Game Preview: Celtics at Spurs

BOSTON – After having two consecutive days without a game for the first time in more than three weeks, the Boston Celtics (51-22) will return to action at 8 p.m. tonight when they take on the Western Conference-leading Spurs (57-17) in San Antonio, where the C's have won four consecutive contests.

While the Celtics did use those off days to recoup from a tumultuous schedule over the past few weeks, they also used it to reintegrate Jermaine O’Neal to the team and prepare for their final playoff push. Boston practiced for more than two hours on Wednesday, and O’Neal participated in the entire session.

O’Neal, who underwent left knee surgery on Feb. 4 and has been rehabbing in Chicago, rejoined the team on Monday night in Indiana, where the C’s fell to the Pacers 107-100. O’Neal did not dress for that game, and Doc Rivers had cautioned that he would not toss the big man back into the lineup quickly. However, after just one practice, O’Neal begged to differ.

“I’m going to play tomorrow,” O’Neal definitively said after Wednesday’s practice.

His coach seems to agree with that statement. His post-practice comments also indicate that O’Neal will, in fact, play in his first game tonight since Jan. 10.

“I think his lungs will be a good limitation for him,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “He’ll get tired quickly tomorrow.”

Tired or not, having O’Neal back in the lineup will be an enormous upgrade for this Celtics team. He, along with Shaquille O’Neal, are the final pieces to the puzzle that Danny Ainge expects to contribute to this team’s championship push.

Jermaine O’Neal is a refined offensive player who can rebound and has proven, especially in his games this season, that he can be a defensive force in blocking shots in the paint. He blocked at least two shots in six of his 17 games this season, with a season-high of four coming on Jan. 3 against the Timberwolves.

O’Neal has stated that he has lost 12 pounds during his rehab stint, and that dropped weight should only make him more effective in every facet of the game. He struggled to find his shot while playing with the injured left knee for the first half of the season, but now that he is healthy that shot should return quickly. It may not be there tonight, in his first game back, but it shouldn’t take long to resurface.

While Boston will be getting one of its key players back tonight, San Antonio will also get a boost to its lineup. The Spurs have been ravaged by injuries of late and lost to the Trail Blazers on Monday night without the services of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess. All four of those players are experiencing late-season nicks and knacks, but it sounds as if San Antonio will get at least half of that group back in the lineup tonight.

“Pretty sure Tony will be will be back for sure, it looks like,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after their practice on Wednesday. “Looks like the other guys will just be day-to-day.”

Moments later, he also confided that McDyess is a sure bet to play in tonight’s game, which means that Duncan (left ankle sprain) and Ginobili (thigh contusion) will be the game-time decisions today.

If the Spurs are forced to play without those two, they will arguably be taking the court tonight without their two best players. Ginobili is the team’s leading scorer and he dropped a team-high 24 points on the C’s during Boston’s 105-103 win on Jan. 5. He also led the Spurs in rebounding during that game with eight boards.

Though Duncan’s numbers are modest this season, at 13.3 PPG and 9.0 RPG, we all know what he brings to the table. He is still a great low post scorer and will rebound and defend around the basket. Duncan ranks sixth in the league in blocks per game this season with an average of 1.93.

Unlike the Jan. 5 contest, in which Kevin Garnett was the only regular player for either team to not play, there will likely be some key absences tonight. With Shaq still on the mend for Boston and Duncan and Ginobili being listed as day-to-day, we might not see each team’s full arsenal tonight, but we will see two of the top teams in the league going head-to-head on national television.

Integrating J.O.

It will be a breath of fresh air so see Jermaine O’Neal back on the floor for the Celtics tonight, but realistic expectations must be given to him. He hasn’t played in an NBA game in nearly three months and has practiced with his teammates only once since his Feb. 4 surgery. This begs the question of how he will actually fit back into the team, which has been dramatically reshaped since he last played, from an execution standpoint.

O’Neal is a seasoned vet who went through Boston’s entire training camp this season, so he should have the offensive and defensive schemes still fresh in his brain. There will, though, be rust in executing those schemes tonight, particularly if he is on the court with any of the players Boston has acquired since the trade deadline.

Due to having O’Neal in only one practice since his return, Rivers may opt to play him alongside the teammates he knows best on the court, such as Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Von Wafer (who may also return from injury) and the starting guards. Needless to say, witnessing how the team integrates O’Neal tonight will be interesting to watch.

Point Guard Battle

Two All-Star point guards will be facing off tonight, and each of them had big games against each other back on Jan. 5. Parker had a solid night that included 18 points, five rebounds and five assists, but Rajon Rondo was in another stratosphere.

Rondo went off on the Spurs and recorded a monster triple-double of 12 points, 10 rebounds and 23 assists. He knifed up San Antonio’s well-known defense throughout the game and helped the Celtics shoot a whopping 61.3 percent in the contest. Rondo also was a factor on defense and finished the game with six steals.

There’s no doubt that Parker will have that game fresh in his mind to use as motivation, but Rondo might use that game as ammo, too. Boston’s point guard has been struggling with his assist total of late, but having strong evidence that he can break Parker down off of the dribble might give him a mental edge tonight.

Effective Offense

Boston has seen its offense slowly falling back into place over the course of its last two games. The C’s exploded for 32 points in the first quarter against the Timberwolves on Sunday before cooling down for the remainder of the game, and then they had two 30-plus scoring quarters against the Pacers on Monday. By scoring 100 points against Indiana, the C’s broke the century mark for the first time since all the way back on March 9.

Duplicating the offensive performance the Celtics had against San Antonio on Jan. 5 is nearly impossible, seeing as the C’s had one of their best shooting nights of the season, but returning to an effective offense certainly isn’t out of the question.

Boston hasn’t played four quarters of great offense in a long, long time, but their first game against the Spurs proves that they should have plenty of advantages tonight. Rondo dominated Parker off of the dribble, Allen shot a scorching 13-of-16 from the field and Davis was able to score both inside and outside. Throwing KG into the fold will only make the C’s more dangerous, and the hope is that such a combination of advantages will help Boston rediscover the magical offense it possessed for the first three-quarters of the season.