Game Preview: Celtics at Pacers

BOSTON – We’ve heard it all season long: The Boston Celtics struggle in the second night of back-to-backs. The notion is true, seeing as the C’s are just 7-8 in that situation thus far this season, but they can turn that record into a positive this week.

Boston is set to play in two back-to-backs this week, and if the team wins both they will be above .500 in such games for the season. The first tail-end of those back-to-backs will take place at 7 p.m. tonight in Indiana when the Celtics (51-21) take on the Pacers (30-42).

The season didn’t begin on a negative note in Boston concerning back-to-backs. The Celtics started out the season with a 5-2 record in those games, but since then they have gone just 2-6. They should have some extra energy tonight to reverse that trend back into the positive due to two reasons.

First, the C’s are coming off of a big win in Minnesota on Sunday night that got the team back on track and allowed them to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. Without Rajon Rondo, who missed the game with an injured right pinkie, Boston surged out of the gates and had its most efficient offensive quarter in recent memory by scoring 32 points. That offensive rhythm didn’t continue for the remainder of the night, but it was surely a positive sign to see it reappear. And let’s not forget, the Celts did pull out the win.

The second reason Boston might have some extra energy tonight is because one of their long-lost teammates will be joining them on the bench. Jermaine O’Neal, who has not played since Jan. 10 and underwent surgery on his left knee on Feb. 4, is scheduled to rejoin the team tonight for the first time in weeks. He has been rehabbing in Chicago and has not spent much time with the team since its restructuring around the trade deadline.

Although O’Neal will not be playing in the game, it will surely give the team an extra boost of energy to see one of their final two pieces of the puzzle, along with Shaquille O’Neal, in person and ready to get back on the train. J.O. is expected to practice with the team on Wednesday and possibly make his return to the lineup on Thursday night in San Antonio.

While that’s great news on the injury front, things didn’t sound so clear-cut regarding Rondo’s injury. He has aggravated the injury the last two times he took part in basketball activities – during Friday’s loss to Charlotte and then during Saturday’s practice – and Doc Rivers did not say when he will reinsert his point guard into the lineup.

“Just a finger, it’s nothing bad,” said Rivers before Sunday’s game. “Obviously if it were a playoff game, he’d be playing.”

In fact, the goal of resting Rondo is likely to have him healthy for those playoff games, and that makes us assume that he is unlikely to play again tonight in Indiana. There isn’t much of a positive to take out of one night off, so sitting Rondo out for these two games before the C’s return to action on Thursday would give him four days off to heal up.

If he doesn’t play tonight, that means Delonte West will get his second straight start at point guard. He played well for the C’s last night and finished with eight points, three rebounds, five assists and two steals in 31 minutes of action. West also contributed several key plays, highlighted by a one-handed offensive rebound in the final 30 seconds that helped seal the win.

West would be facing off at point guard against Darren Collison, who nearly recorded a double-double with 10 points and nine assists during Boston’s 92-80 victory over Indiana on March 16. Collison is a speedy guard who likes to get to the basket, so West’s defense will certainly need to be on point if he does get the start.

Though Collison had a solid game in the Garden less than two weeks ago, the Celtics dominated his Pacers. The final 12-point margin was not indicative of the entire game, as Indiana shot just 37.5 percent from the field and trailed by as many as 18 points. The Celtics held a double-digit lead for nearly the entire second half of that game.

Paul Pierce was the key cog for Boston in that win, as he scored 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field. He also limited Danny Granger, Indiana’s leading scorer, to just 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting. In addition to Pierce’s exploits at small forward, Jeff Green, Pierce’s backup, also notched his best game in a Celtics uniform with 19 points off the bench.

So while the Celtics have struggled in the second night of back-to-backs of late, there’s plenty to look forward to tonight. Boston heads into this game on a high note, they’re going to have Jermaine O’Neal in their presence and they have had very recent success against tonight’s opponent. That’s a lot of positives, and certainly enough to play a factor in turning the tide on Boston’s recent slump in back-to-backs.

Offensive Outburst

The offense hasn’t exactly been humming for the Celtics, but we saw a taste of what it can do during last night’s first quarter. Boston scored 32 points in the frame on 59.1 percent shooting, and that left Rivers praising the offense for its performance in the opening 12 minutes.

“I think we had a terrific first quarter,” Rivers said after the game. “Ball was hopping, we kept the game simple.”

Keeping the ball “hopping” and keeping the “game simple” are things the Celtics have done for nearly the entire season. When they move the ball, they score points with ease. If Boston can do that tonight for an entire game, there’s no doubt that we could see an offensive outburst.

Bench Boost

We already told you about Green’s big game against the Pacers less than two weeks ago, but how did he rack up those 19 points? He did it from all over the floor by hitting six of his nine field goal attempts and attacking the rim to get to the free-throw line for eight attempts. That’s efficient scoring, and it’s proof that Green has an advantage against Indiana’s defenders.

Boston will be looking for a big night from him again tonight, but it would also like to see Glen Davis play well, too. Davis had a subpar game last night in Minnesota, as he scored just eight points on 4-of-15 shooting, and typically does not play poorly in two consecutive games. If he can bounce back with a solid performance tonight, along with Green playing well, the C’s will enjoy a huge boost from the bench that should will them to a victory.

Let It All Hang Out

Yes, tonight is the second night of a back-to-back and Boston’s starters played big minutes last night, but the C’s can look forward to two days off on Tuesday and Wednesday. They have not experienced back-to-back days without a game in three weeks.

With that being said, the Celtics have no excuse to prevent them back from leaving it all on the floor tonight. Energy, hustle and winning the 50-50 battle are what Rivers and his coaching staff will be expecting.