Sixers clinch top spot in the East

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on April 10, 2001.

Having spent the previous two postseasons forced to overcome an opponent's home-court advantage, the 76ers entered this season with a primary goal: Make sure the Eastern Conference road to the NBA Finals goes through Philadelphia.

Last night, the Sixers took care of business and virtually eliminated a potential playoff opponent along the way.

And they did it with relative ease.

Buoyed by the return of Allen Iverson, the Sixers clinched home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 108-95 win over the Boston Celtics at the First Union Center.

Riding the coattails of their star players, the Sixers got a game-high 37 points from Iverson and an impressive 12-point, 18-rebound, 7-blocked-shot effort from center Dikembe Mutombo as they improved to 54-23.

Last night's win, in front of 20,365, was the 13th in their last 16 games at the First Union Center, where they are 28-11. It was their sixth consecutive victory over the Celtics – their 10th win in the teams' last 12 meetings - and it marked the first time since the 1977-78 season that Philadelphia has swept Boston in a season series.

Entering the game trailing the Indiana Pacers by 1 1/2 games in the race for the eighth and final playoff berth, the Celtics desperately needed a win to stay in contention for a first-round playoff matchup with the top-seeded Sixers.

Judging by last night's game, the Sixers should be facing Indiana in the first round. (The Pacers won last night. ) Still, the road in the East will come through a city that's not about to show its basketball visitors any brotherly love.

"That doesn't mean anything to me right now," Sixers coach Larry Brown said, minutes before leaving for Miami, where the team will face the Heat tonight. "I'm thrilled that we won the conference and the Atlantic Division. That's an accomplishment. I don't think we could be any prouder of our team.

"But we won the first two series the last two years without the home court, so I don't think we could take anything for granted. We just have to keep trying to play better and try to improve. That's the only thing I'm concerned with right now. "

The Sixers entered last night's game concerned about their players' health, as usual. Iverson had missed the two previous games with a severely bruised tailbone, and guard Aaron McKie had missed the previous five with a sprained ligament in his right knee. It was unclear whether point guard Eric Snow would be able to go because of tendinitis in his right ankle. So Brown had reason for concern.

By halftime, those concerns appeared to have been unnecessary.

The Sixers were hardly forced to break a sweat. Boston's jump shots were not falling with any degree of regularity. Because of that, they were forced to go inside. Seeing Mutombo there, the Celtics were not inclined to do so.

And the Sixers smelled blood.

By the intermission, the Sixers had outrebounded Boston, 29-12, helping the Celtics set a First Union Center futility record for first-half rebounds. The Sixers had shot 24 for 47. Iverson had 18 points, and Mutombo had grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots. Despite shooting 19 of 42, Boston was down by 58-44.

And things were not about to get better.

The Sixers ended up with a 52-30 rebounding advantage.

"They killed us on the boards," said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien, who is 23-21 since taking over for Rick Pitino in January. "They did it to us last time. We had nobody to contend with Mutombo tonight. "

According to O'Brien, Mutombo's defensive strengths have been accentuated by the Sixers moving him to the weak side, just as they did with Theo Ratliff. The move appears to be working.

Thanks to a 12-4 third-quarter run, a period in which they shot 50 percent and Iverson scored 13 points, the Sixers ended the quarter up 86-67.

From that point, despite a couple of three-point shots by Walter McCarty, the outcome was never in doubt.

The Sixers are 47-3 when leading their opponents entering the fourth quarter and 35-5 when shooting better than 45 percent. They also are 27-2 when scoring more than 100 points this season, and Mutombo has four straight double-doubles.

Because of that, the Sixers can be forgiven if winning games isn't their big concern for a week or so.

"Resting is more important than anything," McKie said. "You can have the best record in the league going into the playoffs, but if you don't have the proper rest or the bodies there, it doesn't mean anything. "