Game Preview: Celtics at Raptors

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (24-7) and Toronto Raptors (11-21) will see a lot of each other in the first week of 2011, but the opening week of the year might be the last time they see each other until October rolls around.

The teams will kick off the new year of basketball at 6 p.m. Sunday evening in Toronto before colliding once again in Boston Friday night. Those two contests will wrap up the teams' four meetings of 2010-11, which means they will not see each other again until next season unless they happen to meet in the playoffs.

Although the Raptors' record is far from impressive, they have ample opportunity to make the postseason and possibly take on the C's once more. Toronto currently sits in the 11th spot in the Eastern Conference, but that leaves them only two games behind Milwaukee for the East's final playoff spot.

There are numerous reasons why the Celtics will not take Toronto lightly in this game. First of all, these teams have split the first two meetings between them this season, and Boston's win didn't exactly come in easy fashion. Secondly, Boston will enter this game looking like a shell of its true self due to injuries, though it may have Rajon Rondo back in the lineup.

The Celtics played their first game of the season without Kevin Garnett on Friday afternoon, in addition to numerous other injured players, and they couldn't get it done against a struggling New Orleans Hornets team. Boston's offense has been in a steep decline over the past week and a half. Without Rondo, the C's have scored only 86.0 PPG in their last five contests, and they did not score more than 95 points in any of those contests.

The return of Rondo, which has been knocking on the door for days, would give the Celts an enormous boost at both ends of the court. He will create open shots for his teammates, and that's a talent the team has lacked since he went down with a sprained left ankle nearly three weeks ago.

While the Celtics' struggles weren't exactly expected on the heels of their 14-game win streak, Toronto's lack of success hasn't been so shocking. After losing Chris Bosh to free agency this summer, the Raptors have retooled their roster with an eye toward the future. In the meantime, however, they're going to endure plenty of losses.

Toronto has lost 10 of its last 13 games and has also struggled to score the basketball. The Raps have scored more than 93 points in only one of their last four games, and that may continue against a Boston defense that, despite KG's absence, can still get it done.

One of Boston's seven losses took place in the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 21. The C's gave the game away after leading by three points with 21.3 seconds left. Sonny Weems' uncontested layup cut the lead to one and then Amir Johnson's free throws sealed the win for Toronto after Ray Allen committed a critical turnover.

Much like those final seconds of the Nov. 21 loss, his game isn't likely to be pretty. Boston must find a way to win while its key players are on the mend, and that isn't an easy task. The hope is that this accentuated survival mode won't have to last for long, but in the meantime the C's will be faced with the task of winning in ugly fashion.

Bench Play

When these two teams last met, on Nov. 26 in Boston, the Celtics' starters dominated the quarters in which they had their most playing time. Doc Rivers' rotation puts his starters on the floor for the majority of the first and third quarters and saves their energy for the final six to nine minutes of the fourth.

When that rotation held true against the Raptors, Boston's starters helped outscore Toronto 58-35 in the first and third periods. The problem is that while the starters got some rest in the second and fourth quarters, the C's were outscored 66-51.

In the current situation, two Celtics who were involved in that bench failure will likely be in the starting lineup. Nate Robinson will start at point guard if Rondo doesn't play, and Glen Davis is starting in place of Garnett at power forward. That means the Celtics bench is even shorter than it was in that game, so other players will need to step in and perform well.

Two Raptors players the C's need to keep an eye on are Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa. Kleiza scored 18 points off the bench against Boston on Nov. 26, and Barbosa has averaged 13 points, two rebounds and three assists in two games against the C's this season. Those numbers don't seem huge, but they are when you consider they're from a reserve.

Boston's Defense

The Celtics have given up more than 100 points to Toronto in both games these teams have played against each other this season, and that was with Garnett in the lineup.

There's no doubt that the defense will not be as stout without KG on the floor, but the C's are still capable of performing at a high level. Shaquille O'Neal can step into a huge role in the paint and affect shots without fouling. Jermaine O'Neal can do the same. On the perimeter, GLen Davis has the feet to effectively defend the pick-and-roll.

In the two examples we have of Boston's defense without Garnett, Detroit scored 104 points and New Orleans scored 83. The C's seemed to locate a defensive rhythm against the Hornets, limiting them to 43.4 percent shooting, and they'll need that continuity again this evening.

Must-wins for C's

When we say "must win," we don't mean it in the fashion you'd typically think. This isn't a must-win game for Boston because the season is teetering on disaster -- it's not. This is a must win game for the C's because it's a very winnable contest against an inferior opponent. While the team is missing numerous key players, these are the games it must pull out.

Including this evening's game, three of Boston's next four contests are against Toronto (twice) and Minnesota; San Antonio visits TD Garden on Wednesday. But Minnesota and Toronto combined for just 19 wins, which is five less than the 24 wins the Celtics have racked up. There's no doubt that the Celtics should win these games, and they must follow through on that to keep the boat afloat until their important pieces return to the lineup.