Game Preview: Celtics at Lakers

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (21-18) are hitting the road, and they won’t come back for a long, long time.

An eight-game road trip begins at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon when the Celtics visit the Los Angeles Lakers (24-16) in Staples Center. Boston will play eight road games in five different states over the course of 13 days.

And what better way to start that trip than against the Lakers?

Boston and Los Angeles are attached at the hip when it comes to NBA rivalries, and that rivalry continued on Feb. 9 in TD Garden. As most of these teams’ matchups go, it went down to the wire. And then some.

The Lakers won 88-87 in overtime thanks to a tip-in layup by Andrew Bynum with 1:29 remaining. Neither team scored a point in the final 89 seconds of overtime, although the Celtics did have a chance to do so as time ran down.

Boston actually had an opportunity to win this game not once, but twice. It owned the final possession of regulation, but the Celtics failed to execute the out-of-timeout play and Paul Pierce picked up his dribble about 35 feet from the basket. In overtime, Pierce got the call again, and this time he missed an 18-foot jumper with 1.5 seconds left. Still, the C’s had yet another opportunity to grab the win when Ray Allen followed up Pierce’s miss and attempted to tip in the rebound. Los Angeles’ lengthy forward, Pau Gasol, was there to swat the shot away.

That loss was devastating for the Celtics, not only because it came at the hands of the Lakers but also because it felt as if Boston undoubtedly should have won the game. Dropping that game shook the C’s at their core, and it showed as they maneuvered through their following games.

Boston had won nine out of 10 games before falling to Los Angeles. It went on to lose six of its next seven games after the Lakers loss, including one of its most uninspired games of the season the very next night in Toronto. The Raptors dominated the C’s and won 86-74, marked by a scoreless effort from Rajon Rondo.

The Celtics have since recovered and head into Sunday’s matchup having won six of its past seven games. The highlight of that stretch arrived on Friday, when they pummeled the Portland Trail Blazers in TD Garden. A balanced offensive attack, which included 22 points apiece from Allen and Pierce, put the C’s ahead by 43 points at one stage of the game. Boston went on to win 104-86.

It’s safe to say that a similar occurrence will not take place on Sunday. Although the Lakers get nearly all of their production from their top three players, Kobe Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum, that trio is difficult for any team to slow down. They combine to score more than 66 percent of Los Angeles’ points, led by 28.9 a night from Bryant.

The length of Gasol and Bynum may be the greatest challenge Boston will need to overcome. Those two players combined for five blocks (while affecting plenty more) and 31 rebounds in the Feb. 9 tilt between these two squads. Now, with Brandon Bass starting at power forward, Gasol will have a great size advantage at power forward, and Kevin Garnett will be forced to defend Bynum, who may have the largest body in the league.

Regardless of the advantages either of these teams possess, it’s a near guarantee that this game will be a great one. Anytime the Lakers and Celtics meet, both teams will bring their A-game, even if it happens to be the first game of a lengthy road trip.

Said Bryant, “We're going to go at them, they're going to go at us. That's where we enjoy going against them. They're playing extremely well. Rondo has obviously had a monster game as of late. We're going to go at them, and they're going to go at us. That's just how it is.”

Run, Celtics... Run!

It’s no secret that Doc Rivers pleads with his team to run in the open court as often as possible. With a point guard like Rondo at the helm, it’s always a good idea to set your offense off in transition.

Rondo and Co. listened to that plea on Friday when they forced the Trail Blazers into 28 turnovers and went on to score 21 fast-break points. The C’s shot 9-of-11 in fast-break situations.

A similar effort will be needed on Sunday. With the length of Los Angeles’ frontline, the Celtics’ half-court offense will not be nearly as effective as it is against most teams. Gasol and Bynum will have an incredible size advantage in the paint.

How do you beat size? With speed. And you can do that in the open court.

Take Advantage of Perimeter Matchups

One way or another, the Celtics will have an advantage at the offensive end against Los Angeles’ perimeter players. The Lakers’ starting guards are Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant. They will be defending Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen.

If past matchups are any indication, Bryant will likely be given the chore of defending Rondo for the entire afternoon. That’s fine for the Lakers, because Bryant has the skill set to contain Rondo, but it leaves the 6-foot-1 Fisher defending the 6-foot-5 Allen. Allen not only has a speed advantage running around screens, but he also will have a size advantage to get off his shots. If the Lakers happen to switch up the defensive assignments and Bryant defends Allen, then Rondo will have the ability to run circles around Fisher.

One way or another, Boston will have an advantage. It’s their responsibility to take advantage of it.

Team Effort on the Glass

Although the Lakers had success on the glass in the February matchup, Boston did do a very good job on the glass. The Celtics were outrebounded by a count of 55-45, but they did have five different players who grabbed at least five boards. That’s the type of team effort Boston will need on the glass Sunday afternoon.

Garnett led Boston in rebounds with 12 during the last meeting, and Pierce contributed nine of his own. The biggest question of this contest, though, is whether enough Celtics outside of KG and Pierce will contribute on the glass.

Jermaine O’Neal, who grabbed six boards against Los Angeles in February, will not play. Bass will start at power forward, but he’s going to be the smallest big man on the floor. Chris Wilcox, who missed Friday’s game due to personal reasons, did not travel to Los Angeles and will not be available Sunday either.

There’s no doubt that Rivers will get on his players, and guards in particular, to rebound. The Celtics will need a team effort on the glass if they want to contend for a win.