Game Preview: Magic at Celtics

BOSTON – Two factors are likely to make tonight’s 8 p.m., nationally televised (TNT) matchup between the Boston Celtics (30-9) and Orlando Magic (26-14) look a bit different than it did on Christmas Day. Rajon Rondo, who missed the holiday showdown between the two title contenders, is back in the lineup for Boston, and the Magic are a solid month removed from an overhaul of their roster.

When those two factors were missing more than three weeks ago in Orlando, the second consecutive Christmas in which the teams met in Florida, both teams struggled to find a rhythm. The result wasn’t what Boston had hoped for, as it played “horrible down the stretch,” according to Doc Rivers, and fell 86-78 to the new-look Magic squad after leading for nearly the entire game.

Tonight’s contest is likely to hold a much different feel, as both teams will be much more comfortable this time around.

Boston was forced to play without their All-Star point guard on Christmas Day, as Rondo was resting a sprained left ankle that he had suffered on Dec. 15, 2010, against the New York Knicks. Without Rondo and his league-leading assist total, the Celtics’ offense struggled tremendously. The C’s shot only 34.8 percent from the floor and made only four of their 17 3-point attempts (23.5 percent) in the contest.

Rondo has since returned to the lineup for eight games and has averaged 10.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 12.5 APG and 2.6 SPG in those contests. With Rondo running the show, Boston’s offense, which has led the league for nearly the entire season in every shooting statistic, has gotten off to its most efficient month of its season. The C’s are scoring 101.9 PPG in January while shooting 51.4 percent from the field, which includes a ridiculous 46.7 percent clip from downtown as a team.

The Magic, meanwhile, have been playing fantastic basketball as well. They have been rolling at both ends of the court since their acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.

The win over Boston was Orlando’s second victory in a row at the time, and that streak eventually grew to a franchise record-tying nine games. Rivers, for one, isn’t shocked that the Magic haven’t missed a beat since their drastic roster changes. He believed they’d be fine all along.

“It’s not like they were going to change the way they play,” Rivers said at Sunday’s practice. “I think those are the teams that struggle, when they change their whole format and how they’re going to play. I don’t think it’s that difficult if you can continue to play your style. I think it actually enhanced their style.”

In other words, the Magic have even more offensive firepower. Turkoglu offers the ability to run point-forward, while Richardson and Arenas both give the team playmaking ability and 3-point shooting. Their talents have helped Orlando to average a whopping 107.9 PPG this month.

Boston will have something to say about the Magic’s attempt to reach that average tonight, because the Celtics defense may be receiving an enormous boost. Kevin Garnett, who has been sidelined since Dec. 29 with a muscle strain in his lower right leg, will make his return to the lineup tonight barring any setbacks from Sunday’s practice.

“I think Kevin will go tomorrow, but again, he went through practice to see if he can go tomorrow, meaning we’ll know that by tomorrow,” Rivers said Sunday afternoon. “If he feels good, he’ll go. If he doesn’t – if there’s anything – he will not go.”

If Garnett does go, the C’s will certainly have a much better chance at slowing the Magic down. His length and ability to communicate at the defensive end of the court is unparalleled, and those abilities are true necessities against a diverse offense like Orlando’s.

Garnett’s possible return would be icing on the cake for Boston. The hope is that his defense will help the C’s limit the Magic to less than 90 points yet again, while Rondo’s presence will help spark Boston to a much more efficient performance at the offensive end.

Lengthened Bench?

When healthy, the Celtics and Magic have two of the deepest benches in the entire NBA. Orlando is 100 percent healthy heading into tonight’s game, but the C’s aren’t quite there just yet.

Although Garnett may return to the lineup tonight, the C’s will still be missing Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West and Kendrick Perkins, three key cogs in the team’s hopeful playoff rotation. Still, with those players missing, KG’s return would pay huge dividends for Boston’s bench.

“It just makes us better,” Rivers said of a possible Garnett return. “Each time we get a player back it makes the bench better. In some ways the starters better, but more importantly every time we get a player back it makes our bench stronger.”

In this case, Glen Davis would head back to the bench and strengthen the second unit. While filling in for KG, Davis has lost some of his offensive rhythm, and sliding back into a reserve role may be the key to getting him back into a comfort zone.

Foul Trouble

This one goes both ways. For the Celtics, Shaquille O’Neal must avoid foul trouble tonight, or the Celtics will be in the precarious position of defending Dwight Howard with undersized players such as Davis and Semih Erden.

On the other side of the ball, if Howard gets in foul trouble the Magic will have a very difficult time winning this game. Evidence of such was on Christmas Day, when Howard picked up five fouls and played a sporadic 33 minutes. He could not get in a groove in that game and finished with only six points while turning the ball over five times.

If either of these centers fall into foul trouble, the opponent will then have a clear advantage. The Celtics will undoubtedly be in a much better position if Howard is on the bench for Orlando. On the other hand, Howard will have a great advantage in the paint if Shaq is forced to the sideline.

Do Not Allow 3s and Free Throws

We all know that the Magic are going to take plenty of 3-pointers during this game. Shooting from downtown is the premise of their offense, and they will not jump ship from that mindset. Orlando took 29 3-pointers on Christmas Day, making 11, and a few of them were critical down the stretch.

Boston will be looking to close out on those 3-pointers all night long, but it also must be mindful of sending Orlando to the free-throw line. Allowing a team to take 29 free throws in addition to 29 3-pointers is simply not a recipe for a win, and that’s what the C’s allowed Orlando to do in the first meeting.

The Magic made their trades for that exact reason. General manager Otis Smith wanted to add playmaking ability to his offense, and 29 free throw attempts certainly shows that Orlando was able to make plays off the dribble against Boston. The C’s must do a better job of defending shots from downtown tonight while maintaining their defensive integrity and limiting needless fouls.