Game Preview: Celtics at Rockets

BOSTON – Call it revenge weekend for the Boston Celtics.

Boston (48-18), which has lost just six games at home this season, will play a back-to-back set this weekend on the road against two Western Conference foes that knocked them off in the TD Garden. The first game of that set will tip off at 8:30 p.m. tonight in Houston against the Rockets (35-34).

Houston came to Boston back on Jan. 10 and stunned the Celtics with a 108-102 victory despite the absence of their top scorer, Kevin Martin, who missed the game with a sprained right wrist. He will be in the lineup tonight, and he has been hot of late. Martin has reeled off three straight 20-point games and has made at least three 3s in each of those contests.

Without Martin on the floor back in January, the Rockets were led by an impressive performance by Aaron Brooks. He scored a game-high 24 points in the game to go along with five assists, and several of his five 3-pointers came in back-breaking fashion.

Luckily for Boston, Brooks was traded away to Phoenix at the deadline, so his scoring exploits won’t be available tonight for Houston. Neither will Shane Battier’s defense, which limited Paul Pierce to 5-of-12 shooting and only three rebounds and two assists in these teams’ first meeting. The Rockets sent Battier to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for center Hasheem Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll.

Although Houston traded two starters away at the deadline and received three reserves back, it has been streaking and making an impressive push for the playoffs over the past two months. The Rockets are currently two games back of Memphis for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs and they are seven games over .500 (13-6) since Feb. 2.

Two of the most important factors in their playoff push are the two players who will fill Brooks’ and Battier’s starting spots tonight. Martin and Chase Budinger have been one of the best shooting guard-small forward tandems in the game over the past month. Martin has been an established star for years now, but Budinger is now percolating in a starting role alongside him.

The second-year forward is averaging just 9.3 PPG on the season but he has far surpassed that average in 10 of his last 11 games. Budinger has notched three 20-point games, one 30-point game and has shot 47.7 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point range during that stretch.

With those two perimeter players stepping up their game, it’s clear that plenty of responsibility will fall on Pierce and Ray Allen’s shoulders at both ends of the court tonight. Each of those players have been relatively quiet at the offensive end of late, combining for only one 20-point effort in the team’s last four games, but have played a large role in Boston’s shutdown defense in two of its last three contests. Pierce and Allen will surely be in for a competitive night, and the C’s will need them to step up.

Pierce is coming off of a 20-point game against the Pacers on Wednesday night, a game in which the Celtics won 92-80. Boston won that game in convincing fashion and allowed Doc Rivers to rest his starters for most of the fourth quarter. That fact should result in his starting five being fresh for tonight’s game.

It has been well chronicled that Boston has struggled mightily in back-to-backs this season, but most of those struggles have come in the second night rather than the first. The Celtics have an opportunity to avenge their Jan. 10 loss with a victory tonight, and if they do it in convincing fashion it should give them even more fuel and energy to do the same tomorrow night in New Orleans.

Bench Points

Boston’s bench found its rhythm on Wednesday night for the first time in quite a while. Every reserve who played more than 10 minutes finished with a positive plus/minus rating, and Rivers loved the teamwork he saw from those players despite the absence of legitimate offensive sets.

“It’s nice to see them all on the floor, but even tonight where there were times when we really were not running anything, we were moving the ball, and the ball was just finding the open guy,” Rivers said after the win. “And if you play with the right spirit like that, you don’t need a lot of offensive sets.”

If the bench can replicate such a performance tonight, Boston should be in great shape. Houston’s only true scoring threat off of the bench is Courtney Lee, and he is a very streaky shooter. There is no doubt that the Celtics’ bench packs much more of a punch than the Rockets’, and that should result in a second straight game in which Boston’s reserves outscore the opponent’s.

Possible Low-Scoring Affair

The Celtics are known as a defensive-minded team, and rightfully so. They lead the league in opponent points per game and are third in opponent shooting percentage. While the Rockets hang more toward the middle of the pack in those two categories, they have been stepping up their defense of late.

Five of Houston’s last six wins have come in games in which it has limited its opponent to 95 points or less. With the Rockets seemingly finding their defensive rhythm, this one could easily wind up being much more of a low-scoring affair than the 108-102 shootout in the Garden back in January.

Jeff Green in the Post

The Celtics acquired Jeff Green with the intention of him becoming a super sub at the small forward position behind Pierce. He has done a very good job of fitting into that role, notching 11.1 PPG off the bench while drastically increasing his shooting percentages from what he had been averaging in Oklahoma City this season.

While Boston would love to see him developing his perimeter game as a dynamic wing athlete, the Celtics also know that he has already developed his post game due to three-plus seasons as the Thunder’s starting power forward. Tonight is a perfect night for the C’s to take advantage of that ability, because Houston does not have much talent coming off of the bench at the small forward position.

The Rockets’ second unit is formidable at the guard positions as well as power forward and center, but they do not have a backup small forward that they rely on much at all. Carroll, who is a small forward, has played in only one game with Houston, and Terrence Williams, who can eat some minutes at that position, hasn’t played in nearly two weeks due to injury.

With Houston’s lack of a backup wing to defend Green, it will likely have to play small ball and send an undersized guard at him as a defender. Green, who stands at 6-foot-9, should be able to dominate those matchups in the post throughout the game.