Game Preview: Celtics at Suns

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics began their four-game West Coast road trip with a victory over the Trail Blazers last night, and now they’ll have to deal with a quick turnaround for game No. 2 of that stretch.

The Celtics (35-10) took off from Portland late last night, lost an hour with a time change, and will be forced take on the run-and-gun Suns (20-24) at 10:30 p.m. tonight in Phoenix.

Such a task was difficult enough to prompt Doc Rivers and the Celtics to request an alteration of the schedule prior to the season, but their wish was not granted and that dreadful turnaround has now become a reality. The Celtics have found a way to battle through difficult situations and come out on top throughout this season, and Thursday’s win was one example of that.

While Boston was far from it’s A-game against the Trail Blazers, the starters played well enough to keep the C’s ahead for the majority of the game. Kevin Garnett nearly grabbed his first triple-double in a Celtics uniform and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce pitched in 18 and 17 points, respectively.

Four reserves and Rajon Rondo, however, filled out the group that came up largest. Rondo, Von Wafer, Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis and Semih Erden started the final period and opened up the fourth on a 10-2 run. That spurt allowed Rivers to leave his starters on the bench for much longer than many anticipated, which will pay huge dividends for tonight’s game.

Heading into the fourth quarter, Boston’s top four players were all on pace to greatlysurpass their season average in minutes played, which is certainly not something Rivers wanted to occur in the first game of this trip. With the reserves giving quality minutes in the fourth quarter, all of the team’s regular starters were able to get some rest and wound up finishing in the ballpark of their average minutes played this season.

The bench may have to come up big again tonight, because the odds are that Boston’s starters won’t be playing on a full tank despite avoiding extra minutes last night. The turnaround from last night to tonight is an important factor to this game versus the Suns, and Rivers will certainly prep his reserves to be ready to carry some of the load in Phoenix.

In comparison to Portland, which has the third-lowest pace in the league yet still took 90 shots against the C’s last night, Phoenix has the sixth-highest pace in the NBA at 96.9. With Steve Nash continuing to play at an All-Star level, the Suns are able to run the up-tempo offense that has become the staple of their organization.

Nash, who is quickly gaining on Rondo for the league’s top assist average, is averaging 17.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG and 11.0 APG this season. Rondo leads the league in assists with 12.7 per game, but his production has dropped off of late. He has broken into double-digits in assists only twice in his last five games, and he actually finished with more turnovers (six) than dimes (five) last night in Portland.

In addition to Nash, Phoenix now has Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat in their regular rotation. Those two players were shipped to the Suns from Orlando in the blockbuster trade the two teams completed in December. Both players’ production is relatively similar to what they were giving the Magic over the first three months of the season. Carter has scored 15.8 PPG in 15 games with Phoenix, while Gortat is scoring 8.8 PPG and grabbing 6.8 RPG over the same span.

Gortat, who had been a member of the defensive-minded Magic organization for his entire career before the trade, has continually questioned his new team’s defensive effort since his arrival in Phoenix, and rightfully so. The Suns give up the second-most points in the league, with opponents scoring 107.9 PPG. Teams are also shooting a blistering 48.0 percent from the field against Phoenix, which is tied for the second-highest percentage in the league.

Boston’s starters have clicked all season long and have led the team to the NBA’s top shooting percentage. They’ll have a chance to add to their top shooting percentages tonight, but the odds are that they will have to do so in limited minutes. With that in mind, the C’s will be relying heavily on guys like Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson and Von Wafer to play well off the bench. Those players’ ability to eat up minutes while giving production at both ends of the floor will be a determining factor in Boston’s ability to take a three-game winning streak into Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers in Los Angeles.

Will Shaq Play?

Shaquille O’Neal has been absent from Boston’s lineup for the last three-plus games while he has rested a sore hip that was injured against the Utah Jazz one week ago. He traveled out West with the team and may make his return to the lineup tonight.

Although Shaq’s large body isn’t exactly what the C’s need to combat Phoenix’s run-and-gun offense, his availability will mean Rivers has more options to play with in regard to his rotation.

Kendrick Perkins played fantastic last night in Portland, finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds, but he was on the floor for nearly 21 minutes of action. Rivers wanted to keep that number closer to 16 minutes, but with Shaq unavailable he let that plan slide last night.

Boston’s coach noted after the win in Portland that he needs to do a better job monitoring Perkins’ minutes early on in his return to the lineup, and O’Neal’s availability would allow Rivers to do so. If Shaq is available, it will also give Boston a clear advantage in the paint against the likes of Gortat, Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick.

Get Back to Efficient Play

We’re not sure if it was the travel schedule or simply a bad game, but the Celtics were at their sloppiest last night in Portland. The C’s turned the ball over 21 times, including six by Rondo, and the Trail Blazers scored 22 points off of those mental lapses.

Phoenix is a team that already plays at a fast pace without an effective defense. Forcing turnovers would allow them to play in the open court much more than they normally do. Boston must limit its mistakes tonight, or else its turnovers will feed fuel to the fire against a Suns team that would love to turn this game into a track meet.

Offensive Rebounding

It’s not often that we refer to rebounding as a critical statistic in a Celtics game. As a result of Boston playing at one of the slowest paces in the league, as well as having the top-shooting squad in the NBA, Celtics games have less rebound opportunities than most other teams’ contests.

With that being said, if the C’s want extra boards tonight, they will be available. Despite having one of the worst defenses in the league, which results in less missed shots by the opponent, Phoenix gives up the second-most offensive rebounds a night with an average of 12.4. The Suns give up the third-most rebounds overall, at 44.2 RPG.

Obviously the opposite can be said of Phoenix as is said of Boston; the fact that the Suns play at such a high pace means there will be more rebound opportunities in their games compared to most other teams in the league. Still, it’s clear that they are susceptible to teams that like to attack the glass, and the C’s may be able to feed off of that tonight.