Game Preview: Rockets at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics’ (28-8) packed January schedule will resume tonight when they open up a season-long, six-game homestand at 7:30 p.m. against the Houston Rockets (16-21).

Boston plays 16 games this month and 10 of those contests will be played in the TD Garden, where it owns a Conference-best 16-2 record. The home games will continue to roll in while the team awaits the return of numerous key players.

The Injury bug has been biting the C’s all season long, but it looks as if the team will finally reach full health within the next few weeks. Kevin Garnett, Delonte West and Kendrick Perkins are all on the mend and should be back within that time frame. Garnett, who has missed Boston’s last six games with a strained muscle in his lower right leg, may be back sooner than originally anticipated.

When Doc Rivers was asked about the timetable for Garnett’s return, he originally answered with a nonchalant remark indicating that KG would be back within the original time frame the team released to the public, which was two weeks. That would mark Wednesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings as his comeback contest. Rivers did, however, go into more depth and later indicated that it was very possible that Garnett would be back in time for tonight’s contest against the Rockets.

Boston’s frontline is a bit banged up, which will likely be the case for the remainder of the season, and that will only accentuate the importance of Garnett’s return. If he returns to the court tonight, the Celts will be receiving their leading rebounder and defensive guru back into the lineup against a Rockets team that rebounds and scores with the best of them.

Houston has had an underwhelming season thus far but there is no doubt that it possesses the talent to win games on a nightly basis. Four active players average double-figures, led by Kevin Martin’s 23.2 PPG, and a total of 11 players on the roster average at least 3.2 RPG. (Not all of those players are currently on the active roster.) That’s good scoring balance and incredible balance on the glass. That depth has helped the team rank fifth in the league in points (104.8 PPG) and 11th in rebounding (42.1 RPG).

Though the Rockets aren’t having much trouble in those two categories, they haven’t been able to find any consistency in the win column. Many expected Houston to be a playoff team out in the Western Conference, but it stumbled out of the gates to an 0-5 record and has now lost its five most recent games, too. Houston has lost all five of its contests in 2011 while navigating through the early stages of a brutal January schedule. It plays 17 games this month and has yet to take on a team with a sub-.500 record since the calendar turned over.

That trend will continue tonight against the C’s, who have won four of their last five games overall. Boston is suddenly in a dogfight with the Miami Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Heat actually hold a half-game advantage over Boston due playing, and winning, more games. However, the Celtics still have the top record in the Conference in terms of winning percentage.

Boston would love to add to that winning percentage by tipping off their homestand with a win tonight. Both the C’s and the Rockets will head into tonight’s game with a bad taste in their mouths after being defeated Saturday night. Everyone on the Garden court tonight will be craving a victory, and that may include Garnett.

Red-Hot K-Mart

Martin is in an esteemed category in the NBA as one of the league’s sharpest shooters. Ray Allen is the king of that club, but Martin isn’t too far behind.

Houston’s sharpshooter heads into tonight’s game with fantastic shooting numbers of 45.0 percent from the field, which is solid considering most of his attempts are deep jumpers, a career-best 42.2 percent from 3-point range and 88.9 percent from the free-throw line, which ranks seventh in the league.

While his overall stats are impressive, Martin’s recent streak of scoring trumps anything he has done this season. He has scored at least 20 points in 10 of his last 12 games, including five in which he dropped at least 27 points. He scored 45 against the Trail Blazers on Wednesday via an Allen-like shooting performance of 13-for-18 from the floor, 6-for-8 from downtown and 13-for-15 from the charity stripe.

Allen will certainly have his hands full tonight at the defensive end while trying to slow Martin down. He and the rest of the Celtics must limit the amount of space they give Martin on every possession, or else he’ll pull the trigger and make the shot more often than not.

Trust Your Teammate

Boston’s offensive success is predicated on ball movement and each player’s trust that his teammate will make the right play. That mindset has helped the Celtics become the most efficient offense in the NBA, as it leads the league in nearly every type of shooting percentage.

That offensive prowess and overall trust has played a huge role in Boston already having racked up 28 wins on the season, but it was all missing during Saturday night’s loss to Chicago. The C’s were playing their fifth game in seven nights and it was evident by their play.

Paul Pierce admitted after the game that his team consistently took shots after just one pass, and his coach took it a step further.

“That's the worst ball movement that we've had this year,” said Rivers. “We basically bounced the life out of the game tonight.”

Such a game has been an anomaly for the Celtics this season, so the law of averages would lead us to believe that they will bounce back with a much better showing tonight. Expect great ball movement out of the C’s during this contest, which will lead to a much better scoring performance than the 79 points they put up Saturday night.

Tip Off Homestand in Fashion

The first and last game of any long homestand or stretch of away games both hold great importance. It’s a huge mental boost when a team can begin and/or close out such a stretch on a high note. Boston has an opportunity to rack up some important wins during this six-game homestand, and tonight will be their chance to start that stretch out in fashion.

We know that Garnett will return at some point this week, but if he is etched into the lineup tonight that would be enormous for the Celtics. His mere presence on the floor is a factor for both teams and he takes the Celtics to another level. It’s safe to say that there would be no better way to begin this homestand than with the return of Garnett helping lead the C’s to a big win over the Rockets.