Game Preview: Celtics at Warriors

BOSTON – The smiles and light-hearted atmosphere of NBA All-Star weekend are now in the past and it’s time for the Boston Celtics to get back to business.

Business in Boston is, as usual, the long-term goal of acquiring an 18th championship banner to hang from the TD Garden rafters. However, business in the short term is jumping back into the regular season schedule after nearly a week off.

With 54 games already in the books, the Celtics (40-14) will begin the stretch run of their season at 10:30 p.m. tonight against the Golden State Warriors (26-29) in Oracle Arena.

It seemed as if Boston would stumble into the All-Star break after falling in two straight games to the Bobcats and Lakers, respectively, on Feb. 7 and 10, but the C’s avoided that disaster with two big wins last week. The Celtics first knocked off the Miami Heat on Feb. 13 to clinch the season series against the heralded threesome of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Boston returned to the court three days later and handled the Nets in a 94-80 win to close out the team’s “first half” – they’ve already played 66 percent of their regular season games – of the season.

Tonight will provide the Celtics with an opportunity to push that momentum into the second half of the season as well, but it certainly won’t be easy. Boston will be dealing with a West Coast time switch as well as a young and talented Golden State roster.

The Warriors’ young talent hasn’t been on display for the C’s yet this season, as Golden State is one of two teams in the league yet to play Boston this season, with the Los Angeles Clippers being the other. There has not been much talk about Golden State this season, but it is quietly putting together a near-.500 season in a very solid Western Conference.

A quartet of budding stars makes up the core of Golden State’s roster. Monta Ellis leads the way with his 25.3 PPG, which ranks fifth in the league. Stephen Curry (18.4 PPG, 6.0 APG), Dorrell Wright (16.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and David Lee (15.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG) surround Ellis to fill out the strength of Golden State’s roster.

There isn’t much production that comes from the rest of the Warriors, and that’s a great thing for the Celtics. Boston’s starting five, which features four All-Stars, is able to compete with, and typically dominate, an opponent’s starting group. The four-player combination of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo has the best plus/minus rating of any foursome in the league this season, at plus-241 points. The starting center position has been in flux all season, with four different players notching at least five starts, but Kendrick Perkins has settled in well since his return from offseason knee surgery to reclaim that spot.

When intact, that starting five has yet to lose a playoff series since it came together four seasons ago. Tonight’s contest in Golden State isn’t quite on that level, but it does signify that it’s time to get back to business. The Celtics took care of business in the first half of the season, racking up the conference’s top record, and they’ll look to continue that trend in their post-All-Star segment of the season that begins tonight.

Who Will Play?

It seems as if this question has been asked before every Celtics game this season, and the answer hasn’t typically been of positive nature. Tonight, however, that may change.

Delonte West was scheduled to return to the lineup against the Nets in Boston’s final game before the break, but he tweaked his right wrist during practice on Feb. 15 and was subsequently forced to miss that game against New Jersey. He has had a full week to recover from that tweak and the hope is that he will return to the lineup tonight for the first time since Nov. 24.

Boston may also get a boost at center with the return of Semih Erden. Erden had been dealing with a strained groin prior to the All-Star break and has not played since Feb. 6. Both he and West practiced with the team last night on the West Coast as they prepared for tonight’s game.

Shake Off the Rust

The first game after the All-Star break is typically not a pretty one. None of the players on either team has participated in a full-scale game – let’s not kid ourselves, the All-Star game isn’t exactly full of intensity and defense – and they’ve had only one practice with each other in just about a week. Those two factors often combine to result in some sloppy play in this first game of the second half.

Boston practiced last night for the first time in six days, but that one session isn’t likely to shake off all of its players’ rust. The good news for the Celtics is that their starting five has been together for four years and they know each others’ tendencies like the back of their hands. That continuity will likely be a huge advantage for Boston tonight against the core of Golden State’s roster, which is in its first season together.

Time Adjustment

West Coast trips in February are always enjoyable for the Celtics because of the great weather, but the time change is certainly a downer. The three-hour adjustment is very difficult for players to deal with, and that’s why Eastern Conference squads often view .500 trips out West as a positive.

This trip, however, is different. The Celtics begin their trip out West with many of their team’s members already being fully adjusted to the time change. Boston’s four All-Stars, as well as the entire coaching staff, have been in California since Thursday, which means their bodies have had nearly a week to adjust. Other members of the squad who did not participate in the All-Star game may also be adjusted, as Doc Rivers gave them all some advice last week, which he believed was taken to heart.

“I actually hope they go west, because we start out on the West Coast, and if they did it’d be great for us, because we start out on the West (Coast) and they can get their body clocks going early,” Rivers said of his non-All-Stars prior to Wednesday’s game against New Jersey. “So I’ve suggested that, ‘Go West, young man.‘ I think most of them are going to try and do that.”

The only player who may be seriously affected by the time change in California is Erden. He has had a hectic travel schedule over the past week, as he flew home to Turkey to visit family over the break and then returned to Boston before meeting the team in California for this trip. That’s a lot of miles on the flight odometer, and the time changes will certainly have an effect on how his body feels. However, he likely won’t be counted on for many minutes tonight in his first game back, so he should be able to handle some short spurts on the court.