Game Preview: Pacers at Celtics

BOSTON – The last time the Boston Celtics were forced to bounce back from a loss, they responded with a record-setting defensive performance that dismantled the Milwaukee Bucks.

Boston (47-18) may not replicate such a feat again this time around, but they can return to the win column at 7:30 p.m. tonight by besting the Indiana Pacers (29-38) in the TD Garden.

The Celtics enter tonight’s tilt having lost three out of their last four games, and all three of those losses came to teams that are currently no more than one game over the .500 mark. Their most recent setback, an 88-79 loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets on Monday night, left Doc Rivers questioning the team’s focus.

“I was just disappointed in our execution and our focus too,” Rivers said after the disappointing defeat. “We’re just not playing well right now. You go through that; sometimes you have to wait for your team. Right now I’m waiting for them to kick back into gear.”

That would be a coach sending a message to his players, and their first opportunity to respond will come tonight in front of their home crowd against a team they could very easily wind up meeting in the playoffs.

Indiana enters tonight’s game with a half-game lead over the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics, on the other hand, trail the Chicago Bulls by a half-game for the top seed in the East. If the Pacers hold onto their slot and Boston finishes ahead of the Bulls, tonight’s game would be a preview of a first round playoff matchup.

An eventual showdown between these two teams in the playoffs would be great news for the Celtics. Not only is Boston 2-0 against Indiana this season, but Indiana also can’t seem to be able to beat anyone in the NBA right now not called the New York Knicks.

The Pacers have dropped six of their past eight games, dating all the way back to March 2. Each of the two wins in that span were over the Knicks, with the most recent victory coming last night in Indiana by a score of 119-117.

Danny Granger, the team’s leading scorer, closed out his 26-point night with a step-back jumper over Shawne Williams of the Knicks to win the contest in the final seconds. He was one of three Indiana players to score at least 24 points, as Tyler Hansbrough (30 points) and Darren Collison (24 points) accompanied him with big games.

Indiana has shot a whopping 54.4 percent (86-of-158) during its two-game winning streak over the Knicks, but if their first two games of the season against Boston are any indication, they will struggle to shoot with such ease tonight.

The Celtics are 2-0 against the Pacers this season and Indiana failed to score more than 90 points in both of those contests. Overall, Indiana has shot just 36.2 percent (63-of-174) from the field and not one of their players has been able to notch a 20-point night.

Meanwhile, Boston has lit the Pacers up with balanced and efficient scoring. It shot better than 50 percent and had five players score in double-figures in both wins over Indiana, with Paul Pierce’s 21-point effort on Dec. 28 leading the way in scoring.

Pierce has had a field day against the Pacers each time he has faced them this season. He dropped a triple-double that consisted of 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists on Dec. 19, and then notched 21 points, five rebounds and seven assists in the rematch nine days later.

The Captain isn’t immune to off nights, though. He scored only seven points against the Nets on Monday and was clearly one of the players who didn’t live up to his coach’s expectations. He has scored only 10.7 PPG over Boston’s last three contests.

Rivers is waiting for Pierce and the rest of his team to kick back into gear, and there is no better time to do that than tonight. Boston has just 17 games remaining on its schedule and will head out of town tomorrow for a difficult back-to-back set on Friday and Saturday. The C’s would love to head into that challenging trip on a high note, and they won’t need a record-setting night to do it. All they need is a win.

Healthy Returns

Granger returned to the Pacers’ lineup with a bang last night after missing the previous game against the Knicks with the flu. He poured in 26 points on 10-of-20 shooting while also grabbing seven rebounds. He has scored 17.0 PPG against the Celtics this season, but those shots have come via 24.4 percent shooting (10-of-41). Indiana will surely need a healthy performance from Granger tonight in order to compete with Boston, and something similar to last night’s showing is what his team would love to see.

As for the Celtics, they may be receiving Delonte West back into the lineup. He has missed the team’s last eight games with a right ankle sprain but has been targeting tonight’s game as his time to return. Prior to Sunday’s win over Milwaukee, West went through his first on-court workout and proceeded to tell reporters, “The way it feels, Wednesday is definitely a go.”

If West does play tonight, it would be the second player Boston has returned to healthy status in three games. Glen Davis, who has averaged 16.0 PPG against the Pacers on 50 percent shooting this season, just returned to the lineup on Sunday after missing four games with a left knee injury.

Can Rondo Make a Difference?

Rajon Rondo was not on the floor for either of the first two games Boston and Indiana have played against each other this season. Each of those contests came during a two-week span in which Rondo did not play for the C’s due to a combination of hamstring issues and a case of plantar fasciitis.

Interestingly enough, having Rondo in the lineup for tonight’s game doesn’t pack much of a punch for Boston considering how he has been playing of late. The All-Star point guard hasn’t reached double-digits in assists in his last five games and has averaged 3.4 turnovers per game during that span. Rondo has scored only two points in each of his past two contests on a combined 2-of-16 shooting from the floor.

There’s no doubt that Rondo is one of the best point guards in the league, but he is not playing up to his ability right now. To be a dominating force, the Celtics need him to rise up for the remainder of the season.

He’ll be playing against an up-and-coming and speedy point guard tonight in Collison, who averages 13.3 PPG and 4.9 APG for the Pacers. Boston will need Rondo to be a factor tonight, or else Collison could wind up having a huge impact.

Team Defense Forces Bad Offense

The reason Boston has been able to win both contests against the Pacers this season is because it has played phenomenal defense. As we highlighted earlier, Indiana has made only 36.2 percent of its shots against the Celtics this season and its star player, Granger, was turned into a high-volume, low-percentage shooter in both of those games.

Individual defense isn’t what has resulted in those poor numbers for Indiana. In Boston’s schemes, it’s all about team defense. The Pacers have been forced to rely on one-on-one play, and an indication of that is their 16.0 APG average that they have put together in those two games. To give you a grasp on how terrible that average is, the worst-assisting team in the league, Milwaukee, averages 18.4 assists a night on the season.

Boston has the ability to dominate defensively, and it showed that to the th degree during their previous game in the Garden. The Celtics have also proven twice already this season that they can shut down this Indiana team, and they would love to do it again tonight.