76ers-Celtics Preview

The Associated Press

The Boston Celtics may be leading the Atlantic Division, but they haven't looked like a first-place team against the Philadelphia 76ers this season.

If Philadelphia can't get out of its funk down the stretch, a division title - or worse, a playoff spot - may be out of the question.

The Celtics look to extend their Atlantic lead by avoiding a third straight loss Sunday night to the visiting 76ers, who have dropped three straight overall.

Boston entered the All-Star break mired in a five-game losing streak and with a 15-17 record, trailing Philadelphia by four games.

The Celtics (31-24) quickly turned that around, winning five straight to open the season's second half, in which they've gone 16-7 to make up a total of six games on the 76ers, who they now lead by two games.

Boston won for the sixth time in eight games overall Saturday, beating Indiana 86-72 - the fourth time in the last eight contests that Boston held its opponent below 80 points.

Coach Doc Rivers lauded his team's defensive effort after the Celtics held the Pacers to 35.1 percent shooting.

"I thought defensively, we were sensational tonight,'' Rivers said. "In a game where shots are not going in and you can still win the game, that means you can trust your defense on nights that it (the offense) doesn't work.''

Paul Pierce scored 24 points and Ray Allen had 19 off the bench in his third game back after missing six with an ankle injury. Allen went 5 for 11 from 3-point range.

"We got him good shots and I told him, it's still going to take a couple of games,'' Rivers said. "He's still trying to get his legs back. I thought in the second half, you could see he had a breakthrough.''

The Celtics will have to play much better than their previous two meetings with the 76ers if they're to increase their division lead.

Evan Turner scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead Philadelphia to a 103-71 rout of Boston on March 7. Elton Brand then led six players in double figures with 20 points in the 76ers' 99-86 victory March 23.

Philadelphia, though, is only 5-9 against the rest of the league since the March 7 meeting, and Saturday's 88-82 loss to Orlando was its third straight defeat.

Also, both of last month's wins over the Celtics took place in Philadelphia. The Celtics have taken five of their last six home meetings in this series.

The 76ers (29-26) now sit seventh in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of eighth-place New York and 1 1/2 ahead of ninth-place Milwaukee with 11 games remaining.

Philadelphia's starters were outscored 80-31 on Saturday, when Thaddeus Young led the team with 20 points off the bench. No player in the starting five scored more than seven points, and the 76ers were unable to generate enough offense despite holding the Magic to 36.3 percent shooting.

Coach Doug Collins hinted changes may be necessary to the starting lineup.

"We can't keep digging ourselves a hole like that, just can't do it,'' he said.

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