Portland Trail Blazers (33-28) at Boston Celtics (36-25)
Wednesday, March 2
TD Garden | 4:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: None | New York injury report: Kelly Olynyk (out), James Young (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: CelticsBlog | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
Who are the hottest teams in the NBA? Of course the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors have both been winning at a ridiculous pace all year. We all know that. So the real question is, "Who are the other really hot teams in the NBA?" Fortunately for viewers, two of them will be playing Wednesday night at TD garden.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been scorching lately, winning 14 of their last 16 games, which is second only to the Warriors during that stretch. The Celtics, meanwhile, have been playing good basketball of their own, winners of 9 of their last 12 and 11 straight wins at home.
Boston can be difficult to play because it can win in so many different ways. The Celtics are the only team in the NBA that has seven players who have played in more than 30 contests and average 10 or more points per game. They have depth at every position, and then some. The main knock on the Celtics for the past few seasons is that despite their never-ending asset collection and GM Danny Ainge trying to take part in every trade rumor over the past few years, they still do not have the true superstar that they so desperately covet.
Celtics point guard, Isaiah Thomas, did, however, earn his first All-Star appearance this season. He leads the Celtics with 21.4 points and 6.8 assists per game. Although he is the shortest active player in the NBA, at 5-foot-9, he continues to find success due to his explosive first step, his quick release, and uncanny ability to finish around the rim -- even though literally every single player in the league is taller than he is.
As good as Thomas has been, he may not be the most valuable asset to the Celtics. While Blazers coach Terry Stotts was recently awarded the Western Conference Coach of the Month award for February, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was receiving his Eastern Conference Coach of the Month award. Through 61 games of the season, Stotts and Stevens are arguably the front runners for 2016 NBA Coach of the Year honors. Other candidates include San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Poppovic, Toronto Raptors coach Dwayne Casey, and
Golden State Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton.
Stevens makes up for lack of superstar power by using his bench and taking advantage of matchups. In their last 10 games, the Celtics' bench has led NBA second units with an efficiency rating of 56.9. In comparison, (before exploding on the Phoenix Suns, who are terrible, on Tuesday) the Charlotte Hornets' starters only had an efficiency rating of 54.4 during that same time frame, per Hoopsstats.com.
This depth allows the Celtics to run the floor more consistently, and has led to Boston having the third-fastest pace in the NBA. Most of the pace and transition for the Celtics starts on the defensive side of the ball. Stevens has his defense constantly switching screens and using his team's athleticism to pressure the ball and cause turnovers. Consequently, Boston also ranks second in the NBA in steals per game.
The battle of the guards should be as entertaining as is it gets. Portland brings near-All-Star Damian Lillard and leading Most Improved Player candidate CJ McCollum, who will man the starting guard roles for the Blazers. For Boston, it's Thomas, along with the team's second-leading scorer and best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley, filling the Celtic backcourt. As the Boston's top defender, Bradley, along with backup point guard Marcus Smart, will spend most of of the night guarding Lillard.
Look for the the Celtics guards to try to to pressure Lillard and McCollum all night, and cut them off from the ball as much as possible. The Celtics will live with the other Blazer players trying to create offense. Look for Portland to get creative with off-ball screens and flares to shed defenders and force switches and create opportunities for the Blazer guards.
The Celtics' switching defense only works with smaller and more agile interior players. Starting power forward Amir Johnson and center Jared Sullinger are both no bigger than 6-foot-9. That's about the same size as Blazer small forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Although Boston is a good overall rebounding team, the Portland bigs need to use their size and length to control the rebounding tonight. The Celtics big men are faster and more athletic than the Blazer bigs. If the Portland big men, like Ed Davis or Mason Plumlee, attack the offensive glass and don't come away with the rebound, it is important that they sprint back and not give up easy points in transition. Successful transition baskets dissuade offensive rebounding and successful offensive rebounding dissuades leaking out in transition.
What do the Blazers need to do to win?
Follow the leader: Winning can be very complicated. Sometimes it takes multiple parts of the team all clicking at the right time, everyone carrying their own weight, without a single weak link. Other times, well, it's as simple as your best player just going bananas. The Blazers have won 11 straight games in which Lillard has scored at least 30 points or more. When he's on, no matter who's guarding him, the Blazers are just a very hard team to beat.
Road Warriors: Winning on the road is never easy and Boston has a substantial home court advantage. Portland has played very well on the road, especially of late, but these young Blazers cannot get rattled and make mistakes that turn small Boston runs into game changing ones. When teams get rattled, you often see a lot more isolation sets (hero ball) and less set plays to create good shots. It will be crucial that the Blazers stay focused.
Fatigue Makes Cowards of us all: Portland will be playing their fourth game in five nights and fourth game of their six-game road trip. That's a pretty brutal schedule and minutes have not been spared. Portland needs to not let fatigue play a role in this one.
These are two teams with momentum on their side. Something has got to give. This is one of the rare times that two teams face each other in such similar situations. As most fans of cliches know, it all comes down to who wants it more.