Game Preview: Spurs at Celtics

BOSTON – The hype may not be brewing like it was for Opening Night, but make no mistake: Tonight’s showdown between the Boston Celtics (26-7) and San Antonio Spurs (29-5) at 7:30 p.m. in the TD Garden is a mammoth matchup.

Losses have been few and far between for those two conference leaders, as their combined 12 Ls are fewer than 22 NBA teams’ loss total. However, San Antonio will head into tonight’s game as a wounded duck.

Much like with the Celtics, we’ve heard for years that the Spurs’ aging core would come back to haunt them on specific nights and particularly down the stretch of the season. Tonight may be one of those nights for San Antonio.

The Spurs will be playing in the second night of a back-to-back set on the road and are coming off of a hard-fought 128-115 loss to the Knicks last night in New York. With a combined 243 points scored in the game, it’s obvious that it was played at a fast pace. That’s a tough lead-in to a contest with the Eastern Conference leaders the very next night.

Those leaders, the Celtics, have been atop the East for nearly the entire season despite a rash of injuries that has plagued the team since Day 1. One of those injuries will result in us missing out on seeing two of the greatest big men in the history of the game face off against each other. Kevin Garnett will not play in tonight’s game due to a strained muscle in his lower right leg, but his longtime competitor, Tim Duncan, will be strutting his stuff in the Garden.

Duncan continues to be a very good player but it’s clear that his production is on the decline. He is no longer the cornerstone of his team and has faded into the third offensive option. Manu Ginobili (18.6 PPG) and Tony Parker (17.9 PPG) are both outscoring Duncan (13.6 PPG) this season and the Spurs have turned up the speed of their offense.

With Duncan typically the team’s main option, San Antonio has played in a similar manner to the C’s over the past few years. Both teams have thrived in the half court by executing their offense to perfection while sneaking in some fast break points when given the opportunity. However, while the Celtics still sit 23rd in the league in terms of offensive pace, the Spurs have leaped into the top half of the league and rank 14th in that category.

The new high-powered Spurs have caught 29 victims off guard this season. All of those teams have had to deal with what may be the most potent offense in the league. San Antonio ranks first in the league in offensive efficiency and, to the surprise of many, are fourth in the league in scoring behind only New York, Denver and Phoenix.

While San Antonio’s version of the Big Three holds its familiar faces in Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, the reconstruction of the rest of the team is what has altered the Spurs’ tempo. With George Hill and Gary Neal coming off the bench, San Antonio has nearly 20 points coming from its reserve guards on a nightly basis. Both of those players have used their athleticism and shooting ability to notch three 20-point games apiece off the bench this season. To give you an idea of how important those numbers are, Garnett, in his resurgent season, has notched only six 20-point games as a starter in 2010-11.

But the Celtics won’t be relying on KG tonight. Instead, they’ll be looking to up their winning streak to three games with the help of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Those three players combined to lead Boston to a 96-93 victory over the Timberwolves on Monday night, a game that the C’s trailed for nearly the entire duration. Pierce led the game with 23 points, Allen chipped in 20 and Rondo dished out 16 assists in his second game back from an ankle injury.

Boston is hoping that trio can deliver again tonight in a game that holds plenty of meaning. The Celtics will look to continue their winning ways and avoid the downward spiral they experienced post-Christmas last season, while the Spurs will try to sidestep their first back-to-back losses of the season.

Not many expected this matchup, on Jan. 5, to pit the two conference leaders against each other, but here we are. Age has not slowed down either of these teams thus far in the season. Instead, it has only sped them up.

Undersized Power Forwards

Glen Davis will start his fourth straight game in place of Garnett and will be taking on a player eerily similar to him in DeJuan Blair. At 6-foot-9, Davis is undersized for a power forward in the NBA, but he’ll actually have a two-inch advantage over Blair tonight.

Despite the two players’ lack of size, both have figured out how to contribute to their teams. Davis has become one of Boston’s most potent scoring threats and trails only the Big Three in scoring on the C’s with 12.2 PPG. Blair, on the other hand, is much less of a scorer (7.6 PPG) but contributes with his defense, hustle and rebounding.

You can bet that each player wants to prove that he is the best undersized power forward in the NBA tonight. It will be interesting to see how this rare matchup will play out.

Ray’s Defense

Whenever Allen is on the floor, it’s usually the opposing shooting guard who has to worry about his defense. Allen is one of the premier shooters of all time and he moves off of the ball as well as anyone in the league.

Tonight, however, his defense will be a key. Allen will be defending San Antonio’s top scorer, Ginobili, and will need to contain him in order to give the Celtics a great shot at grabbing this win. Ginobili has sneaky quickness and athleticism and loves to take the ball off of the dribble. He is also a very good shooter, so Allen won’t be able to relax at any point while defending him. The C’s would love to funnel Ginobili into the teeth of their defense, but he will spend all night trying to avoid those areas and get himself some open looks.

Celtics Need Strong Bench Play

San Antonio has built a very deep team that has been able to take some of the load off of its top three players. The Spurs have been able to rack up the league’s best record despite Duncan (28.9 MPG), Ginobili (31.6 MPG) and Parker (33.2 MPG) all playing limited minutes. You know what that means – their bench has come up huge.

The two most integral parts of San Antonio’s bench have already been mentioned in Hill and Neal. Both players have a score-first mentality and will look to put the ball in the basket against Boston’s reserves. With that being said, the C’s are going to need some great performances from the likes of Nate Robinson, Von Wafer and Marquis Daniels tonight.

Wafer is coming off of his best game as a Celtic with his 10 points and six rebounds Monday night against Minnesota. He and his other fellow reserves will need to bring similar energy tonight and understand that, while they will need to score, their main focus should be at the defensive end.