Game Preview: Rockets at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The second half of the NBA season has been nothing but smiles for the Boston Celtics (19-17), who have won four consecutive games and rediscovered their offense.

The Celtics have an opportunity to extend that winning streak and crawl within one game of the Atlantic Division lead when they host Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets (21-17) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

McHale, a longtime Celtics player and current head coach of the Rockets, would be proud of the way Boston’s offense has emerged in the second half of this season. The Celtics had been ranked as the lowest-scoring team in the NBA for nearly the entire season until its recent scoring outburst. Thanks to fantastic passing and solid shooting, the C’s have scored more than 100 points in three consecutive games and four of their past five games overall.

That consistent scoring has bumped Boston up the NBA’s scoring rankings and also turned Rajon Rondo into an assist machine. The Celtics now rank 26th in the league in scoring, rather than 30th, and Rondo has totaled 33 dimes in his past two games, including 20 that came against the Knicks on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday’s win over the Knicks was a momentum builder, to say the least. The C’s overcame several obstacles thanks to Paul Pierce’s last-second, game-tying 3-pointer in regulation, and then dominated overtime to grab the victory. Nearly every Celtics player who spoke after the game noted the importance of that win.

With that ‘W’ in hand, Boston is now within 1.5 games of the Philadelphia 76ers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. That means that a win tonight over Houston would set up a first-place-on-the-line matchup with the 76ers tomorrow night in Philadelphia.

The Rockets might have something to say about that, though. They are by far the most overachieving team in the league this season and won’t go down quietly.

Houston is currently sitting in the eighth seed in the Western Conference despite not having a single All-Star on its roster. A three-headed monster of very good players helps this team make up for its lack of star power.

Kevin Martin (18.2 PPG), Kyle Lowry (15.8 PPG) and Luis Scola (15.2 PPG) are all having fantastic seasons and have led the Rockets to their surprising record. While Martin continues to be one of the league’s deadliest shooters and Scola continues to deliver solid all-around play, Lowry is the man drawing the most attention from opponents.

Houston’s point guard is having a career year with his 15.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 7.3 APG. On top of all of those career-high numbers, Lowry is also having the best overall shooting season of his career.

Lowry is quickly rising up the point guard totem pole, but his opponent tonight, Rondo, is already near the top. Rondo proved yet again on Sunday that he can go off in any of the three major statistical categories, seeing as he did so in all three.

He put together a historic triple-double that consisted of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists. That performance put Rondo in the record books next to Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players to ever record at least 15 points, 15 rebounds and 20 assists in a single game.

While Lowry and the Rockets may be overachieving this season, it’s Rondo and the Celtics who head into this game with all of the momentum. The Rockets have lost three consecutive games, and Boston will be looking to up that number to four as it attempts to extend its own winning streak to five. Achieving that goal would set the table for a big night tomorrow in Philly.

Motivated Rondo

You already heard about Rondo’s ridiculous stat line from Sunday afternoon, so we’ll refrain from uttering those numbers yet again. We will, however, point out that Rondo has recorded two triple-doubles in his last three games and has clearly been motivated by his opposing point guards.

First, it was Brandon Jennings of the Bucks, whom some consider to be one of the top young point guards in the league. That only turned into a 15-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist night for Rondo. Next up was Jeremy Lin, whom Rondo took to school and embarrassed on national television on Sunday.

Is Lowry next on Rondo’s checklist? Based on what Kevin Garnett says about a motivated Rondo, Lowry better hope not.

Said Garnett of Rondo, “I’ve been around him to know when he’s motivated and when he’s more than motivated.

“If you know Rondo, he’s an 'I’ll-show-you' type of person.”

Load Up on Martin

Lowry is the man who sets up Houston’s offense, but Martin is the man who most often puts the ball through the basket. He leads the team in scoring and is a phenomenal shooter who makes 36.2 percent of his 3s and 89.4 percent of his free throws.

Martin has shot the ball well against Boston in his career, but the Celtics have limited his attempts. He has shot 47.9 percent from the floor in nine career games against Boston but only scores 16.7 PPG, which is nearly two points below his career scoring average. The Celtics will look to continue that trend tonight and limit the amount of shots he can get off.

Bench Scoring

The Celtics have an advantage in talent regarding these teams’ starting fives, but Houston’s reserves hold the edge in production. Four of Houston’s reserves average at least 7.1 PPG, led by Courtney Lee’s 9.5 PPG. Boston, meanwhile, has just one bench player who scores that often, and he is Mickael Pietrus (7.1 PPG).

The Celtics are coming off of a game against the Knicks in which their bench was outscored by a count of 45-15. That’s a discrepancy that Boston will not be able to overcome more times than not. While playing against a deep team like the Rockets, Boston’s reserves will need to step up to the plate and deliver a scoring punch that it lacked on Sunday.