Game Preview: Wizards at Celtics

BOSTON – In order to avoid being swept in a back-to-back for the first time this season, the Boston Celtics will be forced to exorcise their demons in the second night of those sets when they take the court tonight.

The Celtics (54-24), who were dealt a crushing loss in Chicago on Thursday night, host the Washington Wizards (21-57) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden. Boston enters tonight’s game with a lowly 7-10 record in the tail end of back-to-backs this season.

Luckily for Boston, tonight’s opponent will be the worst team it has taken on in the second night of a back-to-back in months. Washington is currently in the lottery ping pong ball race and is tied with Toronto for the second-worst record in the NBA. The Wizards also own a putrid 3-36 record on the road this season.

To make things even worse on Washington, and even better for Boston, the Wizards are currently decimated by injuries. They will be playing without three of their best players, as Josh Howard (left knee tendinitis), Rashard Lewis (sore right knee) and Nick Young (bruised right knee) have all been ruled out by the team.

Still, though, Washington’s group of spot starters has performed at a high enough level to help the team win three of its last four games. All of those wins came against teams that will not be participating in the playoffs, but it’s clear that the Wizards’ ability to compete still exists.

Washington’s offense may actually be more potent with the current starting group it’s sending onto the floor every night. Andray Blatche has been on an absolute tear during April and has averaged 27.5 PPG and 14.0 RPG during the team’s four games this month. He took a career-high 32 shot attempts against the Cavaliers on April 1 en route to his career-high 36 points. Blatch isn’t the only bright spot, though.

The Wizards acquired shooting guard Jordan Crawford in the Mike Bibby-Kirk Hinrich trade at the deadline in February, and that move is currently paying huge dividends. Crawford is playing like an All-Star and has scored less than 16 points only twice since March 8. The rookie out of Xavier is averaging 21.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 4.4 APG over his last 16 contests. And don’t forget that the Wizards also have the league’s second-best shot blocker, JaVale McGee, and arguably the league’s second-best rookie, John Wall.

Needless to say, that young talent, coupled with Boston’s struggles in the second night of back-to-back games, will make tonight’s contest no walk in the park for the C’s. There is no doubt, however, that the Celtics should win this game.

The Celtics essentially lost all hope of grabbing the No. 1 seed in the East when the Bulls drastically outplayed them last night in Chicago. Now Boston will close out the regular season in a dog fight for the No. 2 seed in the conference, which would provide home court advantage in the second round against the Miami Heat or the eventual No. 6 seed.

Boston will likely have to defeat the Wizards in the second night of a back-to-back twice in the next three days if it hopes to snag that No. 2 seed. The C’s will take on the Wizards again on Monday night, this time in Washington, just a day after playing the Heat in Miami. The Celtics will also have to perform at a much higher level than they did last night against the Bulls, because that game was one of their worst of the season.

Derrick Rose carved up Rajon Rondo and the Celtics’ defense from start to finish, and Boston couldn’t put its shots through the hoop. The C’s shot just 38.4 percent from the field last night and missed several layups, many of which came off the fingertips of Rondo.

Rondo will be facing off against another speedy point guard in Wall tonight, but there will certainly be a drop off from what Rose showed last night. In his only game against the C’s this season, Wall finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. Most importantly, though, he beat the shot clock with a desperation 3-pointer that banked in from 27 feet against Boston on Jan. 22. That shot, which dropped through the net with less than a minute remaining, gave the Wizards a stunning victory over the visiting Celtics.

Boston won the only other meeting between these two teams, back on Nov. 17, by a score of 114-83. Paul Pierce scored a game-high 23 points in that game, Rajon Rondo dished out 13 assists and Delonte West came off of the bench to score 12 points. It was one of the more complete victories of the season for the Celtics, and they’d love to return to that form again tonight.

Playing for the second consecutive night will make that a difficult task, but if the Celtics want that No. 2 seed they’ll likely need a win tonight.

Fresh (Enough) Legs

The Celtics did play last night in Chicago, and they were fighting from behind for nearly the entire night, but there is no excuse for them to not come out with energy and passion against the Wizards tonight. Ray Allen was the only Celtic starter to play more than 32 minutes, as he logged 38, in the blowout loss.

Tonight’s game will be the second night of a back-to-back, but the majority of Boston’s core players played less than their average minutes last night. They should have the legs to compete at a high level tonight against Washington. If they don’t bring a fresh tank of gas onto the parquet, the C’s could wind up with a demoralizing loss.

Who Will Step Up?

Veteran teams like the Celtics have numerous players who can step up to the plate and deliver when the team needs them to. No one did that last night in Chicago, but the hope is that someone (or, better yet, more than one) will do so tonight.

Kevin Garnett tried to instill energy into his team with his double-double, but he shot just 3-of-9 from the field. Pierce tried willing his team to a victory, but he clanked seven of his 13 shots off of the rim and committed four turnovers. Ray Allen couldn’t get his shot going, and Rondo was completely taken out of the game by Rose.

Which of those players will step up tonight and lead his team to victory? That’s the big question, and we’ll just have to wait and see what the answer is.

Don’t Give the Young Guns Life

In the final week of the regular season, the only thing head coach Flip Saunders can preach to his team is to head into the summer on a high note. Having won three of their last four games, the Wizards are on their way to doing just that, and they certainly won’t want to stop that momentum tonight.

Washington is experiencing what may be the high point of its season right now having won three of its last four games. This young Wizards team will come into the Garden knowing that they have already beaten this Celtics team as well as the fact that the Celtics struggle in the second night of back-to-backs. In order for Boston to crush that confidence, it will have to come out of the gates and prove to the Wizards that this game is not being taken lightly. If the C’s fail to make that happen, Washington will become more and more dangerous as the game progresses.