Game Preview: Lakers at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (14-10) are the hottest team in the NBA, having won nine of their past 10 games. They’ll have an opportunity to continue that hot streak at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden against their most bitter rival, the Los Angeles Lakers (14-11). This will be the first of two meetings between the two teams this season.

With Kobe Bryant leading the NBA in scoring, you’d have to assume that the Lakers are having a strong season, but they are far from it. Los Angeles has won just four of its past 10 games and owns an ugly 3-9 record on the road.

That road record is jeopardy of becoming much worse over the course of the next week. The Lakers are in the midst of their annual Grammy road trip, which this season consists of six games over the course of 12 days. They are 1-2 on that trip thus far and take on the C’s tonight, followed by a showdown with the suddenly-hot Knicks tomorrow night in New York.

Los Angeles is still considered a contender, but the make-up of this team is much different than the ones Boston has faced off with in the Finals twice in the past four seasons. Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum still make up a fantastic lead trio, but the rest of the Lakers’ roster is questionable at best.

You’d be hard pressed to select the fourth-best player on the Lakers’ roster. Their top three players each average at least 16.4 PPG, but the drop off from there is steep, as Steve Blake is fourth on the team with an average of just 7.3 PPG. Blake is currently out of the lineup with a fracture in his back. After Blake, the next players on the list are Matt Barnes (6.7 PPG), Derek Fisher (5.4 PPG) and Metta World Peace (4.9 PPG).

With that being said, it’s no secret that Los Angeles is relying heavily on Bryant, Gasol and Bynum. Those three players are all having great seasons, with Bryant leading the league in scoring with 29.3 PPG, and Bynum finally capitalizing on his potential with 17.1 PPG and 12.4 RPG.

That dominant trio can handle its own against mediocre or below average teams, but the top teams in the league have been too much to handle. The Lakers are just 5-8 on the season against teams with at least 14 wins.

Boston doesn’t mind that trend, because it heads into this matchup with 14 wins, a better winning percentage and a better mindset. The Celtics have been streaking for more than three weeks now after their slow start to the season. Everyone on the roster is contributing and Paul Pierce is playing at a level that has to garner some MVP talk. He is averaging 22.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 7.4 APG over his past 10 games, nine of which have been wins.

The Celtics are also benefitting from the return of Rajon Rondo, who has seemingly shaken off the rust that built up during his eight-game absence. Rondo’s right wrist has not been an issue over the past two games, as he has racked up 28 assists compared to just five turnovers in those contests.

Los Angeles is a formidable team and will always be considered a title contender as long as Bryant is on the roster, but there is no doubt that the Celtics have the superior overall team this season. Tonight will be Boston’s first opportunity to prove that fact and record its first regular season home win against the Lakers since Nov. 23, 2007.

Keep Bryant on the Perimeter

This is easier said than done, as evidenced by the 24,233 career points that Bryant has scored from inside the 3-point arc. If you can somehow keep him out on the perimeter, though, you will likely have success.

Bryant is having one of the worst seasons of his career when it comes to 3-point shooting. He is making just 29.9 percent of his 3s, which is his lowest percentage since 2001-02, when he made just 25.0 percent of his shots from downtown. Bryant has shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range just twice in his 15 seasons, but he’s on track to add to that total this season.

With less weapons around him to demand attention, Boston’s defense should be able to load up on Bryant more than it has in the past. If that results in Bryant hoisting up shots from downtown, it could be a great thing for the C’s.

Rested Celtics

Not only are the Celtics playing tonight after a full day off yesterday, they also haven’t played a stressful game in nearly a week. Boston’s last two victories, over the Grizzlies and Bobcats, were basically stress free and the team’s starters played limited minutes.

Only once in the past two games has one of Boston’s starters eclipsed 35 minutes of playing time. Pierce logged 37 minutes Tuesday night when he passed Larry Bird on the franchise’s scoring list. Outside of Pierce, the rest of the starting crew was on the court for 33 minutes or less Tuesday night.

Boston will come into this game well rested, while the Lakers have been traveling on the road for about a week now. Yes, Los Angeles hasn’t played since Monday, but it has been calling a hotel its home. That’s a huge advantage for the C’s, and it could be the difference between winning and losing tonight.

Dealing with Bynum

The Celtics have obviously seen Bynum before, but not this Bynum. Between his embarrassing act against the Mavericks in the playoffs last season and his first game this season, something happened; something clicked. He is now cementing himself in as the most prolific center in the league not named Dwight Howard.

Bynum is averaging career highs in points (17.1 PPG), rebounds (12.3 RPG), blocks (2.0 BPG), free throw attempts (5.7 per game) and steals (0.5 SPG). He has scored at least 20 points in each of his past five games and is coming off of a 20-point, 20-rebound performance against the 76ers on Monday.

There is no one on Boston’s roster who can match Bynum’s size and length, but Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox will be the ones who will try to slow Bynum down. Outside of facing Howard twice in late January, the C’s haven’t seen anyone like Bynum this season. Whether or not Boston can contain the Lakers’ evolving big man is a huge question that remains to be answered.