Game Preview: Celtics at Timberwolves

BOSTON – When the schedule came out and the Boston Celtics saw that they’d be taking on the Grizzlies, Bobcats and Timberwolves consecutively in late March, the last thing they probably thought is that they’d be attempting to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season by the end of that stretch.

The situation may not have been anticipated, but it currently exists. Boston (50-21) fell at home to Memphis and Charlotte last week, and they’ll take the court against the Timberwolves (17-56) at 7 p.m. tonight in Minnesota looking to avoid their first three-game skid of the season.

Considering the fact that the Timberwolves are the worst team, record wise, in the Western Conference, and that they’ll be missing their star power forward, Kevin Love, the Celtics should be able to accomplish that goal.

Love has been out of Minnesota’s lineup since he strained his left groin on March 20 and the outlook doesn’t look good for him regarding the remainder of the season.

“There’s an outside chance, I don’t know how great that chance is,” Minnesota head coach Kurt Rambis said of Love possibly missing the remainder of the season.

With that report being given just three days ago, it’s clear that the league-leader in double-doubles will not be on the court tonight. That’s great news for the Celtics, because Love went off on them back in January with 12 points and 24 rebounds. Boston still won the game, 96-93, but it was much more competitive than many anticipated thanks to Love’s extreme rebounding.

The Celtics also played that game without their starting power forward, Kevin Garnett. He was just days removed from straining his right calf in Detroit and did not return to the lineup until Jan. 17. Glen Davis started in place of him and scored 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting.

Garnett will avoid playing against Love tonight, but he sure won’t have an off night. Anthony Randolph has filled in as the starting power forward for Minnesota and has been playing out of his mind. In his two starts since Love went down, Randolph is averaging 27.5 PPG and 13.0 RPG. He’s also doing it in other areas, as he has racked up five assists, three steals and three blocks in those two starts as well.

Randolph is just another piece of this talented Timberwolves puzzle that just doesn’t seem to fit together well. The roster is littered with talent, but the team has won only 17 games this season. They have, however, been competitive, and the Celtics experienced that back in January.

Boston actually trailed that game 47-43 at halftime and was down 10 points in the third quarter. That’s when Paul Pierce delivered one of his clutch stretches of the season, scoring 15 of his game-high 23 points in the third period to bring the C’s back and actually give them a lead. His performance, coupled with 20 points from Ray Allen and 16 assists from Rajon Rondo, helped the Celtics squeak out of the Garden with a victory over the young Timberwolves.

To do so again tonight, this time in the Target Center in Minnesota, the Celtics are going to have to break out of their offensive funk. They have been reeling on offense and are fresh off of a 15-point scoring effort in the fourth quarter of their loss to the lowly Bobcats. We know that the C’s will still defend, and the Wolves shot just 41.7 percent against this defense back in January, but Boston has to score points to win games and we’ve learned that over the course of the last two weeks.

Every Celtic player on the floor will have an advantage at the offensive end of this game, so this may be the perfect opponent Boston could run into at this point. Rondo is much quicker than Luke Ridnour and Allen can run Wesley Mathews off of screens all day long (more on this later). At the forward positions, Michael Beasley cannot stop Pierce and Garnett has a huge size advantage over Randolph (more on this later, too). Nenad Krstic has been struggling of late, shooting only 7-of-20 in his last four games, but he’ll be taking on Darko Milicic, and he isn’t exactly known as a specialist in anything, including defense.

There’s no doubt that the C’s should be able to put a lot of points on the board tonight, but the question is, will they? Boston has a clear advantage over nearly every team it takes on but simply hasn’t been able to score of late. The hope is that they’ll be able to shake off those scoring issues tonight in Minnesota, avoid that three-game losing streak and begin this four-game road trip with a momentous victory.

First-Look Power Forwards

The Celtics played their first game of the season against the Timberwolves without Kevin Garnett, and that means Minnesota will get its first look this season at its former franchise player tonight.

Garnett has had a fantastic bounce back year in his second full season since offseason knee surgery in 2009. He will have a serious bulk and strength advantage down low tonight if he is defended by the Timberwolves’ new power forward, Anthony Randolph.

Randolph has put up superstar numbers for Minnesota since taking over the starting power forward spot on March 24. He was acquired from the New York Knicks on the day of the Carmelo Anthony trade. Anthony stands at a lanky 6-foot-11, but he weighs just 225 pounds. In comparison, Garnett weighs in at more than 250 pounds.

These two players saw each other for brief minutes during preseason action between the Celtics and Knicks, but that will be nothing like tonight’s game. Garnett will surely be amped up to take on his former team in his former arena, and Randolph will be attempt to continue his re-emergence as one of the most talented youngsters in the league.

Run Ray Run

With so much promising talent on its roster, you’d think Minnesota would have won more than 17 games heading into the final two and a half weeks of the season. That’s not the case, though, and one of the reasons is because they have started rookie Wesley Johnson, who’s more of a small forward, at shooting guard all season long.

Johnson, the fourth pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, is 6-foot-7 and has supreme length, but he isn’t the prototypical player you’d be wanting chasing an opposing shooting guard around. Ray Allen certainly qualifies as that, and that’s why Allen was able to have a big game against the Timberwolves in January.

Allen is at his best when he is coming off of screens and spotting up for jumpers. He’s the best in the NBA at moving off of the ball and getting open, and that means opposing shooting guards have to chase him around for the entire time he’s on the court. Allen went off for 20 points against Minnesota the first time around in less than 33 minutes of playing time. He tied Paul Pierce for the team-high in shot attempts with 16, and he shot 4-of-5 from downtown. Expect him to get a similar number of looks tonight after leaving Johnson in the dust.

Must-Win for Celtics

There aren’t many “must-win” games for Boston in the regular season, and this may actually be the first of 2010-11. The Celtics have lost six of their last 10 games and have fallen 2.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls for the top seed in the East. They are now just a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat for the second seed, and their confidence, believe it or not, is shaken.

Boston will come into tonight’s game and take on a talented Timberwolves squad that has lost six games in a row. Opponents have scored more than 100 points against the T’Wolves in every one of those games, with a high of 127 points coming from the Sacramento Kings one week ago.

That story above sounds eerily similar to what the Bobcats brought into the TD Garden on Friday night, but the C’s failed to kick Charlotte while it was down and wound up losing that game in front of a shocked crowd. Boston cannot afford to do that again tonight – this is a must-win.