Game Preview: Celtics at Kings

BOSTON – Two teams marched into the Staples Center this past weekend and sent the Los Angeles Lakers into a tailspin. Those two teams, the Boston Celtics (36-11) and Sacramento Kings (12-33), will attempt to duplicate their performance in L.A. when they meet at 10 p.m. tonight in ARCO Arena.

Boston’s 109-96 win over Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon wasn’t much of a shock, but the Kings’ 100-95 win over the Lakers on Friday night was absolutely stunning. The Kings were able to limit the Lakers to just 41.2 percent shooting on Friday night while they hit 51.2 percent of their shots. Three different Kings scored at least 18 points in that contest, led by DeMarcus Cousins’ 27 points. Many likely saw that final score and considered the result a fluke, but if you’re one of those people, think again.

Although Sacramento has piled up the league’s third-worst record, ahead of only Cleveland and Minnesota, it has played fantastic basketball of late in winning three of its last four games. All three of those wins have come against teams currently slated to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. In addition to the Kings’ victory over the Lakers, they have also knocked off the Trail Blazers and Hornets in the past eight days.

The newfound success of northern California’s NBA team can be attributed to numerous factors, but defense has been the largest key to the Kings’ success. Sacramento limited those three likely Western Conference playoff teams to an average of 41.3 percent shooting from the floor and just 90.7 PPG. Those are the type of defensive numbers the Celtics are known for, and Boston is widely considered the most dominant defensive team in the league.

While defense is the key, there have also been some significant contributions statistically from a few select players.

Cousins, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, has strung together a great stretch in which he has averaged 18.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG over his last four contests. In the team’s most recent win, a 102-96 win over the Hornets, Cousins nearly grabbed the first triple-double of his career with 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Sacramento also has last year’s Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans, nearly duplicating his fantastic rookie campaign from last season. He is slightly down in points, but is essentially good for about 18 points, five boards and six dimes each and every night.

While those two starters have come up big, the play of Sacramento’s bench has also been key to the team’s sudden surge. Carl Landry and Samuel Dalembert have been a dynamic duo of reserves. Landry has scored in double-figures in 12 of his 16 games in January, and Dalembert has asserted himself with 17.0 PPG and 5.5 RPG off the bench over Sacramento’s last two games, both of which were wins.

Oddly enough, Dalembert wasn’t even looked at as a key rotational player until he emerged with a strong performance against the Celtics back on Jan. 12. He had broken into double-figures in scoring only three times all season until his 12-point, six-rebound night against Boston in just 18 minutes of action.

The only reason head coach Paul Westphal sent Dalembert onto the court was because the Celtics were blowing the Kings out. Boston went on to win that game by a score of 119-95, but the game wasn’t even that close. All of the Celtic starters watched the entire fourth quarter from the sideline while Gino danced his way around the Garden.

Prior to heading to the bench for the night, Paul Pierce had scored 25 points on an efficient 10-of-14 shooting and Rajon Rondo had tallied the game’s only double-double with 10 points and 13 assists in less than 29 minutes of action. The Celtics dominated the game from start to finish and wound up taking 26 more shot attempts than the Kings, who were forced into 23 turnovers.

That contest was less than three weeks ago, but it already seems like this Sacramento team will be drastically different than the one the C’s saw that night. Cousins, who was limited to only eight points and six assists while turning the ball over five times in that first meeting, seems to be a different player who is jumpstarting the Kings.

Sacramento has racked up a few impressive wins in just a week’s time, but it hasn’t hung with a team like the Celtics just yet. Boston showed Sunday afternoon that it can dominate even the elite teams in the NBA; now it’s time for the Celtics to show it can put together another dominating performance against a lowly Sacramento team that has seen its confidence skyrocket over the past week.

Closing Time

Tonight’s contest marks the end of a four-game West Coast trip that the Celtics dreaded from the moment they saw it on the schedule for the very first time. It has been well documented that Doc Rivers and the Celtics organization requested the NBA to give the team another day off during this trip, but the league did not oblige.

With that in mind, it was assumed that Boston would struggle during this difficult trip out West. The C’s began the trip with three games in four days that required a difficult travel schedule.

Despite those challenging circumstances, Rivers has to be elated with where the team stands entering tonight’s game. Boston has an opportunity to close out the trip with a 3-1 record with a victory tonight. Closing out the trip on a high note, which is the same way the Celtics opened it up, would be a huge lift for the team as it heads into a very difficult stretch of games in the next two weeks.

Contain Cousins Again

We’re not sure if he was intimidated or if he was genuinely outplayed, but Cousins did not show a single glimpse of his potential when these teams met back on Jan. 12. He looked like a typical rookie who was lost in the NBA game and couldn’t figure out his strengths and weaknesses. Cousins took shots from outside his range and consistently made bad decisions with the ball.

As we’ve already noted, things have changed since that contest. Cousins is playing great basketball and the C’s will need to account for him tonight. Boston’s frontline will be even more of a challenge to the big rookie out of Kentucky because Kendrick Perkins is now available alongside Shaquille O’Neal. Those are two hefty bodies that may be able to keep Cousins in check yet again, and if they do, Sacramento will likely be in trouble.

Rondo on the Attack

Sunday afternoon’s big win over the Lakers was just another example of Rondo’s importance to the Celtics’ success. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics trailed by four points at halftime of that contest while Rondo sat in the locker room with only one assist under his belt. In the second half, Boston’s point guard came out and dished out 15 dimes to his teammates while the C’s outscored Los Angeles by 17 points.

Rondo tallied 13 assists against the Kings on Jan. 12 and he did so with utter ease. While Beno Udrih did have a solid performance offensively with 16 points, he was unable to stop Rondo at the other end of the court.

The Celtics need Rondo to be in attack mode, especially against athletic teams like the Kings. His ability to distribute the basketball will be the biggest key to Boston’s offensive success tonight against a Sacramento team that has found its stride defensively against some quality opponents.