Game Preview: Celtics at Cavaliers

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The All-Star break is over and it’s time to get back to work. For the Boston Celtics (15-17), that work consists of turning their season around and making a push for a higher seed in the playoffs.

The Celtics, who are currently slotted as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, will return to action for the second half of their season at 7 p.m. tonight in Cleveland when they take on the Cavaliers (13-18).

These two teams have met twice this season and split the two contests. They played a home-and-home set toward the end of January and each team grabbed a win in the other team’s arena. Both games were highly competitive and came down to the final seconds.

The first meeting of the season, on Jan. 29 in Boston, went the Cavaliers’ way because rookie Kyrie Irving took over in the clutch. He scored 23 points in that game, including the game-winning layup with 2.6 seconds left after he spun through a Celtics double-team on the perimeter.

Boston’s win came two nights later in Cleveland thanks to a big performance from Paul Pierce. He scored 20 points that night, including two big free throws with, oddly enough, 2.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The Celtics held a 22-point lead late in the third quarter before eventually staving off a Cavaliers comeback.

Throughout those two close games there have been a few constants. The first, and possibly most important, is that Rajon Rondo was absent from both of them.

Rondo has not played against the Cavaliers this season thanks to suffering a sprained right wrist in January. He missed eight games thanks to that injury, including the two against Cleveland.

Tonight’s game will be Rondo’s first action since Feb. 19. He was suspended for the final two games before the All-Star break due to throwing the ball at a referee after a missed call. Rondo did, however, play in Sunday night’s All-Star game and racked up eight assists in just 16 minutes of play.

In addition to Rondo not participating in these teams’ first two meetings, there have been two players – and two players only – who have given great performances against the Celtics in both games. Irving and Anderson Varejao have been a two-headed monster that Boston hasn’t been able to contain.

Irving has scored 22.0 PPG on 56.7 percent shooting and also dished out six assists in both contests. Avery Bradley was Boston’s starting point guard while Rondo was sidelined. Bradley is known for his defense, but he could not slow down the promising rookie from Cleveland.

While Irving’s fantastic numbers have been racked up thanks to elite talent, speed and shooting, Varejao has made his impact thanks to hustle and energy. Doc Rivers touches on those two characteristics every time he speaks about Varejao, and they have been on full display during these teams’ meetings this season.

Varejao averages 19.0 PPG and 14.5 RPG against the Celtics this season. He put together a 20-point, 20-rebound performance against Boston on Jan. 31 and, along with Irving, was a key spark to Cleveland’s fourth-quarter comeback. Boston’s frontline hasn’t been able to match his hustle and energy yet this season. It will certainly be a difficult task to do so tonight as well.

However, the Celtics have had a few days off to recharge their batteries and should have plenty of energy tonight. They hope that energy will lead to a win and help them begin the second half of their season off on a high note.

Rondo’s Defense on Irving

As evidenced by the numbers Irving has put up against the Celtics this season, Bradley clearly hasn’t been able to stop the rookie point guard. Irving has displayed incredible poise, quickness and shooting ability against Boston each of these teams’ two meetings.

Many would say that if Bradley can’t stop Irving, no one can, but Rondo will have an opportunity to do so tonight. Although Bradley has gained more attention for his defense, Rondo is the man who has been selected as a first-team All-Defensive performer the past two seasons. He has the ability to contain Irving, but the question is, will he?

Boston’s Frontline

The Celtics had hoped to begin the second half of their season at full strength, but that wishful thinking has been put to rest. Jermaine O’Neal did not travel with the team to Cleveland as he continues to suffer from a sore left wrist. Boston will, however, finally have Brandon Bass back in the lineup after missing him for the past six games with a sore left knee.

With all of these moving parts, it will be interesting to see if Boston’s frontline can display some continuity on the floor tonight. Bass hasn’t played with his teammates since Feb. 10 and it is uncertain who will start at center in place of O’Neal. Chris Wilcox would be a great candidate, but he is still nursing a right adductor strain and may not play tonight.

We don’t know who will be playing along Boston’s frontline, but we do know that the group will have its hands full against Varejao.

Big Night from Garnett?

A lockout-shortened season hasn’t been easy on any players in the NBA, including Kevin Garnett. There are a lot of miles on his odometer and he’s playing every other night in his 17th NBA season. Although KG can’t put up huge numbers in every game, he definitely can when he gets some rest.

Garnett averages 14.4 PPG and 7.9 RPG this season, but those numbers jump all the way up to 18.0 PPG and 10.3 RPG when he has three or more days of rest. He is coming off of a 23-point, 13-rebound performance against the Thunder on Wednesday. It’s no coincidence that he put up those numbers after having six days off due to personal reasons.

How many days off has he had heading into tonight’s game? Six. Don’t expect Garnett to go off for 30 points and 20 rebounds, but do expect him to have a great game.