Game Preview: Celtics at Nets

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BOSTON – With the momentum back on their side, the Boston Celtics (47-17) can turn the page to the tail end of a back-to-back when they take the court at 7 p.m. tonight against the New Jersey Nets (21-43) in the Prudential Center.

It was a record-setting night for the Celtics on Sunday in the TD Garden, as they set a new franchise best for opponent scoring by allowing the Bucks to notch just 56 points. But with that game now in the books, the new task at hand is the Nets, whom the Celtics will take on tonight for the fourth and final time this season. This will, however, be the first time these teams see each other since they restructured their rosters in late February.

New Jersey shocked the NBA world when it pried All-Star point guard Deron Williams away from the Utah Jazz on Feb. 23. That move gave the Nets their cornerstone superstar, a piece that majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov has been seeking since the moment he purchased the team May of 2010.

Williams hasn’t been able to find his shooting stroke since arriving in New Jersey, but that hasn’t affected his ability to rack up ridiculous assist numbers. He is averaging a whopping 15.2 APG during his five games with the Nets, having notched at least 17 dimes in three of those contests.

Tonight’s game will be Williams’ first since the Nets returned from their two-game stint in London that wrapped up on March 5. He has been away from the team with his wife in Dallas awaiting the arrival of their newborn son, Desmond.

Williams returned to the team on Sunday and went through his first full practice with his new organization. He told reporters that his “lungs are hurting a little bit,” seeing as he wasn’t able to work out for a week while he was in Dallas, but he also mentioned the possibility of making a playoff push.

"It’s definitely doable," said Williams. "It’s going to take a lot of wins. We got a lot of tough opponents. Stranger things have happened."

Such a thought can pass through the minds of the Nets’ players because the team has reeled off four wins in a row and currently sits six games behind Indiana for the final playoff spot in the East. Though it’s very unlikely to make up such ground with only 18 games remaining on the schedule, the possibility does remain.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Boston continues to hold onto the top seed in the East after its dominating performance Sunday night. Their 87-56 victory wasn’t the prettiest thing to watch, but it was clearly a momentum builder after the team had lost its two previous games.

Setting the new record for an opponent scoring low was great, but the Celtics were more concerned with getting their starters rest and allowing their new players to receive substantial playing time. None of Boston’s starters played more than 30 minutes on Sunday, and that’s a very important factor considering the game kicked off a five-games-in-seven-days stretch.

While the starters were resting, the new guys were producing. Two of Boston’s newest acquisitions, Troy Murphy and Jeff Green, scored more points off the bench than any Milwaukee Buck player did in the entire game. Murphy’s breakout performance included a season-high 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting as well as seven rebounds. Green poured in 11 points and also grabbed three boards. Carlos Arroyo, who was playing in his third game with the team, racked up six assists in his 25 minutes of playing time, which doubled Rajon Rondo’s total of three.

Getting those new players into a rhythm was a great sign for Boston, but the starters are who will carry this team to the Promised Land. Blowout victories in which the starters don’t play at all in the fourth quarter are rare, at best, which means that group must be ready to play at a high level again tonight. These are games the Celtics must pull out in order to grab the top seed in the East, and they know that as well as anyone.

Boston has failed to carry over its momentum in back-to-backs this season, as they enter tonight with a 5-7 record in the second leg of those sets. If the C’s can perform at a level anywhere near what they showcased last night in the Garden, they should be able to increase that record and head out of New Jersey riding a two-game winning streak.

Get Rondo Back on Track

When your All-Star starting point guard is outperformed by your recently-signed backup point guard, you know something has to be a little off. Rondo dished out only three assists in his 23-plus minutes of action on Sunday, while Arroyo stepped into deliver six dimes in just less than 24 minutes of action.

Rondo has been relatively quiet over the past week and hasn’t notched a double-digit assist game since March 4 against the Golden State Warriors. His assist average in the four games since that 16-assist night is just 6.3.

For the Celtics to operate at their highest possible level, they need Rondo to be in attack mode and have him breaking down defenses. Rondo racked up 12 dimes in just 31 minutes of playing time against Williams in their only meeting of the season back on Jan. 21, when Williams was still with the Jazz. That number gives an indication that he has superior speed to Williams. The hope is that he can find that type of groove again tonight and get back on track.

Contain Kris

The arrival of Williams has gained all of the notoriety, but Kris Humphries has quietly turned himself into a superstar in New Jersey. OK, he may not be a superstar just yet, but the numbers he has been putting up over the past two weeks are certainly of superstar status.

Humphries has rattled off six straight double-doubles, and they’ve been big ones. His averages during that current stretch are 16.2 PPG and 15.8 RPG. He enters tonight’s game fresh off of a 19-point, 20-rebound performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.

The Celtics probably haven’t gone into past games against the Nets saying that Humphries could be a game-changer, but those recent stats prove that he certainly could be. The onus will be on Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis to contain the 6-foot-9 power forward tonight.

Complete the Sweep

A win tonight would give the Celtics a four-game sweep of the Nets this season. Boston has won all three meetings against New Jersey thus far, with two of those victories coming at home and one having taken place in the Barclays Center.

Considering the records of these two teams heading into tonight’s game, many would look at this contest as a probable win for the Celtics and a game that not many people should pay attention to. That would be a mistake, because there is underlying significance to this matchup.

Boston is in a heated race with the Chicago Bulls for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and it’s conceivable that they could finish the regular season with the exact same record. One game remains between the two teams, and if the Bulls win that contest, the tiebreaker that would likely determine the conference’s top seed would be divisional record. Chicago is currently undefeated in that category, while the C’s have two losses.

With that being said, it’s clear that the Celtics need to win every divisional game from here on out to have an opportunity to win that tiebreaker, should it come into play. Including tonight’s game, the C’s have four more divisional contests remaining on the schedule. Those games could bring Boston’s Atlantic Division record to 14-2 by season’s end if it deposits those contests in the win column.