Game Preview: Grizzlies at Celtics

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BOSTON – Game 3 of a five-game homestand will tip off for the Boston Celtics (12-10) at noon on Sunday when the Memphis Grizzlies (12-11) visit TD Garden. Sunday’s game will feature an interesting dynamic, and not only because it’s Super Bowl Sunday in New England.

The Celtics are roaring full steam ahead and have won eight of their past 10 games, including a nail-biter Friday night against the Knicks. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, who made it to the Western Conference Semifinals a season ago, have lost five of their last seven during a brutal stretch of games.

Memphis headed into this season as a reputable force thanks to its playoff run in 2011. Tony Allen and Marc Gasol helped to spearhead the franchise’s turnaround and heighten expectations for the 2011-12 season. Thanks to the team’s recent struggles, though, it will head into Sunday’s game on the outside looking in regarding the Western Conference playoff picture.

The schedule hasn’t exactly been kind to the Grizzlies of late. They are in the midst of a stretch in which they’ll play eight of nine games against teams that are widely regarded as playoff teams this season. Six games into that stretch, Memphis has only knocked off Denver and Atlanta.

The Grizzlies’ most recent contest was Friday night in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder won by a score of 101-94. Oklahoma City dominated that game with its perimeter players, as Kevin Durant (36 points), James Harden (24 points) and Russell Westbrook (21 points) combined to score 81 points on 28-of-55 shooting.

While that trio of Thunder players was tearing it up, Memphis struggled to put the ball through the basket. The Grizzlies shot just 42.5 percent from the field.

As much as Memphis struggled to score on Friday, the Celtics were actually even worse. They shot just 40.8 percent from the floor against New York but still found a way to pull out the win thanks to a 30-point outburst from Paul Pierce and some clutch points from Ray Allen down the stretch.

Boston made enough plays down the stretch to win the game even though its overall performance was relatively underwhelming. That ability to win on a night in which the team struggled is an indication of the development the Celtics’ have experienced over the past few weeks.

“It was one of those games, I told our guys, two weeks ago we absolutely lose,” Doc Rivers said after the game.

Not anymore. The Celtics have now discovered the formula to win games in all different ways, from blowout victories to dramatic comebacks to grind-it-out wins. On the flip side, a quick look at Memphis’ recent schedule will give you proof that it has not discovered that formula just yet.

There’s no doubt that both of these teams have high expectations this season, but right now only the Celtics are delivering on them. Boston will do its best to continue that trend on Sunday when these teams face off just hours before the country shuts down to watch Super Bowl XLVI.

Points in the Paint

Boston has one of the top defenses in the league – it ranks second in opponent scoring – but it has been susceptible to other teams’ big men scoring in the paint. This issue showed face as recently as Friday night, when the Knicks logged 36 points in the paint. That number doesn’t seem large, but it accounts for more than 40 percent of New York’s points that night, and nearly all of Tyson Chandler’s 20 points came inside the painted area.

This is an area of concern heading into a game against Memphis, which ranks third in the league in points in the paint. The Grizzlies put home an average of 45.4 PPG in the lane thanks to a strong frontline headed by Marc Gasol, and several talented athletes on the wing like Rudy Gay and former Celtic Tony Allen.

The Grizzlies may have an even greater advantage in the paint on Sunday against Boston because Jermaine O’Neal will be a game-time decision, according to Rivers. Rivers told reporters that O’Neal on Saturday underwent a previously-scheduled MRI on his right knee. If he doesn’t play against the Grizzlies, the C’s will be down one big body to defend Gasol, who some consider to be the second-best center in the league.

Rondo’s Impact

Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup Friday night after missing eight straight games with a sprained right wrist. The injury was on his shooting wrist, which prolonged his absence and prevented the point guard from working on his shot very much during the time off.

The rust of the two-week layoff was apparent against the Knicks. Rondo did lead the game in assists with seven, but he also committed a game-high five turnovers, some of which were very costly. It was obvious that the injury was still an issue for him mentally, if not also physically, because he purposely avoided contact with the right wrist on several occasions.

Boston actually played better at times Friday night when Avery Bradley was on the floor. That hasn’t been the case very often when both Rondo and Bradley have been available. Rondo will surely shake off the rust eventually, but it remains to be seen what type of impact he can make in the short term while he deals with his rust and wrist.

Small lineups

When Zach Randolph, Memphis’ best low-post scorer, went down with a torn MCL four games into the season, the team was dealt an enormous blow and many wondered how the team would deal with it. The Grizzlies went on to acquire Marreese Speights from the 76ers to start on the frontline alongside Gasol while Randolph recovers from surgery.

Speights has played decently for the Grizzlies, but he is certainly no Randolph. He has averaged 7.2 PPG and 5.3 RPG in just less than 20 minutes of action per night with Memphis. Therein lies an interesting fact – Speights is playing just 20 minutes a night. And when Speights isn’t playing alongside Gasol, the Grizzlies tend to go with a small lineup.

Speights played just 13 minutes Friday night in San Antonio, and the only two reserves to log big minutes for the Grizzlies that night were O.J. Mayo, a guard, and Dante Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 forward. The Grizzlies will likely go with a similar rotation on Sunday, meaning either Gay or Cunningham will play the power forward position for extended periods of time.

The Celtics can counter that small lineup relatively well thanks to newcomers Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass. They are both versatile enough to defend several positions. Rivers actually likes to go small, with Kevin Garnett at center, so we’ll need to keep our eyes out for which team excels better in the small-ball game.