Game Preview: Lakers at Celtics

BOSTON – What a difference seven months made.

About seven months after the Boston Celtics failed to secure their 18th championship banner in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles, they marched into the Staples Center on Jan. 30 and dominated the Lakers in the second half en route to a convincing 109-96 victory.

The turnaround is a bit quicker on this occasion, as the Celtics (38-13) and Lakers (36-16) will meet for the second time in 12 days when they collide on national television (TNT) at 8 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Much like January’s contest was significantly different from Game 7 back on June 17, tonight’s game will likely have a very different vibe than the one that took place less than two weeks ago. Boston was at near-full strength during the first meeting of the season between these two teams, but they have since been hit with more injuries that have added to their already lengthy list.

Shaquille O’Neal has not played since Feb. 1 against the Sacramento Kings and is doubtful for tonight’s game as he nurses a sore Achilles. The other backup center who has been healthy enough to play for most of the season, Semih Erden, is also not expected to be available.

The Celtics will also be shorthanded on the perimeter. Marquis Daniels went down on Sunday with a bruised spinal cord, which leaves the Celtics with no true small forward on the bench to back up Paul Pierce.

Those three injuries could loom large for the Celtics against the two most talked about teams in the NBA that don’t call Boston their home, the Lakers and the Heat, which the Celtics take on in their next two contests.

It’s widely known that the Lakers possess an incredible amount of length and size on their frontline with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. If O’Neal and Erden do not play in tonight’s game, Boston will certainly have some issues dealing with that length. We don’t even need to explain the perimeter options the Heat possess. They will be increasingly difficult to defend without a full group of perimeter reserves available for the C’s.

With all of these injuries piling up, Boston literally has no healthy reserve at two of the five positions. There is no natural center or small forward who Doc Rivers can currently lean on off of the bench. This means that there is one man who now essentially becomes the utility man, the primary backup at three separate positions.

Glen Davis is already the backup power forward, but he will now also be the backup center and likely grab some minutes at small forward as well. Davis has tasted plenty of success against the Lakers during his career, from winning the title back in 2008, to coming up huge off the bench during last season’s Finals, to notching in 13 points and four boards on Jan. 30. Tonight will obviously be a different story than those games, since he’ll be bouncing from position to position, but he has the ability to come up big when his number as called. Just think of his many performances as the “Ticket Stub.”

Tonight he’ll be the Utility Stub against a Lakers club that will be playing their third game of a seven-game road trip. Los Angeles typically hits this extended road trip prior to the All-Star break, and such is the case again this season.

The Lakers’ trip has begun with two straight wins over the likes of the Hornets and Grizzlies. Neither of those wins came by double-digits and Los Angeles did not shoot more than 47.4 percent in either contest. In fact, the Lakers were actually outshot by the Hornets (49.4 percent) on Saturday night. Such an occurrence also took place back on Jan. 30, when the C’s lit the Lakers up for 60.3 percent shooting.

While Boston dominated offensively, it also put the clamps on Los Angeles’ offense at the other end by limiting the Lakers to just 44.4 percent shooting. Kobe Bryant, who scored a game-high 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting, was the only Laker starter who shot better than 50 percent or made more than five field goals. Lamar Odom was the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 points off the bench.

In comparison to the Lakers’ starters, four of the five Celtics starters hit at least five field goals and three made at least eight. Paul Pierce led the way with 32 points, while Ray Allen chipped in 21. Allen hit three 3-pointers in the contest and shot 8-of-12 overall.

Speaking of Allen, the overall rivalry between these two teams may take a back seat to him at some point tonight. Allen has the opportunity to become the all-time 3-point king – in front of the current king, Reggie Miller, no less – as he trails the all-time mark of 2,560 by just one. If Allen can duplicate his performance from Jan. 30 against the Lakers, the entire country will be able to watch him and the nearly 19,000 people packed into the Garden tonight celebrate his amazing accomplishment.

Seven months made all of the difference for the Celtics when they took on the Lakers for the first time since Game 7. They hope that this time around, 12 days won’t make all of the difference for Los Angeles. If things play out tonight in a similar manner to the Jan. 30 meeting between these two teams, the Celtics will not only be able to savor a season sweep of the Lakers, they’ll also be able to celebrate Allen’s ascension to the top of the all-time 3-pointers made list.

Do It Again on Defense

Los Angeles has been a title contender for the past three seasons because it has had a very good defense, tons of length, the best closer in the game and an offense that generally is incredibly difficult to stop. This season, however, the Lakers have shown that when their offense is slowed down, they have basically no shot at winning.

In the game preview for the Jan. 30 game, we pointed out that the Lakers’ offensive statistics are dramatically different in their wins and losses and that they’ve been unable to win many games in which they don’t score more than 100 points. That trend hasn’t gone away.

Since that game preview was written, Los Angeles has scored less than 100 points in three of their five games, including the contest against Boston. Two of those games resulted in losses, with the only win coming against Memphis. This means that 13 of Los Angeles’ 16 losses this season have come in games in which they’ve failed to break the century mark. You can do the math and figure out that the C’s will have a pretty good shot at taking home a victory tonight if they can slow the Lakers down on offense.

Contain ‘the Others’

Bryant can win a game all by himself and he has proven that throughout his career (example No. 1: his 81-point game). But can he beat the Boston Celtics by himself? Not that we know of.

Despite having no proof that he can, in fact, beat the Celtics by himself, Bryant has tried to do so on several occasions. He was a one-man show on Jan. 30 when he scored his game-high 41 points, but while he was working his magic the rest of his team became disinterested and might as well have been sitting in the stands watching. The same can be said about Game 4 of the Finals last season, when he scored 38 points that included his team’s first 19 of the second half.

There are two common trends from those games while Bryant was dominating the offense. First, the Lakers lost. Second, no other Laker starter scored more than 12 points. If Bryant goes off, Los Angeles will probably hang around no matter what, but if the C’s can shut down his teammates in the meantime, a win will likely be on the horizon for Boston.

Rebounds Will be Tough

Boston was able to dominate the glass in these teams’ first matchup of the season, winning the rebounding battle by a count of 43-30. Much of that had to do with the Celtics shooting more than 60 percent from the field, but it also had to do with a concerted effort to attack the glass.

Kevin Garnett was unstoppable on the boards in that contest and pulled in 13 boards. O’Neal hauled in six rebounds and Kendrick Perkins came off the bench to grab six of his own. Two of those players, Garnett and Perkins, will play in tonight’s game, but they won’t have a ton of size by their sides to assist in the rebounding department.

With the absences of both backup centers, size on the bench is nearly nonexistent the Celtics. Boston will need huge rebounding performances from Garnett and Perk tonight, but it will also need guys like Pierce and Davis to do work on the glass in order to stay in this game.