on the offensive glass -- but lately they've been able to mask that issue by defending on the perimeter, where the most talented opponents (LeBron James and Derrick Rose, to name two) do their best work anyway.
"They can defend you and they've got matchups," Collins said of the Celtics. "One of the keys when you play Miami is that you've got to defend [Chris] Bosh, and they've got [Kevin] Garnett to do that. And that's a huge thing for them."
"The defense has been just great intensity," said coach Doc Rivers of their 24-hour stretch that began with an 86-72 win on Saturday at Indiana. "Offensively, the ball never stayed in the same place. It just kept moving until it found the right guy and the open guy. I told our guys at halftime I thought that was the best pick-setting game we've had, so there's two games in a row we're starting to set picks."
The Celtics shot 58.8 percent as every starter but Rondo scored at least 17 points. Rondo generated 15 assists, and he closed one possession by zig-zagging away from the basket to hit a turnaround jumper at the shot-clock buzzer, as if he was a mini version of Larry Bird in Game 6 of the 1986 Finals against Ralph Sampson's Rockets.
Winning the Atlantic Division will assure Boston of a top-four seed that will keep them away from Chicago and Miami in the opening round, but it won't guarantee home-court advantage to the Celtics; they're two games behind the No. 3 Pacers, but they're also facing a back-to-back at Miami on Tuesday and against the Hawks here on Wednesday. Then there is a back-to-back-to-back through Sunday at Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte. "Maybe it's good for us, because it seems like we're playing our best basketball," said Pierce after he scored 17 points in 29 not-so-taxing minutes. "We have a sense of urgency right now."
In this strange incarnation of the old Sixers-Celtics rivalry, one team is urgent and the other is simply miserable. "It should be exhilarating," said Elton Brand, who has been Philadelphia's best player of this otherwise hopeless month. "It should be fun. Get out of this slump."
But Collins doesn't have a lot of options with his young team. He has been threatening to change the starting lineup in search of points.
"I've got quiet guys," he said, which means they aren't likely to start a fire among themselves. He can't afford to yell at them either, because he understands that modern players usually don't react well to a scolding. After timeouts, he said, he often will pull his assistants aside and ask, "Was I all right with these guys during that timeout? Did I hurt anybody's feelings?"
"Players today are very sensitive and very fragile," explained Collins, 60, comparing their upbringing to his own on his way to playing eight seasons with the 76ers through 1980-81. "They didn't grow up with tough coaches; I got my ass kicked."
They're finding out a fact of basketball life, which is that they're going to get kicked one way or the other. Too bad for them it's the Celtics who are kicking.