Game Preview: Nets at Celtics

BOSTON – The midway point of the season, in a technical sense, came and went nearly four weeks ago, but tonight marks the official conclusion of the NBA’s first half.

Twenty-four of the 30 teams will play their final game before the All-Star break tonight, and two of them will meet in the TD Garden. The Boston Celtics (39-14), who sit atop the Eastern Conference, will look to head into the break looking down at the other 14 teams in the East after hosting the New Jersey Nets (17-39) at 7:30 p.m. tonight. A win would give the C’s a half-game lead over Miami at the break.

Doc Rivers has recently stated that these final games before the All-Star break are typically the toughest of the season. Every team in the league is experiencing its nicks and knacks, none more so than the Celtics, and all of the players are looking forward to some time off.

With that being said, it would be easy for Boston to overlook a lowly New Jersey squad that has made it into headlines this season due more in part to their trade rumors than their on-court play. However, Kevin Garnett debunked that notion after Tuesday’s practice, saying that this game is particularly important.

“I’ve always been taught and always been told that the… last game before the break is probably the most important, because it’s momentum, especially when you’re getting ready to go on the road and you’re leaving for a while,” said Garnett.

The Celtics come out of the break with a four-game West Coast trip and would love to tip things off in Golden State on Tuesday night having won their last contest. But these should-be wins haven’t exactly been easy for the Celtics to grab this season.

Boston has lost 14 games this season, and half of those losses have come to either undermanned or lowly teams. These are the games that Ray Allen believes his team must improve on stashing into the win column as the rest of the season plays out.

Allen alluded to the fact that his team has left games on the table this season because the focus and energy simply weren’t there, be it because the opponent was missing key players or because it just wasn’t a top-tier team. He says avoiding that lack of focus and energy will certainly be a challenge tonight.

Yes it is, yes it is,” said Allen. “The building is always the same. They come in, the other team comes in, and they get juiced by how our building is, and so we’ve got to always continue who we are, and our composure and our poise. Keep the energy injected in the game early and often, and make sure that we don’t give a team confidence.”

Boston has done just that this season against the Nets, as they’ve taken care of business in both meetings between the two teams thus far. The C’s are 2-0 against the Nets, having won one close game in the Garden on Nov. 24, 89-83, and one blowout game in New Jersey, 100-75, on Dec. 5.

The Nets haven’t been able to muster up any form of an offense against the Celtics this season, as they’ve averaged just 79.0 PPG in the two contests. Boston has limited New Jersey to just 41.7 percent shooting and 15.5 APG. The Nets shoot 43.9 percent on the season and average nearly 20.0 APG on the season.

It has been a while since these two teams have faced each other, but much remains the same on both ends of the matchup. Boston continues to battle through an injury-plagued season and hold onto the top record in the East, while New Jersey attempts to turn itself from a dormant franchise into a playoff contender. Thus far, only the C’s have been able to accomplish their goals this season, and they would love to do so again tonight against the Nets to head into the break on a winning note.

Another Win Without Pierce?

It’s expected that Paul Pierce will continue his pursuit of playing a full season without missing a game tonight. He has not practiced the past two days and underwent an MRI on his left foot on Monday. That exam came back negative, and Rivers expects him to be available against the Nets tonight despite the lingering pain in his foot and shooting wrist.

Pierce battled through the same pain to play 40 minutes during Sunday’s big win over the Heat, but he contributed only one point on 0-of-10 shooting from the field. It sounds like he’ll be back on the floor tonight, but it’s uncertain what kind of contributions he’ll be able to give to his team.

Establish the Post

The key to Boston’s first two wins of the season over New Jersey was dominating the paint. The Celtics scored 44 points in the paint against the Nets in their first meeting of the season and followed that up with 52 points in the paint in the second matchup.

Though New Jersey has one of the top up-and-coming centers in the league, Brook Lopez, he isn’t exactly known as a defensive force. His scouting report will tell you he’s a relatively soft player and that he can be taken advantage of inside. That’s exactly what the C’s have done this season, to him and the rest of his frontline teammates.

Injuries have piled up for Boston and the frontline is very thin, currently hosting only Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Luke Harangody. Harangody has not been in the rotation, so the C’s have operated with a three-man rotation inside over the past three games. That group has the ability to score in the paint, but Boston has scored just 32.7 PPG in the paint over its past three games. The C’s would love to see that number spike tonight against an inferior opponent.

Guard Boost?

Believe it or not, the Celtics have been able to dominate the Nets this season despite Rajon Rondo. He has not played in either of these teams’ matchups. Nate Robinson has filled in well in those two contests, averaging 14.0 PPG and 5.0 APG, but Rondo is a whole different animal to defend. He will pose a much greater challenge to New Jersey’s point guard combo of Devin Harris and Jordan Farmar.

In addition to seeing Rondo on the court for the first time this season against the Nets, Boston may also get a boost on the perimeter from Delonte West. He has not played since Nov. 24, coincidentally against the Nets, when he broke his right wrist.

He recently returned to full-scale practice and Rivers claimed on Monday that West would return to the lineup for tonight’s game, barring any setbacks at Tuesday’s practice. But therein lies the problem – West took a ball off of the tips of his right hand during Tuesday’s practice and was forced to sit out and ice the hand for the rest of the day. We’re not sure if that was enough to hold him out of tonight’s game or not, but if it isn’t, West will be given an opportunity to provide some poise and scoring for the Celtics off the bench.