Game Preview: Suns at Celtics

BOSTON – The TD Garden will play host to a Boston Celtics basketball game tonight for the first time in nearly two weeks. The Celtics (43-15), who have been on the road for the All-Star break and then a four-game West Coast trip, return home to take on the Phoenix Suns (31-27) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Garden.

Both Boston and Phoenix are in for knock down, drag out wars in terms of playoff pushes over the final six weeks of the regular season. The C’s are in a battle with Miami and Chicago for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Suns, currently seeded ninth in the West, are in a heated race at the bottom of the West’s playoff picture.

These teams have met once already this season, on Jan. 28 in Phoenix, and the Suns were able to pull out an 88-71 victory in that contest. However, that game is not an accurate depiction of how these teams currently match up for two big reasons.

First, the Celtics played that first matchup on the second night of a back-to-back on the road that will likely go down as the team’s most difficult travel day of the season. Boston had flown out of Massachusetts on Jan. 26, played in Portland on Jan . 27, and then arrived in Phoenix in the late morning of Jan. 28 after losing an hour due to a change in time zone. When the game commenced, the team certainly didn’t look like itself.

Second, Boston has dramatically reshaped its roster in the past week and will show off its new studs in front of its home crowd for the first time tonight. Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, who were acquired from the Thunder at Thursday’s trade deadline, will play their first home game in Boston tonight. Troy Murphy, who is rumored by numerous news outlets to be inking a deal with the Celtics today, may also be available for his first appearance in green and white.

The Celtics are 2-0 since Green and Krstic came on board and the team hopes to keep the streak going tonight with Murphy possibly jumping into the fold. To do so, the team will need to pick up its shooting percentage from the first go-around with this Phoenix squad.

Boston shot only 34.2 percent from the field on Jan. 28, and that included a 2-of-18 showing from downtown. Kevin Garnett (18 points) and Paul Pierce (14 points) were the only Celtics to score more than eight points and the team dished out only 14 assists, which challenged their season-low of 12 dimes against Chicago on Jan. 8. Rajon Rondo, who leads the league with 12.1 APG, assisted on only six baskets and played only 28 minutes, which is one of just three times this season that the star point guard has been on the court for less than 30 minutes.

This game is likely to play a lot more toward the averages, which means both teams should shoot the ball relatively well tonight. Boston and Phoenix rank first and fifth in the league, respectively, in field goal percentage and also shoot the ball well from 3-point range. With Rondo and Steve Nash, who is hot on Rondo’s heels for the top assist average in the league, both running their offenses after a day of rest, look for both teams to score at a much higher rate tonight in Boston than they did on Jan. 28 in Phoenix.

Who’s Off the Bench?

We already know that the Suns are a very deep and versatile team, with plenty of scoring options coming off of the bench, but we’re still waiting to see how Boston’s bench will play out after its recent moves. When Shaquille O’Neal returns to the lineup, which could happen tonight but is not likely, Krstic will head to the bench. What is more important, though, is the C’s getting solid perimeter play from guys like Green and Delonte West.

Green has been quiet in his first two games with Boston, and that’s expected for a player who is adjusting to a new team, as well as coming off of the bench, for the first time in his career. He is averaging 6.0 PPG and 36.4 percent shooting in his two games with Boston. West, who missed Monday’s game in Utah, is listed as day-to-day with a sprained right ankle and could return tonight. If he does, Boston would get a much-needed boost at the guard position against this deep Suns team.

No matter who plays and who doesn’t, there’s no doubt that Boston’s bench will need to perform well if the C’s are going to win this game. Phoenix’s second unit is dangerous enough that if the Celtics reserves don’t score and defend while they’re on the court, the Suns could run away with a win.

Dueling Point Guards

Rondo started out the season on a torrid assist pace, and that first month of the season gave him such a large advantage in APG average that no one thought he’d ever be caught. Well, except for Steve Nash.

Nash has quickly closed the gap on Boston’s point guard and his 11.4 APG average trails Rondo’s by just 0.7. Nash outscored Rondo 13 to 7 and out-assisted him by a count of 10 to 6 in their first matchup of the season.

It’s no secret that these two teams go as their point guards go, and that was evident the first time around. Boston scored a season-low 71 points against the fifth-worst team in the league in terms of opponent scoring. Phoenix allows an average of 105.1 PPG, but the C’s couldn’t come close to that while Rondo had his off night. The only way Boston will be able to hang around if Rondo has another off night is if Nash does as well.

Let’s not expect either of them to have anything but a great game tonight, though. The law of averages tells us that both players will have a positive impact for their team, and whichever point guard outperforms the other may be a determining factor in which team wins this game.

Contain Their Bigs

Phoenix is generally viewed as a finesse team that likes to shoot from the perimeter and not protect the paint. That notion was nullified in the first meeting of the season between these two teams, as the Suns attempted less 3-pointers than the Celtics, outrebounded the Celtics and got a huge performance from Marcin Gortat off the bench.

Gortat, playing most of his minutes against the likes of Kendrick Perkins and O’Neal, tallied 19 points a a career-high 17 rebounds off the bench for his most productive game of the season, and probably of his career. He heads into tonight’s game having scored 17 points in three consecutive games, and he is clearly asserting himself as a player opponents need to worry about.

Phoenix also has Robin Lopez manning the paint, and he is coming off of a 14-point performance against his brother, Brook, in New Jersey on Monday night. The combination of Gortat and Lopez will be something Boston’s big men must pay attention to all night long. We’ll get a great look tonight at how the Celtics’ new center, Krstic, can perform against an athletic duo of big men on the other side of the ball.