Game Preview: Heat at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics’ injured list is almost as long as the active list, and that’s not something they’d like to be experiencing during the most difficult stretch of the season in terms of quality of opponents.

Boston has played four of its last six games against title contenders, and the Celtics (38-14) will be able to add one more to that list when they take on the visiting Miami Heat (39-14) at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

The two teams with the league’s most prominent versions of a Big Three will collide in the TD Garden to decide which will begin the third week of February as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston currently trails the Heat by one-half game in the standings, but a win on Sunday would vault them into first place in the conference and secure a series win over the Heat this season.

The Celtics took the first two highly anticipated meetings of the season into the win column, first on Opening Night in Boston and then on Nov. 11 in Miami. Sunday’s game marks the third of the four-game regular season series between the two powers, so a victory by the Celtics would clinch home court against Miami in the playoffs if the teams finish the regular season with the same record.

Playing against another title contender with a depleted roster will be difficult for the C’s, but it has proven throughout this difficult stretch that it has the talent to compete nonetheless.

Boston had led the Mavericks by six points on Feb. 4 with just 3:20 remaining in the game, but Jason Kidd stunned the Celtics with a last-second 3-pointer to steal a win for Dallas. The Celtics bounced right back from that loss to defeat the Orlando Magic just two days later, and they did so in convincing fashion. The C’s have fallen in their two games since, which gives them three losses in their past four games, but those three defeats have come by an average of only five points per game.

There was some thought that the Celtics may get a little help back in the lineup for Sunday’s showdown, allowing the team to take some weight off of the starters’ shoulders, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. Doc Rivers ruled Shaquille O’Neal and Semih Erden out until at least after the All-Star break, and Delonte West, who was given a sliver of a chance to play against Miami when Rivers spoke after Thursday’s game, will also not play against the Heat. The only player the C’s might get back is Nate Robinson, who played only three minutes Thursday night after bruising his knee. Rivers does expect Robinson to return for tomorrow’s game.

The shortened lineup faced off with one of the best frontcourts in the league on Thursday against the Lakers, and now it will have to take on one of the best backcourts in the league on Sunday. The tandem of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who combine to score 51.4 PPG, is utterly scary. Their ability to break opponents’ defenses down with their athleticism is unparalleled, and Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Von Wafer will be relied upon to try and neutralize that playmaking ability.

It’s certainly not the greatest time of the season to be shorthanded, but the Celtics have to play with what they have available. As we all know, it’s not always about the cards you’re dealt as much as it’s about how you play them. Boston has proven that it can hang around with these title contenders with a depleted roster, but the hope is that it will get over the hump on Sunday and knock off the Heat to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season.

Avoid Foul Trouble

Boston’s starters will likely be relied upon to rack up around 40 minutes of playing time due to the bench being inexperienced and having no true center or small forward. They’ll be fine to handle those minutes since they had two days off before this game, but they’ll need to stay out of foul trouble in order to stay on the court.

There are two players in particular who simply cannot get into foul trouble, and their names are Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Though both of those players played at least 35 minutes against Los Angeles on Thursday, they both experienced foul trouble that took the team out of its rhythm. Pierce picked up three fouls in the first half, and Allen picked up his third and fourth foul early in the third quarter. When those two are forced to sit on the bench for extended periods of time, it alters Rivers’ game plan regarding everything from play calling to rotations.

Pierce is already thinking about staying out of foul trouble on Sunday, as he noted after Saturday’s practice.

“The approach changes because when you’re shorthanded the approach is not to get into foul trouble,” said Pierce. “If I get in foul trouble, it’s tough on us, just having a lack of defenders at the perimeter, especially against LeBron.”

Playing against arguably the most dynamic shooting guard-small forward combination that the league has ever seen means that the Celtics simply cannot afford to lose Allen or Pierce to foul trouble. If they do, there will be a lot more trouble on the horizon.

Team Defense

As important as the individual defensive efforts of Allen and Pierce will be, we all know that you do not stop James and/or Wade with one-on-one defense. Such an accomplishment is reached with phenomenal team defense, and that point was iterated several times after Saturday’s practice.

“You don’t guard LeBron with Paul or with whoever else, you guard him with your team anyway,” said Rivers. That was what we worked on today, because we completely got away from it in the L.A. game, is I don’t think anybody – Rondo at times, and Kevin most of the time – individually is great defenders, but together we can be a great team defense.”

Here’s Pierce’s take: “Whenever you defend LeBron anyway it’s not going to be with just one guy. It’s not going to be just Paul Pierce defending him. It’s going to come from all five guys.”

And finally, Von Wafer, who will likely see some minutes at small forward, echoed the same belief: “I just have to try to rely on my teammates and force [LeBron] into help, because it’s going to be tough to guard him one-on-one. I don’t think anybody in the world can guard him one-on-one. It’s going to be a team thing.”

Play Inside-Out

Boston has claimed since day one of training camp that it wants to play an inside-out game, meaning it wants to establish itself around the basket in order to open up the perimeter game. For the most part, the Celtics have been able to execute that plan this season thanks to the rejuvenated play of Kevin Garnett and Shaq. The C’s have slipped in that category of late and it has wound up stinging them.

A great example of the team’s lack of inside-out play is Thursday night’s Lakers game, in which the Celtics shot just 40.2 percent from the field. Doc Rivers pointed out some numbers Saturday afternoon that make it clear that his team didn’t even attempt to go inside.

“We had eight post ups the entire game (Thursday night), our kind of post ups,” said Rivers. “We had 40 jump shots and eight post ups. So even if we would have won, I told the guys, that that would have been fool’s gold.”

Against an undersized Miami team, the C’s must use their size to their advantage. Yes, the frontline will be very shorthanded, but that doesn’t mean the guys who will be playing can’t dominate the paint while they’re on the court. Look for a healthy dose of post play from guys like Garnett and Glen Davis, with some opportunities for Kendrick Perkins sprinkled in as well.