Game Preview: Pistons at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics continue to chase the Bulls for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and to keep pace they’ll have to knock off the team Chicago just ousted Friday night.

After a four-game trip that the Celtics (53-23) completed with a 2-2 record, they’ll return to the TD Garden at 6 p.m. Sunday evening to host the Detroit Pistons (26-49). Detroit has lost five of its last six games overall, including a 101-96 defeat at the hands of the Bulls on Friday night.

It can’t be enjoyable to be a member of the Pistons right now with the combination of losses and such a difficult schedule. Detroit is fresh off of that defeat to the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls two nights ago, and now they’re coming to the Garden, where the C’s have lost only eight games this season, to take on a Celtics team that seems to be turning itself back in the right direction.

Boston dominated the second half of its contest against the league-leading Spurs on Thursday and eventually won that game by 10 points. Then it came out and played fantastic basketball in the first half of Friday night’s game in Atlanta and eventually took a 12-point lead over the Hawks in the early stages of the third quarter. But as has been the case nearly all season long, the Celtics ran out of gas down the stretch in the second night of a back-to-back and wound up suffering a deflating 88-83 loss.

Still, though, there were a lot of positives to take from the conclusion of the Celtics’ four-game road trip. They showed that on fresh legs, which they will have throughout the playoffs seeing as there are no back-to-backs, they can compete at a high level and knock off the best of teams. The Hawks experienced that for more than a half of basketball until Boston’s legs began to give out.

In addition to the competitive play while fresh, Boston’s defense has bounced back after a temporary lapse. Neither the Spurs nor the Hawks scored more than 97 points and the Celtics limited those teams to 43.3 percent and 36.7 percent shooting, respectively.

Despite those impressive defensive performances, the Celtics still weren’t able to sweep the final two games of their road trip and will be looking at a bounce back game against the Pistons on Sunday. A win for Boston would give the team a 3-1 record against Detroit this season, but based on how this series has played out through the first three games, we’re not sure what to expect.

We’ve seen nearly every outcome possible through three games between these two teams already this season, as evidenced by the following.

First, on Nov. 2, Boston blew Detroit out of the gym in a 109-86 victory at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce went off in that game, scoring 22 and 21 points apiece, respectively, while combining to shoot 17-of-25 from the floor.

Next, the Pistons handled the C’s, again in Detroit, by a score of 104-92 on Dec. 29. That game featured a throwback performance from Tracy McGrady, who led the Pistons with 21 points and eight assists. Boston couldn’t slow Detroit’s offense down without the help of Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, who both missed the game with injuries.

Finally the series moved to Boston on Jan. 19, where the Celtics were able to outlast the Pistons in an 86-82 victory. Detroit actually led that game until Ray Allen drilled a jumper from the right corner of the court with 25 seconds left to put Boston ahead 84-82. That jumper was originally ruled a 3-pointer, but later changed to a two upon video review. Rodney Stuckey went on to miss a possible game-tying jumper in the lane, and the C’s iced the game with free throws in the final seconds.

In order to keep pace for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics will need to grab a third win over the Pistons this season, be it a close game or a blowout. Detroit has already seen that Chicago is the real deal, and now, after a couple of mostly positive performances on the road, Boston can prove the same and keep pace in the East with a victory on Sunday.

Detroit Has No Star

There is no star player on the Pistons’ roster, and that’s just one of the reasons why they’ve won only 26 games this season. Detroit’s leading scorer, Rodney Stuckey, averages just 14.7 PPG, which is a number that three Celtics either match or surpass. Though Richard Hamilton has been playing very well since he started receiving substantial minutes, no single player dominates Detroit’s offense.

Just like every game of the season, Detroit’s only way of winning on Sunday against the Celtics is if it plays great team basketball. The Pistons have managed to do a decent job of that this season against Boston, and that’s why they have won one game and lost another by only four points.

Detroit has had five players score in double-figures in all three games against the Celtics, with a high of 21 points being scored by McGrady in his team’s Dec. 29 win. Balanced teams like this, such as Philadelphia, Charlotte, Denver and Houston, have given the Celtics fits this season. In order to avoid a loss to an underwhelming opponent, Boston will need to disrupt Detroit’s ball movement and force the Pistons into bad shots and turnovers.

Another Big Night for Rondo?

Rajon Rondo had one of his better games of the season Thursday night in San Antonio when he scored 22 points but also dished out 14 assists while committing zero turnovers. The only time he had surpassed that assist total this season without committing a turnover was a game against, guess who, the Detroit Pistons.

Detroit had no answers for Rondo during Boston’s fourth game of the season and he racked up 17 assists without turning the ball over a single time. In two games against the Pistons this season, Rondo has averaged 7.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG and 12.5 APG while turning the ball over just three total times. In both games that Rondo played in, the Celtics won.

That San Antonio game on Thursday was a clear indication that when Rondo sets his mind to it, no one can stay in front of him. Tony Parker is one of the quickest guards in the league, but he had no chance. In this game, Stuckey will be defending Rondo, and he’s known more for his size and strength than his speed. If Boston’s point guard has another big game against the Pistons, it’s a near-guarantee that the Celtics will be adding to their win total.

Get Back to 48 Minutes

Had the Celtics played their type of basketball for 48 minutes on Friday night, they’d be heading into this game riding a momentous two-game winning streak. They didn’t, though, and that puts them right back at square one in terms of building momentum toward the playoffs.

After Monday night’s loss in Indiana, Garnett touched on the fact that the C’s aren’t competing at a high level with their opponents from start to finish.

“We became a great team because we were known to do it for 48 minutes,” he said. “We seem to be missing that right now.”

They did ‘it’ on Thursday, and they sure did it for the first 30 or so minutes of Friday night’s game in Atlanta. Not coincidentally, the C’s built big leads while they played to their standard during those contests. If they can do that for the duration of Sunday’s game, there’s no doubt that good things will happen.