Game Preview: Jazz at Celtics

BOSTON – It has been nearly three years since the Utah Jazz (27-15) experienced a winning feeling in Boston. The Celtics (32-9) will look to delay that feeling even longer for the Jazz when the two teams meet at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Boston has been victorious in its last two home contests against Utah and hasn’t lost to the Jazz in the Garden since March 14, 2008. That is the lesser of the two streaks the C’s will take into tonight’s game, as they’re also riding a four-game winning streak overall.

The same cannot be said for the Jazz, who have lost two consecutive games to two of the worst teams in the NBA. Utah began its current five-game road trip with losses in Washington and New Jersey, and each of those defeats were by at least seven points. The Wizards and Nets have combined to win 23 games thus far in the season.

Though it is only a two-game losing streak for Utah, it is certainly their worst streak of the season. Falling to lottery-bound teams in consecutive games must have been a shocker the Jazz, who, much like the Celtics, have not lost three games in a row all season long. Boston will be looking to change that trend tonight.

The other top teams in the Eastern Conference have been struggling while the Celtics continue to truck along. Boston has the top record overall in the conference and owns the top home record, at 20-3, as well. The C’s have won eight of their last 10 games, while the Jazz have gone 5-5 over that same stretch.

Utah has been one of the more enigmatic teams in the league this season. It currently stands as the fifth seed in the West but shockingly has a very similar record on the road (12-8) as it does at home (15-7). In addition to being relatively equal at home and on the road, the Jazz have been very inconsistent during individual games. They have been forced to rack up 12 come-from-behind victories this season after trailing by double-digits. Seven of those comeback wins came after trailing by at least 15 points, which is already a single-season record in the NBA.

Many of those comebacks can be attributed to great bench play highlighted by energetic players like C.J. Miles (12.2 PPG), Ronnie Price and Gordon Hayward. However, the real bulk of Utah’s squad can be found in the starting five.

Deron Williams has cemented himself in as one of the elite point guards in the league and will be so for the foreseeable future, barring any injuries. He leads the team in scoring with 22.1 PPG and ranks fourth in the league in assists with 9.5 per game. His prowess has been accentuated by the stellar inside play of Paul Millsap (17.2 PPG), in his first year as a full-time starter, and former Celtic Al Jefferson (16.9 PPG).

Utah’s top three players are all capable scorers and average at least 34.2 minutes a night, but no matter how efficient they are, Boston’s Big Three is clearly a notch above them.

Amid a season’s worth of injuries through just half of the schedule, the Celtics have been buoyed by the consistent performances of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Neither Allen nor Pierce have missed a game this season – knock on wood – and Garnett has come back strong since his brief absence with a muscle strain in his lower right leg.

Boston’s top trio will look to prove it is superior to Utah’s tonight in the Garden, but this one certainly won’t be easy. Boston’s four-game winning streak hasn’t been achieved without some struggles, as three of the four wins came by five or less points. Utah will do everything it can to make Boston’s fifth straight win even more difficult to grab while attempting to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season.

Keep Utah Under the Century Mark

The numbers are shocking when you look at them: the Jazz are nearly unbeatable when they score at least 100 points, having racked up a 20-2 record in such games, but are only 7-13 when failing to reach the century mark. That’s not a good trend to have while heading into a game against the Celtics.

Boston has given up only 92.1 PPG over the first half of the season, which ranks first in the league. Opponents have scored more than 100 points against the Celtics 14 times this season, which means the C’s are susceptible to giving up points on any given night. The bad news for Utah, however, is that Boston is 11-3 in those games.

The odds clearly give Boston the advantage if it is able to limit the Jazz to less than 100 points, but the C’s have proven to be more than capable of winning a high-scoring game as well.

KG in the Post

Garnett has returned to the lineup with amazing energy and doesn’t seem to have any lingering effects from his two-week injury. Though he has shown some rust at the offensive end, he hasn’t been shy about putting up his shots.

KG threw up 13 attempts in Monday’s win over the Magic and 14 shots in Wednesday’s win over Detroit. He scored 15.0 PPG over those two contests, which is right on his season average, but he would love to increase his shooting percentage tonight in comparison to those two contests. He will have a great opportunity against an undersized power forward in Millsap.

Millsap stands at only 6-foot-8 and uses his agility and feel for the game to be effective. He is not a large physical presence like Glen Davis, who also stands at 6-8. Garnett, who is a long 6-foot-11, should be able to get a clean look on any shot he takes tonight. If he operates in the post on a consistent basis, he will not need to create separation to get shots off over Millsap. His height and length will give him an open window to the basket any time he wants to shoot over the top of Millsap tonight.

Matchup Issues

Each team has very good players at the point guard and small forward positions, but neither team’s players at that position match up very well with the opponent.

Rajon Rondo and Williams are two of the top point guards, if not the two best, in the NBA. While Rondo possesses greater speed than Williams, Utah’s point guard should have the advantage tonight in a head-to-head matchup. He possesses much greater size, at 6-3, 209 pounds, and should be able to post Rondo up if he chooses to do so. He is also a great shooter, with shooting percentages of 46.7, 38.2 and 85.7 in field goal, 3-point and free throw shooting, respectively. That shooting touch is what Doc Rivers believes gives Williams an advantage over the rest of the point guard pack.

“What sets him apart from a lot of (the other point guards) is that he’s probably the best shooting point guard of the group, of all of those guards,” Rivers said after Thursday’s practice. “And that’s what makes him so good.”

On Boston’s side of the ball, Pierce will be facing off against Andrei Kirilenko. Kirilenko, who hails from Russia, is a long 6-foot-9 and has been known as a defensive stopper throughout his NBA career, but for some reason Pierce has been able to play well against him in the recent past. Pierce has scored at a high enough rate against Utah to lead the Celtics in scoring in six of these team’s last 10 meetings. If Pierce, who is Boston’s leading scorer with 19.1 PPG, can continue that trend tonight, it will most definitely bode well for the C’s.