Game Preview: Pacers at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – A four-game winning streak has quickly made the Boston Celtics’ (4-3) slow start to the season disappear into the land of the forgotten. Believe it or not, the Celtics can now match the NBA’s longest winning streak of the season with a win over the Indiana Pacers (4-2) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

That fifth consecutive win won’t come easy against the Pacers. Indiana is a much-improved team that is expected to make some noise this season in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers squeaked into the playoffs last season with a 37-45 record and weren’t expected to do anything in the postseason. But under interim head coach Frank Vogel, who has since been promoted to the full time gig, Indiana gave the Chicago Bulls a run for their money in the first round.

Chicago won that series 4-1, but four of the five games went down to the wire. The Pacers lost the first three games of that series by an average of just 5.0 PPG and then won the fourth game by five points. The Bulls eliminated Indiana in the fifth game by a whopping 27 points, but that didn’t matter too much. The table had already been set for Indiana to be an emerging squad in 2011-12.

The Pacers jumped out to a 4-1 record to start this season before the Heat punished them in a 118-83 loss Wednesday night. That was by far Indiana’s worst performance of the season, and you’d be mistaken if you judge them by that result.

With the addition of two-time All-Star David West, who nearly joined the Celtics instead of the Pacers in December, Indiana bolstered its frontline and solidified itself as a legitimate team in the East. West, who’s scoring 11.8 PPG, is one of six Pacers players currently averaging double-figures in scoring for Indiana.

The Pacers are balanced and can attack you from all angles. They are young and possess a ton of athleticism from the top of their roster to the bottom. Those characteristics will make any team difficult to beat. Those characteristics will also make a head coach like Doc Rivers pay plenty of attention to a team like Indiana.

“They are that team (trying to take the next step),” Rivers said on Thursday. “They’re terrific. I think they’re going to be really good by season’s end. What you like (about them is that) they’re deep. They’re eight, nine men deep. They’re a good basketball team.

Good enough to call them a test for the Celtics this early in the season?

“They’re a test as far as they’re a really good basketball team,” said Rivers. “They’re athletic, they’re long, they can shoot the ball. They’re gonna be in the playoffs. Very well could be an opponent. I don’t know about tests and stuff like that. I think every night is a test, but we’re just growing, and so are they.”

The Celtics are definitely growing, as evidenced by their four consecutive wins by an average of 11.5 PPG. The early season struggles for Boston, which coincided with the absence of captain Paul Pierce, seem to have subsided. The Celtics’ defense is beginning to click and four different players have led the team in scoring during the current winning streak.

Brandon Bass has surprisingly not led the team in scoring in any of those games, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been filling it up. Boston’s new big man has been playing so well that he was placed on this season’s All-Star ballot. He is currently averaging 14.0 PPG and 6.6 RPG off the bench and is coming off of a 15-point, 13-rebound performance against the Nets on Wednesday. Those 13 boards tied his career high.

Bass and the rest of his teammates are rolling into tonight’s contest, which is the third of a five-game homestand for Boston. It will be a tall order for the Celtics to extend their winning streak against this up-and-coming Indiana team that could wind up being a playoff opponent in a few months.

Will Ray Play?

Ray Allen has been away from his teammates for more than three days now with a cold. The cold became so bad that Allen missed Wednesday’s game against New Jersey and then was told to stay home and away from practice on Thursday.

The report from Rivers is that Allen is improving every day, but his status for tonight remains unknown. He did, however, attend shootaround this morning, which indicates that he should be available for tonight’s game. Whether he is or isn’t will play a large role in each team’s game plan.

Allen’s last game was a 27-point outburst against the Wizards on Monday. He has been shooting the ball as well as he ever has, and if he plays tonight it will certainly have an impact on the result of this game. If he does play, he’ll need to deal with the defense of Paul George, who has emerged as Indiana’s starting shooting guard. The 21-year-old George is listed as 6-foot-8, but it was reported that he grew two inches this summer and now stands at 6-foot-10. That length won’t be easy for Allen to shoot over if he does make it onto the court tonight.

Crowd Reaction to West?

The story has been written over and over in Boston and Indianapolis: David West chose the up-and-coming Pacers over the established Celtics. Players and coaches have been asked about it, and most of them have varying opinions on the subject. Rivers gave his opinion before Thursday’s practice.

“He had two good decisions,” said Rivers. “He had a team, he could look at us as a team that was trying to win it right now, and he had a team at Indiana that is gonna be in the thick of it as well, and they’re young and he can grow with them. So to me, he was in a win-win situation. It’s a good place to be.”

Celtics fans won’t look at it that way, and some of the team’s players haven’t looked at it that way, either. It will be interesting to see what type of treatment the Garden crowd gives him on a rowdy Friday night. If it’s harsh treatment, will it affect the veteran’s game?

Must Be Sharp

Boston needs to be sharp during tonight’s game first and foremost to win, but also to prove that yesterday’s practice did not go to waste.

The Celtics convened in Waltham, Mass., for their first practice since the season began way back on Christmas Day in New York City. Thursday’s session was nothing special, as Rivers noted several times that it wouldn’t be long and it wouldn’t be very physical, but it was still a practice.

Boston has continued to improve as the season has progressed, and yesterday’s work in Waltham should make them even sharper. Practice doesn’t make perfect in January, but it sure does help.