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Can guard Ray Allen help the Celtics get past the 76ers on Sunday at TD Garden?Despite losing both previous head-to-head matchups in the regular-season series, the Boston Celtics (31-24, 19-9 home) own a two-game cushion atop the Atlantic Division entering Sunday's tilt with the Philadelphia 76ers (29-26, 10-14 away) at TD Garden (6 p.m., CSN). With both teams eyeing a top 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, Sunday's battle should go a long way towards determining who ultimately wears the division crown and earns that preferred spot in the postseason. To preview the matchup, we play a game of 2-on-2 with colleague Greg Payne.
1. What will you be looking for when the C's host the 76ers?
Payne: Rebounding. In the two games these teams have squared off in, Philadelphia has come away with a combined rebounding edge of 100-70. The first time these two clubs met, Philly clobbered Boston on the glass, with five guys grabbing at least six rebounds, but the C's did show a renewed vigor in this area during the last meeting, so hopefully they can build off of that. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo will certainly have to help out Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass in this area, which shouldn't pose much of a problem for the captain. Since the team's last loss in Philly (in which Pierce grabbed a team-high eight boards), he's averaged 8.3 rebounds per game.
Forsberg: It's as simple as this: The Celtics have an excellent chance to essentially cement their spot atop the Atlantic Division with a win Sunday and I'm interested to see if Boston can go out there, ratchet it up a notch, and make things a little bit easier on itself over the final two-plus weeks of the season. Nothing has come easy this season, but the Celtics have surged in the second half of the season (while Philly has fallen apart a bit) and this is a chance to finally take a little control of their own destiny. Forget the matchups and the stats, on this day, it comes down to who wants it more and let's see if the Celtics can bring 48 minutes of sustained energy knowing a three-game lead with 10 games to go puts them firmly in the driver's seat (even with a daunting remaining slate).
2. During last month's meeting in Philadelphia, Mickael Pietrus sustained a Grade III concussion. How important is it for Boston to get him back on the court before the playoffs?
Payne: I think it's crucial to get Pietrus back on the court before the postseason. The more games he has to re-acclimate himself and reestablish his rhythm, the better. Also, we're not sure yet how his body will react to playing after such a scary incident, so having a handful of games to act as a barometer of sorts before the real games start will be very important. That said, there's no reason for the C's to rush Pietrus back so that that can happen. His health is the most important part of all of this, so he shouldn't come back until he's 100 percent comfortable with doing so.
Forsberg: The Celtics have won six of eight since Pietrus went down in Philadelphia, but it's hard to understate how much of a boost it would be to get a heathy Pietrus back on the floor. Even with Ray Allen shuffling to a reserve role, the Boston bench remains thin -- even if Saturday's win in Indiana produced maybe the best bench effort in recent memory, despite only running with three players -- and Pietrus would be a shot in the arm at both ends of the floor. Really, it comes down to his defense. Like with Avery Bradley, the Celtics have thrived whenever Pietrus is on the floor because of his length and ability to frustrate opposing wing players. If Boston's postseason success rests on its defense, then the Celtics would benefit immensely from having Pietrus in the mix. All those defensive-minded bodies could really frustrate their potential playoff opponents (just ask the Pacers, who had been on an offensive tear before running into Boston on Saturday).