Game Preview: Grizzlies at Celtics

BOSTON – The majority of NBA teams will be using the final three weeks of the regular season to gear up for the playoffs, and the Boston Celtics are no exception. The difference for the C’s is that they are running through a gauntlet of teams that are fighting for the right to take on the top seeds in their respective conferences.

When Boston (50-19) hosts the Memphis Grizzlies (39-32) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden, it will be the team’s fifth consecutive game against a team fighting for one of the final two playoff seeds in its conference., and another one is on the way Friday night, when the Charlotte Bobcats come to town.

The Celtics have navigated that schedule of likely playoff teams with success, as the team has won three of its last four games, but those victories haven’t come with ease. Boston did put the Indiana Pacers away relatively quickly one week ago in the Garden, but they were forced to fight back from 15 points down in each of their past two victories.

Those two comeback wins, which came on the road in New Orleans and New York, featured a Celtics team that came out with lackluster play in the first half but dominant play in the second half. That trend prompted Doc Rivers to say the following after the team’s win over the Knicks on Monday night.

“Well we decided to play in the second half,” said Rivers. “I haven’t used the word ‘soft’ in four years, but at halftime that word came out a lot. We just played basketball. We didn’t make one adjustment, not one. We just played in the second half.”

He and his team will certainly need to decide to play for the entire game if they hope to win tonight’s game against the Grizzles. Memphis has been on fire for more than two months and has not lost three straight games since the calendar turned over to 2011. They, like the Celtics, have won three of four and enter tonight’s game on a two-game winning streak.

The Grizzlies currently lead Houston and Phoenix by two and three games, respectively, for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Despite breaking the news to the national media Tuesday afternoon that their most dynamic player, Rudy Gay, will miss the remainder of the season due to shoulder surgery, this Memphis team is not one that the West’s top teams are looking forward to facing in the postseason.

Even with Gay out of the fold for the remainder of the season, the Grizzlies still have four players who are averaging at least 11.3 PPG this season. Zach Randolph leads the team in scoring with 20.1 PPG and is also pulling in 12.6 RPG this season. Randolph ranks fourth in the NBA in double-doubles with 49 and will surely be a load for Kevin Garnett to handle tonight.

In addition to Randolph’s stellar season, Memphis is also getting very solid campaigns from Mike Conley (13.9 PPG, 6.7 APG) and Marc Gasol (11.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG). As the numbers would indicate, the Grizzlies are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NBA, with eight active players averaging at least 8.0 PPG, four averaging at least 4.3 RPG and six averaging at least 1.9 APG in a Grizzlies uniform this season.

That balanced attack was enough to send the Grizzlies and Celtics’ first matchup of the season, which came back on Nov. 13, into overtime. The score of that game was 99-99 at the end of regulation, but the Celtics went on to score 17 points in the five-minute overtime frame to pull off a 116-110 win on the road.

While Memphis displayed their balance, Boston answered back with an even better overall performance. Paul Pierce led the way in scoring with a game-high 28 points, but six other Celtics scored at least nine points as well, including 18 apiece from both Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal.

Rajon Rondo reaped the benefits of his team’s 57.7 percent shooting in that contest and finished with 17 assists. He hasn’t reached that level of assists since Jan. 5 against the San Antonio Spurs, when he logged 23 dimes, so he’ll surely love seeing Memphis’ defense again tonight.

Memphis will be yet another playoff contender that the Celtics will need to go through during their push for the postseason. Boston showed during the second half of Monday’s win that they’re still capable of dominating borderline playoff teams, and if it plays that way again tonight it should be able to grab another victory over the Grizzlies in a much easier fashion than it did the first time around.

It’s Pierce Time

Pierce scored 28 points against the Grizzlies in the first meeting between these two teams, and that’s when Memphis had their star small forward, Gay, in the lineup. He won’t be on the court tonight, and that means Pierce should be able to do whatever he wants out there on the parquet.

Memphis did bring in Shane Battier at the trade deadline, and he has been known as one of the league’s premier defenders at the small forward position, but he has not held onto the starting role while Gay has been out. The Grizzlies have instead choen to start Sam Young, a 6-foot-6 tweener who is in his second season out of Pittsburgh.

Young certainly has the athleticism to compete, or else he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup, but Pierce should be able to own this matchup tonight. The Captain seemingly found his stroke in the second half of Boston’s win Monday night, and he should continue that roll en route to a solid scoring performance tonight.

All Around Effort?

Boston has been forced to come back from 15-point deficits in each of its last two victories, and the reason is because half of the team has played well and half of it hasn’t.

During Saturday’s win over the Hornets, Ray Allen was the only starter to finish with a positive plus/minus rating, at plus-12, as he was on the court with the reserves in the second half to help the C’s make a run. Boston’s three bench players who played in that game each finished with a positive plus/minus rating of at least plus-seven.

The opposite was the case on Monday, as the Celtics’ starting group dominated the game but the bench couldn’t come through. Boston’s core four and Glen Davis combined to dominate the second half and all of the players in that group finished with at least a plus-13 rating. Meanwhile, the other four reserves who played in that game outside of Davis all finished in the negative, and so did starting center Nenad Krstic.

The Celtics have been able to win the past two games with half of their team playing well, but that won’t fly in the playoffs. Boston needs to get the entire roster on the same page and playing well as soon as possible, and it would be great if the team could take that step tonight.

Give KG His Touches

The main reason Boston was able to knock off the Knicks on Monday was because Garnett played like an absolute maniac. He notched game highs of 24 points, 11 rebounds and four steals and led the team in the energy and hustle department as well. If the C’s know what’s good for them, they’ll ride the KG wave as long as they can, particularly tonight against Randolph.

Randolph is undoubtedly a great scorer and rebounder, but his defense is suspect at best. Garnett will have a size advantage over him in the post and should be able to dominate the matchup at the offensive end. He shot 8-of-15 against Randolph back in November, but you can bet that this will be one of those games in which Rivers insists that KG finishes the game with at least 20 shot attempts.