Game Preview: Mavericks at Celtics

BOSTON - With all of the All-Star hubbub in the rearview mirror, it’s time for the Celtics to focus their attention on the demanding schedule that looms in front of them heading into the All-Star break. Boston (37-11) will tip off their ridiculous stretch at 8 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden against the Dallas Mavericks (33-15), a game that will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.

Boston will play four of its next five games against title contenders. The stretch begins tonight with Dallas and is followed by matchups with Orlando, Charlotte, the Lakers and Miami.

The C’s were in the midst of a challenging stretch of games when they fell to the Mavs back on Nov. 8, 89-87, but this time around they should have fresh legs. Although the weather back East forced the Celtics to stay overnight on Tuesday in Sacramento, which was a day longer than the team anticipated, Doc Rivers doesn’t believe the longer travel schedule will affect his team in a negative way. As he explained at Thursday’s practice, he actually believes it may wind up being a positive.

“It was a tough call even before we made the trip whether we should come back after the game or leave the next day,” said Rivers. “I actually thought leaving the next day would be better for our bodies anyway.”

With that being said, this rested version of the Celtics should look a bit different than the one the Mavericks saw in person on Nov. 8. That contest was in the second night of a back-to-back for Boston, just one night after the C’s grabbed a hard-fought win against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. It was also Boston’s third game in four days, as they had knocked off the Bulls on Nov. 5 in the Garden.

Even with those difficult games already in the books, Boston was able to hang with a healthy Mavericks team on the road and nearly stole a win down the stretch. The Celtics trailed that game by 10 points at halftime but surged back to tie the game up less than eight minutes into the third quarter. The fantastic turnaround continued in the fourth quarter, as Boston held an 87-82 lead with less than two minutes remaining.

That’s when the tank ran empty for the C’s. Boston did not score a point from that moment on and Dirk Nowitzki hit a jumper with 17.9 seconds remaining to give Dallas an 89-87 lead, which turned out to be the final score. The Celtics settled for a missed 3-pointer from Rajon Rondo out of a timeout, and after an offensive rebound and another timeout, Kevin Garnett missed a desperation turnaround jumper as time expired.

Boston may have lost that game, but there were plenty of positives to pull from the loss. Nowitzki was the only Dallas starter to score more than 12 points in the game and the C’s had an opportunity to win the contest despite shooting only 41.8 percent from the field. Rondo, who dished out 15 assists in the contest, helped Boston outrun Dallas and attempt 25 more shots (91) than the Mavs (66).

Each team will look a bit different tonight than it did in that first go-around. The C’s began that contest without Shaquille O’Neal (bruised knee) and then Jermaine O’Neal missed the entire second half due to knee pain. He wound up missing the next six weeks with a sore left knee and is currently in a second stint of rehab. Those injuries caused Rivers to play small ball with Glen Davis eating up much of the time at center. The small lineup allowed Rondo to get out and run, which sparked the C’s in the second half.

On the other side of the ball, Dallas has since lost Caron Butler for the season with a torn tendon in his right knee. That injury has left Dallas with a small-forward-by-committee mentality, and journeyman Brian Cardinal has been the starter at that position for the Mavericks’ last two contests, both of which were wins.

Despite the loss of Butler, an extended absence by Nowitzki and a seven-game losing streak, Dallas remains in second place in the Western Conference. The Mavericks have won six games in a row. Boston, meanwhile, has won four of its last five and eight of its last 10 overall as it continues to get healthier and healthier.

Both of these teams have battled through the injury bug this season but remain as title contenders through the first week of February. The stretch run toward the All-Star break begins tonight, and each would be elated to grab a momentum-building victory against an opponent it could very well see in June.

Starts and Ends With Dirk

Nowitzki is quietly asserting himself as a legitimate MVP candidate this season with his 23.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG and flirtation with another 50-40-90 season. The big man from Germany is currently shooting 52.5 percent from the floor, 41.2 percent from downtown and 87.7 percent from the free-throw line.

His importance to the Mavericks has always been known, but it was accentuated when he missed an extended period of time in December and January. Nowitzki missed nine games with a knee sprain and the Mavericks went 2-7 during that stretch. Without him, Dallas is a mediocre squad, at best.

The Mavericks will have him on the floor tonight, but that doesn’t mean the Celtics can’t contain him. You can be sure that Kevin Garnett will be as fired up as he ever has been to slow Nowitzki down on national television and in front of the Garden crowd. Dirk dropped 25 points on Garnett back on Nov. 8 by shooting 9-of-16 from the floor. If Garnett can play well enough to limit him to a less efficient night tonight, with a target of less than 20 points, Boston will be in good shape to pull this one out.

Every Possession Counts

With both of the O’Neals unavailable for the second half of the Nov. 8 meeting between these two squads, the Celtics decided to get out and run. Boston wound up attempting 91 shots in the game, which was 25 more than Dallas’ 66 field goal attempts. Such a strategy worked out well for Boston, as it staged a dramatic comeback and was in great position to win the game with less than two minutes left.

With that success in mind, one would think that the C’s would employ a similar game plan tonight, but the odds are leaning in the opposite direction. Although Shaquille O’Neal sat out practice yesterday due to a sore Achilles, he may be in the lineup tonight. Even if he isn’t, Boston will have Kendrick Perkins available to play center. With at least one full-fledged center available tonight, the C’s will likely play at a more normal pace tonight compared to their run-and-gun approach back in November.

Dallas and Boston rank fourth and seventh, respectively, in terms of slowest pace this season, meaning they have limited possessions each and every game. With that in mind, capitalizing on as many possessions as possible tonight will be imperative for both teams. Tonight’s game will be all about keeping the turnovers down and keeping the shooting percentages up.

Pierce Destined for Big Night

Caron Butler is out, and Brian Cardinal is in. Let’s just say Paul Pierce is likely licking his chops today.

Pierce has been absolutely on fire this season, shooting career highs from the field (51.2 percent) and from 3-point range (42.0 percent). He also leads the team in scoring with 19.1 PPG.

Some things can inject an extra boost of energy to guys like Pierce. It could be playing in the playoffs or it could be facing off against one of the best players in the world. Tonight, he might be sparked by the knowledge that he was just selected to his ninth All-Star game yesterday afternoon.

Boston’s captain is coming off of a quiet scoring night against the Kings on Tuesday, a game in which he scored only 15 points in 36 minutes of action. With a journeyman like Cardinal likely defending him for the majority of tonight’s game, you might want to pick the “over” on Pierce’s scoring output tonight in comparison to his season average. Lock him in for at least 20 points.