Game Preview: Cavaliers at Celtics

BOSTON – A lot has changed since Oct. 27, 2010, when the Cleveland Cavaliers opened up their season with an emotional home victory over the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Celtics.

For starters, the Celtics have ascended from a 1-1 squad at the end of that night to a 33-10 record, which is tops in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have nosedived to the worst record in the NBA and are currently stuck in a 17-game losing streak.

Boston (33-10) has already exacted revenge on that early-season loss with a 106-87 blowout victory over the Cavaliers (8-36) in Cleveland on Nov. 30, 2010. The C’s will have another opportunity to do so, this time in front of their home crowd, at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Games that are supposed to be automatic wins for the C’s haven’t been as easy to grab as many in Boston would like this season. Five of Boston’s 10 losses have come to sub-.500 teams, including an 85-83 defeat to the Wizards (13-30) Saturday night in Washington. Doc Rivers knows that trend won’t change unless his team plays up to its capabilities in each and every game, including tonight.

“Well, Cleveland beat us once already this [season],” Rivers said Monday afternoon. “For us – I rarely worry about the opponent. I worry about ourselves, and when we play right I think it gives us an extra chance to win games, and when we don’t anyone can beat us, and that’s been proven this year.”

The Celtics have come out of the gates playing well against these teams but fizzled down the stretch. For example, Boston led 23-21 after the first quarter of its first matchup against Cleveland and then bumped that lead up to 73-69 by the end of three quarters. In the fourth period, however, the C’s were outscored 27-14 by the Cavs and wound up losing 96-87.

A similar situation occurred Saturday night in Washington, when Boston managed to score only 11 points in the final frame, its lowest output of the season. With that game fresh in his mind, Rivers discussed the team’s offensive execution and aggressiveness after Monday’s practice.

“I saw us walking the ball,” said Rivers. “I saw us… just didn’t execute offensively. Having said that, we also missed wide-open shot after wide-open shot after wide-open shot. Our problem with the shots are, even though they were wide open, they were all jump shots… even though they were great shots, I showed [the players], you couldn’t get better looks, but they’re all jumpers. At some point we have to think about points in the paint and we got away from our formula on how we win.”

Boston shouldn’t have a difficult time returning to that formula tonight against an injury-plagued Cleveland team. The C’s scored 46 points in the paint against a healthy Cavs squad in the first meeting and that may increase tonight. The Cavs will be playing without their top big man, Anderson Varejao (ankle/foot), as well as former Celtic Leon Powe (knee). Cleveland will also be missing Mo Williams (hip flexor), the team’s most electric scorer, and Anthony Parker (back), its top perimeter defender, due to injuries.

There has been no shortage of injuries for the Celtics this season, either. The team will be without Kendrick Perkins, Delonte West and Jermaine O’Neal for the foreseeable future, but Shaquille O’Neal joins them on the injured list tonight. He will miss his second consecutive game due to a sore right hip, which means Semih Erden will likely get his second consecutive start.

It’s clear that one of these teams, the Celtics, has been able to overcome their injuries this season and challenge for a conference championship, while the other, the Cavaliers, has quickly turned its eye toward the NBA Draft lottery. Each team’s outlook has drastically changed since their first meeting of the season, and Boston hopes the final result will be different than that first loss of the season, too.

Rondo’s assists

There’s no doubt that Rajon Rondo is the key to Boston’s offensive success. When his clock is ticking at the right speed, the Celtics’ offense is nearly unstoppable. However, there are times when he isn’t exactly carving up the defense.

Rondo averages an NBA-best 13.0 assists, but his numbers in wins are drastically different than they are in losses. In the 26 wins he has participated in, Rondo has dished out an average of 13.7 assists. In the six losses he has been a part of, he finds his teammates for only 10.0 APG.

He will be matched up against a quick point guard tonight in Ramon Sessions, but Rondo is far superior in that matchup. The Cavaliers do not have a quality backup point guard either, so Rondo will have a greater advantage if he plays aggressively and forces Sessions into foul trouble.

Contain Antawn Jamison

Many believed Antawn Jamison was done After Kevin Garnett and the Celtics ran through him with ease during last season’s playoffs and then he became a reserve on a bad team to begin this season. Not exactly the case.

Jamison has made his way into the starting lineup, albeit due to injuries, and taken advantage of the extra minutes and increased role. He has scored 21.1 PPG in 23 games as a starter this season as opposed to only 12.4 PPG in 18 games as a reserve. He is on a hot streak during January, scoring 23.4 PPG through 12 games, including three games of 30-plus points.

There will be a healthy helping of Garnett in the post tonight against Jamison, as the C’s truly believe Cleveland’s power forward is a defensive liability, but containing him at the other end may be even more critical. Jamison is the only reliable scorer on Cleveland’s team right now, and if he is slowed down, the Cavs will be in a whole lot of trouble.

Leave on a High Note

Tonight’s contest will mark the 10th home game Boston has played this month. The C’s will have an opportunity to close out January having won nine of those 10 games. Doing so is especially critical, because the team will hit the road for an extended road trip tomorrow afternoon.

The C’s are scheduled to take a season-long, four-game road trip to the West Coast – they’ll take a similar trip after the All-Star break – that begins with a matchup against Portland at 10:30 p.m. Thursday night. Boston will fly out to the West Coast Wednesday afternoon. With that trip looming less than a day away, the C’s would love to exit Boston on a high note and try to carry that momentum into their challenging trip out west.