Game Preview: Timberwolves at Celtics

BOSTON – Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup Sunday evening and helped the Boston Celtics (25-7) return to their dominant ways with a 93-79 win over the Toronto Raptors. The C’s will look to keep the ball rolling in 2011 when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves (9-25) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Boston’s offense, which sputtered through the seven games that Rondo missed due to a sprained left ankle, looked like it didn’t miss a beat when he stepped back onto the court last night. The team shot 54.3 percent from the floor against the Raptors on Sunday, an amount that exceeded any shooting percentage the C’s recorded in the seven games Rondo missed.

In addition to the overall increase in shooting efficiency, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were allowed to step back into their intended roles.

Pierce, who often played point-forward while Rondo was out, dropped a game-high 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Most importantly, though, he turned the ball over once. He had committed 16 turnovers over the previous four games.

Allen also had a stellar game with his 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting. Those 18 shots were more than he took in any of the seven games Rondo missed due to the left ankle sprain, so he obviously benefited from the point guard’s ability to penetrate Toronto’s defense.

The Celtics were able to run their full offense with Rondo on the floor Sunday evening. As Doc Rivers candidly stated after the game, many of the plays Boston ran simply hadn’t been touched for more than two weeks.

“With him, because he knows everything we run, we were back into running stuff we'd basically put into hibernation while he was out," Rivers said. "You just see how comfortable Paul and Ray were.”

They might be even more comfortable tonight. The Timberwolves enter tonight’s game ranked dead last in the lead in opponent points per game, giving up an astonishing 108.9 points a night. Opponents also shoot 46.7 percent overall against Minnesota, which is tied for the seventh-highest amount in the league.

While Minnesota’s defense is porous, at best, there are some positives to find in the Timberwolves organization.

With ample playing time, Kevin Love has skyrocketed into superstardom this season and is leading the league in rebounding by a wide margin. His average of 15.3 RPG is far ahead of Dwight Howard’s average of 13.0. That level of rebounding hasn’t been approached since Ben Wallace averaged 15.4 per game in 2003.

At the offensive end, the Timberwolves have watched Michael Beasley develop into one of the promising young talents in the NBA. Minnesota acquired Beasley from the Miami Heat last summer in exchange for two second-round picks and cash considerations. The deal has turned out to be a steal, as Beasley leads the team in scoring with 21.8 PPG. He has been shooting at a high rate all season and carries averages of 47.4 percent field goal shooting, 43.9 percent 3-point shooting and 74.5 percent free throw shooting into tonight’s game.

Despite the fact that Minnesota has won three of its last four games, the combination of Love’s rebounding and Beasley’s scoring has not translated into many wins for the team. The Celtics, on the other hand, showed Sunday evening that they are back in business with Rondo on the floor. It will certainly be difficult for the Timberwolves to overcome a potent Celtics team, but it’s possible that Minnesota’s young stars can be enough to keep the Timberwolves in the game.

Rebounding

The Celtics do not have an intimidating rebounder on their active roster while Kevin Garnett rests his strained right leg muscle. Glen Davis, who had 11 rebounds, was the only Celtic to grab more than seven boards in Sunday’s win and the team was outrebounded by a count of 49-37 against the Raptors.

Rebounding difficulties could result in a tough game tonight, because Minnesota – thanks to Love – is the top rebounding team in the league. The Timberwolves grab 44.8 rebounds a night, which is far ahead of Boston’s average of 39.3 per game.

If the Celtics cannot protect the glass tonight, that will likely lead to a close game. The only way to overcome such a deficiency is to limit the amount of rebounds available. In other words, if the C’s can’t stay on par with Minnesota in grabbing missed shots, they will have to shoot a high percentage from the floor and limit the amount of rebounds the Timberwolves can grab.

Rondo, C’s Must Assist

With so many offensive weapons on the court surrounding the league’s top assist man, the Celtics are able to rack up ridiculous assist numbers on a consistent basis. Boston dished out 30 dimes last night in Toronto. That number accounted for 79.0 percent of the team’s field goals (38) in the game.

Believe it or not, Boston might be able to up that number against the Timberwolves tonight. As we noted earlier, Minnesota gives up the most points in the league, and they also allow the most assists with an opponent average of 24.9 per game.

On the flip side, when the C’s are unable to assist at a high rate it typically means they are going to lose the game. Boston averages 26.0 APG in its wins and only 19.1 APG in its losses. If they keep pace with last night’s performance in Toronto, the Celtics should add to their win total when the final buzzer sounds. If they don’t, this game might be closer than many anticipate.

Matchup Issues for Boston

Many coaches decide to script their starting lineup based on typical NBA standards by position. Minnesota head coach Kurt Ramis is in the minority, as he simply wants to have his five most talented players on the floor to begin the game.

That thought process results in an interesting starting group for the Timberwolves. Luke Ridnour and Darko Milicic fit perfectly into their point guard and center roles, but the other three positions are a different story.

With Love in the starting lineup as an undersized power forward, it forces Beasley, who is a long 6-foot-10, to slide over to small forward. This means that Pierce, who is 6-7, will be defending a much bigger player for the majority of the night. He has done so in the past against players like Kevin Durant, so this isn’t unfamiliar territory for him.

Ray Allen will also be undersized in comparison to the man he’ll be matched up against. Wesley Johnson, who is a typical small forward, starts at shooting guard for Minnesota and will have a two-inch size advantage over Allen. Boston’s sharpshooter shouldn’t have much difficulty getting open looks tonight, as Johnson won’t excel at chasing Allen around screens, but when the Celtics are on defense Johnson will have some advantages he may be able to exploit.