Game Preview: Cavaliers at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Friday night’s win over the Indiana Pacers helped the Boston Celtics (9-9) crawl back to the .500 mark and match their season-long winning streak at four games. They will have an opportunity to jump above .500 and extend that winning streak at 6 p.m. Sunday evening when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers (7-11).

The Celtics have slowly made their way back into the playoff picture thanks in large part to the return of the real Paul Pierce. Boston’s captain has found his rhythm and is, as Doc Rivers says, finally “in shape.”

Pierce has been putting up LeBron James-type numbers during the Celtics’ winning streak. He has been dominating in every facet of the game with averages of 26.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 8.8 APG during his team’s last four contests.

Boston as a whole has been following their captain’s lead. It is playing well enough to have won four straight and five out of six, and it is getting better as the game goes on, much like Pierce. Pierce has scored a combined 40 points in the second half of the last two games, and those eruptions have sparked his team to victory on both occasions.

“He’s almost assessing the game, you almost feel like that,” Rivers said of Pierce’s second-half performances.

Pierce didn’t exactly echo that statement, but his sentiment was pretty darn close.

“I like to come out in the third quarter and be aggressive,” he said after Friday’s win. “I focus on trying to get better as the game goes on.”

Pierce has been getting better as the game goes on, and his team has been getting better as the season goes on. That has been the case despite several key players being sidelined with injuries.

All-Stars Rajon Rondo (sprained right wrist) and Ray Allen (jammed left ankle) have both been out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Rondo has missed the past five games, while Allen has been sidelined for the past three. Starting center Jermaine O’Neal (left knee bruise) has also missed the past two contests after a collision during Thursday night’s game in Orlando.

The good news for Boston is that all of those starters are listed as day-to-day and are on the verge of returning. It’s conceivable that all three could be in the lineup in front of the home crowd on Sunday.

The return of those players would be greeted kindly by their teammates, but not so much by a Cleveland squad that has been surprisingly solid this season. The Cavaliers rank just behind the Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings and would make the playoffs as the eighth seed if the postseason began today.

Cleveland already has seven wins this season, which is a great sign for an organization that won a league-worst 19 games in 2010-11. The main reason for their emergence is their No. 1 overall pick from the 2011 NBA Draft, Kyrie Irving.

The 6-foot-3 point guard out of Duke is having a stellar rookie season and leads the team with 17.6 PPG and 4.8 APG. He is performing like a No. 1 pick, and he’s lifting his teammates.

However, Irving isn’t the only reason why the Cavaliers’ franchise has returned to relevance. Their best rebounder and defensive player, Anderson Varejao, played just 31 games last season and his absence played a huge roll in the team’s struggles. He brings a level of energy to the court that few in the NBA do, and his presence this season has helped his tam bounce back.

One of Vaejao’s frontcourt buddies, Antawn Jamison, is also fighting Father Time and putting up a solid 15.3 PPG. He is making 39.1 percent of his 3s, which trails only Irving on Cleveland’s roster.

With Irving on board and other Cavs returning to health and playing well, Cleveland is a much more formidable team than it was last season. It won’t be an easy road for the Celtics on Sunday as they pursue a season-best five-game winning streak.

Defending Irving

Irving has taken the reigns of Cleveland’s offense during his rookie season. The team runs through him. He’s the Cavs’ best shooter, best passer, and best playmaker off of the dribble. That’s a lot of responsibility to hold as a rook, but Irving is handling it like a seasoned vet.

It will be interesting to see how the C’s defend him on Sunday, and who actually does defend him. If Rondo returns to the lineup, he’ll obviously have his hands full in his first game back. If he doesn’t, though, standout defender Avery Bradley might have another opportunity to shut down an opposing offense by taking its point guard out of the game.

Will JO Play?

This question is important not only because the Celtics would love to have their starting center available, but also because it affects other matchups. It is well known that the Celtics love to isolate Kevin Garnett against Antawn Jamison, but there probably won’t be many of those opportunities if O’Neal doesn’t play.

Brandon Bass would enter the starting lineup at power forward if O’Neal isn’t available and that would slide Garnett over to center. Varejao would then be Garnett’s primary defender, with Jamison checking Bass.

Boston won’t be able to go at Jamison in the post with KG all night long no matter what, but if O’Neal does return to the lineup it will give Garnett many more of those opportunities. We’ve seen in the past that the Garnett-Jamison matchup drastically favors the Celtics.

Shoot for the Century Mark

The Celtics don’t really care how they win. They just want to win. That’s been evident of late seeing as the offense hasn’t exactly been sparkling. Boston ranks 25th in the league in scoring with just 89.8 PPG and has only scored in triple digits once in its last 12 games. It isn’t shocking that the one 100-point night resulted in a win over Washington on Jan. 22.

Scoring average is often a misconceived stat around the league, because it doesn’t matter how many points you score if you’re winning the game and shooting at a high percentage. The Celtics are in the top half of the league in shooting percentage and lead the league in 3-point shooting.

If that type of shooting continues on Sunday, the Celtics might be able to break the century mark in scoring. Cleveland is not a good defensive team, as it ranks 24th in the league by giving up 97.6 PPG. If the Celtics are going to score big, this might be the night, especially if they get all of their key players back in the lineup.