Game Time: 4:30 p.m. Pacific TV: Comcast
It's safe to say that a 27-13 record, while excellent on the face of it, isn't exactly everything the Celtics had in hoped for coming into their 41st game of the season. Nursing a 3-game losing streak (Chicago, Dallas, Detroit) isn't helping. But then they've been soldiering on without Kevin Garnett for a quarter of the season so far. The Big Ticket turns them from a good team into a contender. He may be back tonight. The Celts have also been missing the services of Garnett's back-up, Rasheed Wallace. He's been back for a couple games. They still have the familiar cast of characters you know and love: Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins. Together they make a smart unit in both senses of that word. ("Smart", that is, not un...uhhh...nevermind.) These are veteran players, championship players, guys for whom this is a business the same way the mafia was a business. Don't let anything disrupt the flow. Someone gets in the way, you whack them.
Granted, the opponents they've lost to couldn't have gotten to the Celtics a couple years ago. The Don has gotten old, perhaps a little bit careless. But they've just been served up a big, whopping reminder of that. And tonight they're likely to settle all family business.
Unfortunately the Blazers get to play Mo Green in this scenario...holed up, getting a massage trying to work the kinks out. Brandon Roy is gone. Only Boston fans will need to be reminded that Oden, Przybilla, Batum, and Outlaw are missing as well. Rudy Fernandez is a shell of himself. That leaves Andre Miller, Jerryd Bayless, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Martell Webster dodging the bullet. It's a thin crew, more so under these circumstances.
The Celtics are still great defenders--a little less so with Garnett missing but they have the forms down anyway. They allow a low shooting percentage by virtue of giving up very few fastbreak points (one of a couple teams better than the glacially-paced Blazers in that department) and only slightly more points in the paint. You will not get anything easy on them. They generate turnovers. Their defensive rebounding is OK. They play the percentages and do it well.
Offensively Boston relies heavily on their multi-talented wing corps. Pierce is a great all-around scorer though he prefers the perimeter more than he once did. Ray Allen still guns, though his three-point percentage is drifting towards mediocre. (I don't think I need to dredge up memories of slaughters past to remind Portland fans not to rely on that mediocrity from Ray.) The guy who provides the spark, especially with Garnett out, is Rondo. He's shooting 53% for the season (that's a guard, folks) and dishing nearly 10 assists per game. Not all of them go off every night but one or two of them will and that's usually enough.
In the frontcourt Perkins provides what passes for post play in the offense. He's a decent offensive rebounder and gets mostly opportunity buckets. Wallace is as three-point happy as ever, averaging almost 5 attempts per game. But the combination of firepower and knowing how to use it still leaves Boston shooting 48.7% from the field overall, a good 40 point edge over what they allow the opponent.
Early in the year the Celtics were occasionally letting opponents run away with the score but lately when they've lost it's been because they had trouble generating offense. They have not topped 90 in their last three games. Allen was AWOL in two of them, Rondo in the other. Pierce and Perkins weren't enough to make up the difference.
This gets to the heart of the matter when playing Boston. If you can edge the game towards their supporting cast you have a chance. Even Wallace is touchy and will lose games for them as well as win them. But you have to marginalize Pierce, Allen, Rondo, and Garnett to do so. That's a tall order.
Keys to the Game
Given the relative lineup disparity it seems silly to give traditional keys. Frankly the Blazers could do a lot of things right tonight and still lose by 10. In order to come out with the win Portland will have to make like a District Attorney against the mob: be passionate about your cause, stick to your guns, and make sure you close the loopholes. You're going to need to guard 3-4 guys consistently. That means starters and reserves both will have to rotate smartly, close out quickly, and know who they're facing on each play. This game could rely as much on Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph as Aldridge and Miller. You must also execute on each offensive trip. The Celtics are going to want the Blazers to take jumpers. The Blazers tend to like jumpers. I don't foresee Portland being able to overcome that and bust down Boston's door in the paint or in transition. The Blazers have to make sure that each jumper is a good one. They can't be fighting the clock all night or taking 20-footers off the dribble. They need to hit the seams, pull up, and can it. Portland could also hit the offensive boards a little tonight. Boston isn't prone to running so commit to mopping up your mistakes. Those may be the only easy points you get. Most of all the Blazers have to be confident they can win. They'll need some Bayless Spark or Miller Mojo or some other kind of chutzpah to carry them over. They need to get on a roll and refuse to get off it. If this is a game of lulls and starts the Celtics are likely to win it. They'll have a far easier time starting from a full stop than will the Blazers.
Check out the Boston lead-up at CelticsBlog.
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