Game Preview: Trail Blazers at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Enjoy tonight’s 7:30 p.m. matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers (19-20) and Boston Celtics (20-18) in TD Garden, because you won’t see this type of basketball in Boston again for more than two weeks.

Following tonight’s home game, the Celtics will hit the road for a two-week, eight-game road trip that will travel into five different states and three different time zones. The C’s will not return home until March 25.

With the lengthy road trip looming, the longest of which anyone in these parts can remember, Boston understands the importance of tonight’s game. The Celtics need to take down the Trail Blazers and head out for this trip on a high note.

Boston would love to exit tonight’s game with a big win under its belt, but it sure won’t enter this contest with the highest level of confidence. The Celtics are fresh off of a throttling from the 76ers Wednesday night. Philadelphia defended its home court to the nth degree when it won 103-71 over a physically drained Boston team.

The Celtics were coming off of two consecutive overtime victories plus a night of travel. This team doesn’t like to make excuses, but as Paul Pierce said after that game, he and his teammates know that they are not losing by 32 points under normal circumstances.

“Just chalk it up as one of those nights from playing with tired legs,” Pierce said after the loss. “We know this (76ers) team isn’t 30 points better than us. We are coming off two (overtime) games straight, back-to-backs, traveling. I don’t like to make excuses, but we know we are a better team than what we showed tonight.”

Pierce and his teammates weren’t able to prove that Wednesday night, but the beauty of this league is that they’ll have another opportunity tonight. They’ll take the court less than 48 hours after that blowout loss with a chance to bounce back and knock off a very good Portland team.

Don’t let the below-.500 record of the Tail Blazers fool you. Their roster is stacked with talent and can compete with any team in the league on any night.

One might point out that Portland hasn’t won consecutive games since Jan. 23-24 and has lost four of its last five overall, but those facts don’t tell the whole story. The Blazers have been gutting through one of the most challenging stretches of games any team in the league has seen this season. Eight of their last nine games have been against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Portland has gone 3-6 during that stretch, with wins coming over Atlanta, San Antonio and New Orleans. It is also entering the second game of a seven-game road trip.

The Trail Blazers have a ton of balance, with six players scoring in double-figures, but their top gun is first-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. He is scoring 21.6 PPG while grabbing 8.2 RPG. Thanks to Marcus Camby’s limited offensive skill set, you might see Kevin Garnett defend Aldridge tonight despite KG’s likely start at the center position.

Boston must also be concerned with emerging perimeter player Nicolas Batum, who has finally been afforded the opportunity to start and bloom. He is averaging a career-high 14.2 PPG on 46.2 percent shooting, but those numbers bump up to 18.8 PPG and 47.8 percent shooting in his 12 games as a starter. Batum is a 6-foot-8 wing player, and Ray Allen will likely have the chore of defending him.

Considering the schedules that these two teams are facing, the question of which team needs this win more is difficult to answer. We won’t know the answer to that query tonight, but we will know which team wants the win more by the time the final buzzer sounds.

Matchup Issues

It will be interesting to see how these two teams match up against each other tonight. Portland isn’t standard at the 2 and 3 positions, with Batum possessing small forward-esque length at shooting guard and Gerald Wallace having more of a power forward mindset while playing at small forward.

The Trail Blazers will have their own issues on defense, too. Boston’s new starting frontline of Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett has been wreaking havoc on opponents. Opposing teams can’t figure out if their shot-blocking centers should defend Garnett or not, seeing as that will pull their center out of the lane. That’s the conundrum Doc Rivers wants opposing coaches to be put in thanks to his two big men who can shoot from the outside.

Our guess is that there will be a lot of switches and cross-matches tonight at these four positions.

Gerald Wallace shot distribution

Make Wallace a Perimeter Player

This won’t be a standard defensive night for Pierce. As we noted above, Wallace is technically a small forward but he doesn’t play like one. He averages 6.5 RPG, which would be second on Boston’s team, and he does not like to play on the perimeter.

Wallace’s strength is finishing around the basket, and he knows that better than anyone. As you can see in the image to the right, 62.5 percent of Wallace’s shot attempts this season have been taken within a few feet of the basket. He does not like the mid-range game and does not excel at shooting from the perimeter. Outside of the painted area, the only areas he makes more than 40.0 percent of his shots from are from the mid-range at the top of the key, the right wing and the right corner.

Which makes our point – Pierce and the Celtics need to make Wallace play from the perimeter, preferably on the left side of the court. If they can accomplish that goal, it should lead to positive results.

Opposite of Wednesday

Boston will be looking for the opposite result of Wednesday’s game when it takes on Portland tonight. One of the reasons that might happen is because the circumstances surrounding this game are the opposite of Wednesday’s game.

The Celtics had just come off of two consecutive overtime wins plus a night of travel when they took on the 76ers two days ago. They were visibly exhausted. Tonight, however, Boston’s top players should be well rested.

None of the team’s starters reached 29 minutes of playing time Wednesday night and the team had yesterday off. None of the top reserves played more than 15 minutes, either.

Boston’s energy and execution levels should be far better than they were in Philadelphia, and that might lead to a very different result.