In a possible first-round playoff preview, the 76ers could make a big statement Friday night by handing the Celtics their first loss in Philadelphia in nearly four years.
Boston (46-16) has been atop the East virtually all season following its trip to last year’s NBA finals. Philadelphia (33-31) shared the conference’s third-worst record last season and wasn’t expected to do much better in coach Doug Collins’ first season, particularly after a 3-13 start.
However, the 76ers have gone 16-6 since Jan. 21 - the only East team with a better record in that span is Chicago (16-4) - to climb to seventh in the conference. If they stay in that spot, they could open the playoffs against a Boston team which is at risk of falling to second because the Bulls have moved within 1 1/2 games.
Both meetings between these teams came in December and the Sixers lost both but put up a good fight, falling by a combined five points. The Celtics are 12-2 versus the 76ers since their Big Three of Kevin Garnett(notes), Ray Allen(notes) and Paul Pierce(notes) was formed in the 2007-08 season, including victories in all seven visits to Philadelphia.
The Sixers’ only three losses in their last 10 home games came to three of the league’s top eight teams record-wise - Orlando, Dallas and Oklahoma City. They nearly knocked off the visiting Thunder on Wednesday, blowing a five-point lead in the final minute of regulation and losing 110-105 in overtime.
“I thought our guys did a terrific job,” Collins said after his team’s three-game winning streak was snapped. “I thought we were one play away from winning the game. That is the first one that has gotten away from us like that in a long time.”
The Celtics had one get away in the early going Wednesday, and to a significantly inferior opponent. They trailed by 13 after one quarter and 18 at halftime en route to a 108-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers - the West’s third-worst team.
The loss snapped a five-game win streak and came three days after Boston fell behind by 10 in the first quarter against sub-.500 Milwaukee.
“It’s a lot of inconsistency,” Pierce said. “Some of that had to do with implementing a lot of new guys but … we’ve got to get off to better starts and that’s with the guys that have been here.”
The Celtics are still trying to get acclimated to newcomers Jeff Green(notes), Nenad Krstic(notes), Troy Murphy(notes) and Carlos Arroyo(notes), all acquired within the past two-plus weeks. Plus, Boston is still missing forward Glen Davis(notes) (knee) and guard Delonte West(notes) (ankle), though it’s possible Shaquille O’Neal(notes) will return Friday after missing 14 games with a foot problem.
Both teams have been struggling defensively. Philadelphia has given up at least 100 points in a season-high five straight, allowing opponents to shoot 49.5 percent. Boston is second in the league in points allowed at 91.9 per game but has surrendered more than 100 in four of five.
Ray Allen has helped make up for the Celtics’ poor defensive play by going 20 of 34 from 3-point range (58.8 percent) in the last six games, averaging 21.5 points. He’s averaged 22.5 in the season series with Philadelphia.