Game Preview: Raptors at Celtics

BOSTON – If you didn’t hear, divisional play will come to an end tonight. Well, at least between the Boston Celtics (27-7) and the Toronto Raptors (12-23).

Boston and Toronto will meet for the second time this week at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden and, in turn, will close out their four-game divisional schedule against each other.

The Celtics are 2-1 versus the Raptors this season, including Sunday’s 93-79 triumph in Toronto. That win also marked the return of Rajon Rondo, who has since relocated his record-challenging ways.

Rondo is coming off of a historic performance Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. He notched a triple-double that included 12 points, 10 rebounds and 22 assists, but there was more. As if the triple-double wasn’t enough, Rondo also finished with six steals. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Rondo is the first player to record at least 20 assists, grab at least 10 rebounds and snag at least six steals since the league began tracking steals in 1973-74.

With Rondo on the floor, Boston’s offense has returned to elite status, and the Raptors got a taste of that on Sunday evening. Boston shot the ball at a 54.3 percent clip from the field and made half of its 12 3-point attempts. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each made 10 field goals apiece and finished with 30 and 23 points, respectively.

Speaking of Allen, he has by far been the largest beneficiary of Rondo’s return. The sharpshooter has been on fire since his point guard returned to the lineup, making 31 of his 50 field goal attempts, good for 62.0 percent, over the last three games. Needless to say, it’s likely that Rondo will be looking in Allen’s direction early and often again tonight.

Boston’s hot shooting has also translated to wins. The C’s have won three in a row, with the largest victory of that group coming against these same Raptors. Toronto was outscored by 14 points during Sunday’s game and did not score more than 23 points in any of the four quarters. In fact, the Raps scored 20 or less points in three of the quarters en route to their 79 points. That total was just one point shy of their season-low output of 78, which came against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 28, 2010.

When the Celtics and Raptors met back on Nov. 21, 2010, Toronto was playing its best ball of the season and knocked Boston off 102-101 in a thrilling finish. The Raps followed that win up with another victory against Philadelphia three nights later to up their win streak to a season-high four games.

At that point, the acquisitions of Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovic, coupled with four wins in a row, made it seem as if Toronto had turned the corner. However, that stretch has turned out to be only a tease for the Raptors’ fan base.

Toronto has won only six of its 20 games since then, including nine losses by at least 10 points. The Raptors will head into tonight having lost three of their last four games. The one win out of that stretch was their most recent contest on Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto lit the Cavs up with 56.8 percent shooting and wound up winning the contest by a score of 120-105.

That rate of scoring is almost guaranteed to be missing for the Raptors tonight. Boston has limited Toronto to only 42.3 percent shooting overall through three contests this season. Even worse, the Raptors have made only 27.3 percent of their 3-pointers against the C’s.

Boston has kept up its torrid defensive pace despite the absence of Kevin Garnett. Teams have averaged only 89.0 PPG against the C’s over the last four games, which Boston has played without KG. With that defense in tow, Boston will look to up its record to 3-1 against its division rival from up north. Then it will be time to bid sayonara to the Raptors for the remainder of the regular season.

Bargs Is Back

It’s difficult for Toronto to knock off a team like the Celtics with a full roster, but without the team’s best player it’s nearly an impossible feat. That notion proved true Sunday night when the Raptors faded down the stretch without Andrea Bargnani in the lineup.

Bargnani, who leads the team in scoring with 21.4 PPG, had missed four games, including Sunday’s tilt against the C’s, due to a calf injury before returning to the lineup Tuesday night against the Bulls. His absence proved large, as Toronto struggled to score the basketball against Boston and shot only 37.8 percent from the floor and 1-of-14 from downtown.

With Bargs back in the lineup, Toronto’s offense will surely pack much more punch tonight. He has scored 20.0 PPG against the Celtics in two games this season, which is 6.3 PPG higher than DeMar DeRozan’s average of 13.7,good for second on the team against Boston. Although Bargnani has shot terribly from the floor against the Celts, at 39.4 percent from the floor and 25.0 percent from 3-point range, he will play a huge role in Toronto’s offense and is always a threat to catch fire.

Make Free Throws

The Celtics haven’t only been dealing with the injury bug of late; the free throw bug has bitten them, too. Over the last four games the Celtics have shot only 66.7 percent (46-of-69) as a team from the free-throw line. Boston made only 11 of its 19 free throw attempts against the Raptors on Sunday.

Despite the free throw bug, the C’s have been able to win three of those four games, including the two in which it shot the worst from the charity stripe (versus the Raptors and Spurs). It’s never easy to pull out wins when you leave points on the board, and the Celts would be the first to admit that. They need to capitalize on their free throws tonight, especially considering that Boston averages 29 free throw attempts per game against the Raptors this season.

Jermaine O’Neal’s Production

Many fans will look at Jermaine O’Neal’s recent stat lines and assume that the offseason acquisition isn’t quite living up to expectations. His coach begs to differ.

"I thought Jermaine O’Neal, honestly, was just absolutely huge for us,” Doc Rivers said after Boston’s win over San Antonio on Wednesday night, a game in which O’Neal recorded only four points and five rebounds. “We left him out there, he defended Tim (Duncan) one-on-one for the most part, he got blocks, he gave us defensive energy. He was absolutely sensational.”

The Celtics will need that type of play again tonight because, with Bargnani playing nearly all of the minutes at center, Shaquille O’Neal’s playing time will likely be limited. Jermaine O’Neal will need to step in and defend Bargnani in the post, on the perimeter and off of the dribble. That responsibility has often fallen on Garnett in the pass, but he is not an option tonight. As a result, Jermaine O’Neal’s ability to give quality minutes may be the most critical factor in Boston’s bid to win tonight.