BOSTON Win or lose tonight, the Celtics (31-24) will leave the TD Garden still in first place in the Atlantic Division.
Finishing on top of the division for a fifth straight season has great value for the Celtics, especially when you consider how far they have come this season and all the setbacks they have had to endure.
However, finishing these final 11 regular season games playing well and staying healthy remain Boston's top two priorities now.
At times, those two things may seem to be at odds with one another.
Sitting players occasionally to keep them healthy might detract from the team's chances of winning. On the other hand, by playing most of their regulars down the stretch may increase the likelihood of victory, but it may impact how healthy and fresh players are during the postseason.
For Paul Pierce, the two go hand-in-hand.
"Finishing strong is getting ready for the postseason," he said. "When you're playing well, you're prepping for the long run, for what playoff basketball is all about. It comes down to the execution; it comes down to discipline on defense; all those little things help you play well in preparation for that."
The C's won't have much time to prepare for the Sixers.
But having lost the first two meetings to Philadelphia this season, the Celtics have a pretty good idea of what they need to improve upon in order to avoid getting swept by the Sixers this season. Here are a few keys to consider as the Celtics try to increase their lead over Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, to three games.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Bench play is always important, but you have to wonder how will Boston's second unit respond to facing a Sixers team whose backups have collectively been one of the most productive groups in the NBA this season. Ray Allen has come off the C's bench the last two games, and isn't likely to return to the starting lineup. That gives the C's a prolific scoring threat off the bench, coupled with the steadily improving play of Greg Stiemsma. Celtics veteran Sasha Pavlovic was the C's eighth man on Saturday and responded with an eight-point game in just over 14 minutes of action. Philadelphia is getting 40.3 points per game off its bench, the third-highest scoring bench in the NBA. Keeping them at or below their average will be critical for Boston to win.
MATCHUP TO WATCH Ray Allen vs. Lou Williams: It's not often that you have as much star power as tonight's game has, and the key matchup involves a pair of non-starters. But Allen and Williams are not your typical backups. Allen is the NBA's all-time leader in 3-pointers made and is the C's third-leading scorer. Williams is the Sixers' top scorer, and is on track to become the first player since Dell Curry in 1993-1994 with Charlotte, to lead his team in scoring without making a single start.
PLAYER TO WATCH Brandon Bass is coming off arguably his worst shooting performance for the Celtics. A double-digit scorer most nights, Bass missed all six of his shots from the field against the Pacers and finished with two points. It was the first time since being traded to the C's, that Bass played a game and missed every shot from the field.
STAT TO TRACK Both Boston and Philadelphia will look to get out and run when the opportunity presents itself. Good luck with that. Tonight's game features two of the league's best at limiting fast-break points, a credit to both teams placing a strong emphasis on getting back in transition defensively after as many made and missed shots, as possible. Boston has been strong in this area, giving up just 12 points per game which ranks sixth in the NBA. The Sixers? Even better. Teams are getting a league-low 9.9 fast-break points against Philadelphia this season.