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Chance to size up Celtics, 76ers

Thursday night’s NBA battle between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers (7 p.m., TNT) provides a great opportunity to evaluate both Eastern Conference contenders as we close in on the midway mark of the 2019-20 season.

Boston has been a pleasant surprise for fans and bettors. Stellar play on both ends of the floor has the Celtics positioned to challenge for the No. 2 seed in the East behind powerful Milwaukee. Against the spread, the Celtics have cleared 60% through much of the season, well above the profit watermark for backers. Boston has the best cover percentage in the East and second best in the NBA behind Oklahoma City. 

Philadelphia has been disappointing — so disappointing that pundits are asking whether changes need to be made in the lineup or in the team’s brain trust. The Sixers are in danger of not even earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In market terms, they carry a 15-19-4 ATS record into Thursday’s game, down 5.9 betting units counting the 10% vigorish charged on losses. 

What’s interesting, though, is that Philadelphia really isn’t playing far behind preseason expectations. Its Regular Season Win total closed at 53.5 at many sportsbooks. And the Sixers are on pace to win 52 games.

Other Eastern powers have soared past expectations. Milwaukee (57 market-projected wins), Boston (48.5), Toronto (46.5), Indiana (46.5) and Miami (43.5) are on pace to cash Over tickets for supporters with their current records.

It’s been a weird season in the East. Good teams are soaring. Bad teams are sinking like boulders. Philadelphia may be just biding its time until the playoffs. 

To help you evaluate Thursday’s clash, let’s check on league rankings in key analytics stats:

— Offensive efficiency: Boston No. 7, Philadelphia No. 14

— Defensive efficiency: Boston No. 3, Philadelphia No. 6

— Rebound rate: Philadelphia No. 2, Boston No. 8

— Strength of schedule: Philadelphia No. 18, Boston No. 30

Efficiency is scoring adjusted for pace. Rebound rate is percentage of available rebounds grabbed. For strength of schedule, VSiN likes to use Jeff Sagarin’s market-respected numbers posted at USA Today. 

Boston gets the nod in efficiency on both ends of the floor. But the Celtics have played the softest schedule in the league. Philadelphia will own the boards against most everyone when healthy. Let’s see what happens once schedule strength moves closer together. 

It’s worth noting that the Sixers are 2-0 straight up and ATS against the Celtics, winning 107-93 when laying 5.5 points on opening night and 115-109 when getting a point at TD Garden on Dec. 12. They also won their only meeting with Milwaukee. You might have watched that 121-109 stunner on Christmas afternoon.

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