Tonight the Portland Trail Blazers get to wash away the taste of Friday's "loss" to the Los Angeles Lakers, facing the once-mighty Boston Celtics at home in a 6:00 Pacific game televised on KGW TV locally.
At 29-26, Boston owns the 7th best record in the East. They've gone through an interesting progression since Christmas. They lost 4 straight between Christmas and New Year's, then won 6 in a row. Then they lost 6 in succession followed by a 7-game winning streak. That's a heck of a way to stay just above .500. Drama city.
In the last two weeks the Celtics have gone cold turkey on their streak addiction, posting a 2-3 record. Which version of the team will turn up tonight? Who knows?
Boston's offensive production reflects their compulsive nature. They're either scoring in the low-90's or putting up 100 and a bunch. They're capable of winning either way but they're more successful on the 100 and a bunch nights. They're an odd duck on the offensive end, though. They don't score in the paint much. They're not good shooting the three. They like to fast break if possible, shoot from mid-range otherwise. That proclivity goes a long way towards explaining the feast-or-famine point production. It also explains why they're among the least efficient offenses in the league even when their shooting percentage is respectable.
The Celtics fare better on the defensive end. They're aging but haven't lost their touch yet. They're good in transition, in the paint, and especially at defending the perimeter. Plus they force turnovers. The only area in which they fall short is fouling. They send opponents to the line plenty. But for a team whose main veterans are on the far side of prime, they're really solid on this end...the anti-Lakers if you will.
Point guard Rajon Rondo is out for the season with a torn ACL. That's good news for Portland's chances of winning this game, bad news from an entertainment standpoint. Rondo would have been an interesting challenge for Damian Lillard to handle. Into Rondo's place steps Avery Bradley. He's not much of a shooter or scorer, not a great assist guy either. He's a good defender and Boston doesn't rely on him to make plays by himself. Instead they cocoon him with their smart vets: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry. Those guys barely need a point guard.
Courtney Lee fills the starting shooting guard role. Forward Jeff Green plays big minutes off the bench. (He started in the Celtics' last game vs. Phoenix, however, giving Garnett a rest. He put in 31 points on the Suns.) The best news for Portland: the Celtics don't have an actual center. Fab Melo is as close as they get and he's so far down the rotation he's a non-entity. They start Brandon Bass in the middle. Once a semi-bright offensive prospect, his scoring, shooting, and rebounding have gone in the tank this year. After facing Dwight Howard, J.J. Hickson will no doubt see Bass and company as a welcome relief.
The key matchups on paper come at the forward positions. LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Garnett/Green and Nicolas Batum vs. Pierce could tell the story of this game. Aldridge is the bigger threat at power forward and the Celtics will need good games from KG and JG to match. Invert at the small forward position where Pierce--although nowhere near the player he once was--can still score in the mid-20's and the mercurial Batum will need to counter with defense and scoring of his own.
Fortunately the rest of the Blazers starters should acquit themselves well against their Boston counterparts. Boston, of course, has the greater depth with Jason Terry leading the bench squad. Terry's on fire this month and the Blazers can't afford to leak 20 to him.
Boston's on the road and they trend towards old. They don't offensive rebound at all. The Blazers should concentrate on securing the ball and then dash for the other end, hoping to catch them resting. The Celtics are smart and experienced enough to catch up with any offensive design the Blazers care to employ. Portland should test whether they're willing to follow the ball as it zips around the court, much as they did with the Lakers on Friday. If Portland can catch the Celtics in a "spirit is willing but flesh is weak" situation this could be an easy win.
Defensively Portland has to concentrate on the two things the Celtics do well. You're not going to see a huge paint attack or a rebounding threat. Nor do the Celtics field players who will require automatic double-teams. Portland stacks up well defensively at every position in which the Celtics are strong...a rarity for the Blazers. If you're Portland you get back in transition to take away the easy points and then stick with your man in hard, hawking man-to-man defense. Everything Boston does sets up more mid-range jumpers so don't leave your guy. You don't need shot-blocking. You don't need turnovers. You just need a hand in the face on those jumpers.
The Celtics do pass well so the Blazers will have to be alert on cuts. Again...you don't have to worry much about other people's men until one or more Boston players prove they're going to have a dominant night. If your man cuts, go with him. If they clear a side, so what? What are they going to do with it? Go underneath screens and pick up your guy on the other side. They're probably not going to find success shooting deep. It's not exactly rocket science if you put in the effort. If you don't, though...see also: Celtics 113, Suns 88.
Effort may be the main question for the Blazers tonight. Portland's on a long losing streak. The playoffs are steadily slipping from view...as everybody knew they would. I can guarantee you the Blazers feel like they got jobbed in Los Angeles...badly. They did. There are two ways to respond. They can get angry and take it out on Boston, in which case they'll likely win this game. Or they can give up, come out flat, drown in their own low expectations. In that case the Celtics will be happy to flatten them and pick up another road victory.
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