Sixers-Celtics: 5 things you need to know

sixers-celtics-matchup.jpg

Sixers-Celtics: 5 things you need to know

Nearly 50 games into the season and the Sixers finally get a chance to face the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night at the TD Garden (7:30 p.m./CSN).

Though the Sixers and Celtics dwell in the cellar of the division, the storied rivalry is as heated as ever. Both clubs are in full rebuilding mode and appear to be in a race to acquire the most ping-pong balls for next June’s draft.

At 14-31, the Sixers hold a slight advantage, but the Celtics, at 15-32, have lost 14 of their last 16 games.

Here are a few things to know about Wednesday’s game:

1. MCW vs. Rondo
Michael Carter-Williams’ latest point-guard test is against Rajon Rondo, the wily veteran who collects triple-doubles the way kids used to collect baseball cards. The thing about this matchup is Carter-Williams will face Rondo in the just the seventh game this season for the Celtics point guard and Rondo's first in a back-to-back.

Fresh off rehab to repair a torn ACL, Rondo is still finding his way back, averaging just 6.6 points and 5.8 assists per game. He also hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in a game, and he's scored more than eight points just once.

Carter-Williams, on the other hand, is on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award. Though he has been slightly inconsistent over the past few weeks, Carter-Williams still averaged 20 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game over his last five.

2. Back to Boston
Carter-Williams, from nearby Hamilton, Mass., isn’t the only member of the Sixers headed for a home game of sorts. Coach Brett Brown is from South Portland, Maine and played college ball at Boston University where he played games at the old Boston Garden.

Brown grew up following the Sixers-Celtics rivalry and has vivid memories of Andrew Toney, "The Boston Strangler," wrecking the Celtics during the 1981 and 1982 Eastern Conference Finals.

“I can still hear the NBA music and introduction to the NBA Game of the Week. To travel down to the Garden and be able to see [George] McGinnis and Julius Erving and Bobby Jones and [Andrew] Toney, [Maurice] Cheeks and Doug [Collins] play,” Brown said after Tuesday’s practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “I just couldn’t believe how Andrew Toney would just kick the Celtics’ tail. To me, he was unguardable. He was just such a one-on-one, triple threat. Rock-a-step, rock-a-step threat. He was a big part of my upbringing and my memory of the NBA, more so than the Celtics-Lakers battles.”

Additionally, injured center Nerlens Noel is from Malden, Mass. and grew up playing ball with Carter-Williams.

Needless to say, it will be a big homecoming for a few in the Sixers’ traveling party.

3. Turner getting warm
The Feb. 20 trade deadline is slowly creeping up and, coincidentally, Evan Turner’s production has taken a slight uptick lately, too.

In his last 10 games, Turner is shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 85.1 percent from the line. In his last four games, Turner has found his scoring stroke, pouring in 34 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and 21 against the Suns on Monday night. Over the last four games, Turner is 29 for 62 from the floor (4 for 9 from three-point range) and 21 for 23 from the foul line.

Could better numbers get Turner traded before the deadline? Maybe not. Then again, it doesn’t hurt.

4. Fast and slow
The Sixers lead the NBA in pace with 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes. No other team is within two possessions of the Sixers, who also lead the NBA with 88.5 shots per game.

The Celtics also get a lot of shots per game -- 82.8 per game for the seventh-most in the league.

The difference is in the way the teams get their shots. The Sixers run up and down the court and launch themselves at the rim. The thought is that more possessions and more shots will produce more points. With 101.3 points per game, there is something to that.

Of course, the Sixers open themselves up to turnovers and having their shots blocked, two more categories in which they lead the NBA.

The Celtics are much more deliberate. They get just 93.2 possessions per game, well below the league average, and just 94.7 points per game, 27th in the league. Though they get plenty of shots, the Celtics shoot just 43.7 percent, better than only four teams in the league.

In other words, expect a lot of rebounds on Wednesday night ... for both teams.

5. Injuries
Arnett Moultrie’s ankle is, “100 percent,” according to Brown, but the second-year forward still needs to get into shape before returning to game action.

Brandon Davies (finger), Jason Richardson (knee) and Noel (knee) are out.

For the Celtics, Jerryd Bayless (toe) and guard Avery Bradley (ankle) are likely out. Keith Bogans (personal reasons) has been away from the team since Jan. 14 and will not return for the foreseeable future.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”