Game Preview: Celtics at Nuggets

BOSTON – The Denver Nuggets (33-25) will take on the Boston Celtics (41-14) at 10:30 p.m. tonight in Denver without Carmelo Anthony. Interestingly enough, it won’t be the first time that happens this season.

Boston won its first contest of the season against Denver back on Dec. 8 in the TD Garden, 105-89, and Anthony did not participate in that game due to right knee inflammation. He won’t be on the court for the Nuggets this time around, either, but such is the case for a whole other reason.

Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks on Tuesday – the deal was completed with physicals on Wednesday – along with teammates Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman. The trade marks a shift to a new era for the Nuggets, who will usher in a boatload of young talent that the Knicks sent their way.

Denver has already played one game in its post-Carmelo era, but that 120-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies was notched without all of the players included in the blockbuster deal. The new group will be welcomed into Denver tonight against Boston, as Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov will all be available to make their debuts in Nuggets blue and gold.

If we’ve learned anything since the deal was commenced, it’s that a team shouldn’t be overlooked simply because it’s playing with a new roster. The Nuggets won with a shortened roster on Tuesday, and the Knicks pulled out a win over Milwaukee last night with their new-look team. Those two contests are evidence that the Celtics cannot afford to take this new Nuggets team for granted tonight.

As George Karl said on Tuesday after the trade became public, it shouldn’t be too difficult to work these new players into the lineup anyway.

“We have similar philosophies,” Karl said of the Nuggets’ and Knicks’ systems. “They are going to have to get used to our terminology. You don’t want to make it too complicated. Playing hard, playing defense and playing together is much more important than the Xs and Os of the next couple practices we have.”

As far as when these players will get the opportunity to strut their stuff on the court tonight, we have a slight idea of who will be starting and who will come off of the bench.

Karl has stated that, at least in the immediate future, Ty Lawson will start at point guard over Felton, and that his “gut feeling” tells him that Gallinari will replace Anthony at small forward. Arron Afflalo, Kenyon Martin and Nene will likely round out the rest of the starting group.

No matter who out of the new group starts, the Nuggets will not be lacking experience. It has been said that Denver didn’t get market value for Anthony in this trade, but it essentially acquired four starters from its trade partner in New York. Felton and Gallinari have each started in every game they have played in this season, while Chandler and Mozgov have racked up a total of 44 starts as well.

There’s no doubt that the Nuggets now possess an infinite amount of depth and the Celtics will be the first team that is forced to deal with it tonight. Denver essentially now has two starter-quality players at point guard (Lawson and Felton), shooting guard (Afflalo and J.R. Smith) and small forward (Gallinari and Chandler). Boston, as currently constructed, cannot make a claim to that type of depth.

The C’s were already short on bodies across the board before Kendrick Perkins suffered a mild left knee sprain during Tuesday’s win over Golden State. Perk will not play tonight, which means Semih Erden will likely have to be inserted into the starting lineup. That will leave the Celtics, yet again, with no backup center.

Boston also currently does not have a backup small forward, as Marquis Daniels remains on the sideline for the foreseeable future. Delonte West returned to the lineup on Tuesday night for the first time since Nov. 24, but he will serve more as a backup to Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen at the one- and two-guard positions.

The lack of bodies hasn’t exactly limited the Celtics this season, though. Only eight of their players have played more than 40 games this season but the team continues to sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 41-14 record.

One of those 41 victories came against the Carmelo-less Nuggets back in December, and we’ll see if the C’s can replicate that result tonight. This time, though, Boston will be facing a much deeper team, on the road in Denver, that will likely display greater balance.

Starting Semih

It had been quite a while since Erden had played in a game prior to Tuesday night – 16 days, to be exact – and it’s been even longer since he got a taste of the starting lineup. Erden has not started since Jan. 27 against the Portland Trail Blazers and hasn’t played more than 17 minutes in a game since Jan. 22 against the Wizards.

There’s no doubt that the rookie center will play an integral role in Boston’s attempt to win tonight’s game and the remainder of this four-game road trip. Erden looked a little off on Tuesday night, as he went scoreless and grabbed only one rebound in 17 minutes after his difficult All-Star break travel schedule. He had flown home to Turkey and back to Boston before arriving in Northern California for Tuesday’s game. He should be a bit more adjusted to the time zone this time around, and the Celtics have to hope that his body will respond with a strong performance in the starting lineup.

Make Them Uncomfortable

No matter how similar a system might be for new players, it’s nearly impossible to be completely comfortable when playing in a new uniform for the first time. The newly acquired Nuggets will be playing in their first game for Denver, and that means the Celtics’ vaunted defense will have an opportunity to make those new players sweat bullets tonight.

Boston has one of the best defenses in the league, if not the very best, and can suffocate its opponent’s offense when it puts its mind to it. The C’s will be playing against a very talented Nuggets roster tonight that possesses plenty of speed and shooting, but Boston can more than keep up. Ball pressure from the Celtics’ perimeter players, coupled with physical play inside by the bigs, will keep Denver’s players uncomfortable all night long, and that will pay dividends for Boston. However, f the C’s allow the Nuggets to get comfortable on offense, this one could turn into a shootout, particularly if the crowd feeds off of solid play from its new-look team.

Avoid Foul Trouble

With such a deep team on the opposing bench, the Celtics simply cannot afford to get into foul trouble tonight. Yes, Denver’s new players are playing in their first game, but Karl will have the opportunity to send all four new players into the game at the same time to maintain some offensive continuity. That group would likely be Denver’s second unit, which would be a difficult cover for Boston’s reserves.

Due to injuries, when the Celtics play deep or great teams, Doc Rivers often has to play his starters extra minutes to make up for the overall talent on the other team. If the Nuggets somehow figure out how to execute at a decent level tonight, Rivers may have to rely heavily on his starters in this game. If they’re in foul trouble, he won’t be able to do that, and that could come back to haunt the C’s in the long run.