Game Preview: Nets at Celtics

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BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (17-17) have been hot in the early goings of the second half of the season. Tonight, they’ll look to become even hotter.

The Celtics have won two consecutive games since the All-Star break to creep back to the .500 mark and leapfrog the New York Knicks for seventh place in the Eastern Conference Standings. They will look to continue that streak at 7:30 p.m. tonight when they host the New Jersey Nets (11-25) in TD Garden.

Boston came back from the All-Star break with nearly a full bill of health. The only player on the roster who is not currently active is Jermaine O’Neal, who has been plagued by a sore left wrist that forced him to see a hand specialist this week. Outside of O’Neal, every other player on the Celtics’ roster is active and healthy, including Brandon Bass.

The availability of Bass will come in handy tonight against a team he excelled against earlier this season. Boston defeated New Jersey 89-70 on Jan. 4 and Bass was a big reason why. He came off the bench and delivered a huge double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds in less than 26 minutes of action. The Celtics outscored the Nets by 20 points while Bass was on the floor.

His impact tonight could be even greater, as he’ll likely grab his third consecutive start at power forward. With O’Neal sidelined, Doc Rivers has chosen to slide Kevin Garnett over to the center position and insert Bass at power forward. That tandem has worked very well together and helped propel the C’s to their two consecutive wins. Bass has averaged 14.0 PPG and 7.0 RPG during those two contests, while Garnett has scored 21.5 PPG and grabbed 9.0 RPG.

That strong frontline play should play a large role in Boston’s attempt to defeat the Nets for a second time this season. However, this Nets team is much different than the one the Celtics blew out in January.

When New Jersey came to the Garden on Jan. 4 it was playing without its two best players, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Williams missed the game due to a “sore right side” (ribs, oblique). Lopez, meanwhile, was just over a week removed from breaking his right foot and had not played yet this season. Luckily for the Nets, those two players are back on the floor and playing fantastic basketball.

Williams made the All-Star team this season and ranks fifth in the NBA in assists with 8.3 a night. He is also scoring 21.9 PPG, making him one of the toughest double-threat point guards in the league.

Lopez has only played in three games this season but has gotten better in each and every one of them. He has gone from scoring nine points in his season debut to 15 points in his second game and then a whopping 38 Tuesday night in a 93-92 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Lopez shot 17-of-28 from the floor in that contest and also grabbed six boards.

Needless to say, with the addition of both Williams and Lopez, this version of the Nets will be much more formidable against Boston tonight than the one that lost by 19 points nearly two months ago. New Jersey will be a tough out as the Celtics seek to extend their winning streak to three games.

Dominate the Glass

Boston is coming off of one of its greatest rebounding efforts of the season, as it collected 52 boards against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night. The Celtics should have a lot of success on the glass again tonight against a New Jersey team that ranks 29th in the league in rebounding.

The Celtics are the only team that ranks below the Nets in that category, but Boston’s team has many more players who are capable of attacking the glass. The C’s have Garnett, Bass and Wilcox on the frontline, two fantastic rebounding swingmen in Paul Pierce and Mickael Pietrus, and one of the best rebounding point guards in the league in Rajon Rondo.

On the other side of the ball, New Jersey has just one player who is known for his rebounding prowess, and that’s Kris Humphries. He ranks sixth in the league in rebounding with 10.7 per game. The problem is that none of his teammates average more than 6.1 RPG on the season.

Boston will need to keep tabs on Humphries all night, but outside of him there shouldn’t be many issues on the glass. It won the rebounding battle on Jan. 4 by a count of 45-34, and it should be able to give a similar performance tonight.

Williams vs. Rondo

Rondo and Williams are two of the top point guards in the league and deliver great play on a nightly basis. But there’s no hiding the fact that these guys get up for games when they’re taking on one of the best at their position.

Rondo may have some added motivation tonight, too, because Williams is the reason Rondo initially was left off of this season’s Eastern Conference All-Star team. The coaches voted Williams in over Rondo, with Boston’s point guard only making the squad as an injury replacement for Joe Johnson. That will likely be a motivating factor for Rondo tonight.

Rondo’s goal will be to rack up the assists and play strong defense, while Williams will look to bring as much to the table as he can at the offensive end.

Should-Win Game

We’ve all heard of “must-win games” for teams in every sport. Tonight’s contest isn’t one of those for the Boston Celtics, but it is a should-win game.

The Celtics are attempting to turn this season around and make a run in the second half in order to position themselves for the playoffs. If they’re going to do that, they need to win their games against teams that are far less talented. Tonight is one of those games.

Everyone involved in this game knows, either at the forefront or the back of their minds, that Boston is the team that should win this game. There is no excuse for the C’s to fall to the Nets. Boston should win this game and extend its winning streak to three games while putting itself over the .500 mark.