Game Preview: Celtics at Wizards

BOSTON – Monday night will feel a lot like déjà vu for the Boston Celtics.

For the second time in just a five-day span, the Celtics (55-25) will take on the Washington Wizards (22-58) in the second night of a back-to-back, just one night after suffering an alarming loss to one of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams. Boston will be looking for a similar result to Friday’s win over Washington when the two teams tip off at 7 p.m. tonight at the Verizon Center.

Thursday night was a difficult one for the Celtics, as they were outplayed from start to finish by the Bulls in Chicago and fell by a score of 97-81. That ugly game, in which the Celtics shot just 38.4 percent, fueled the team to bounce back the next night at home against the Wizards. Boston’s starters came out and dominated Washington and led the C’s to a 104-88 victory.

That win was huge for Boston for several reasons. First, it bucked their trend of falling in the second night of a back-to-back, which is a situation the Celtics hold just an 8-10 record in this season. Secondly, it helped Boston stay in contention for the second seed in the East, which would provide home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs.

After falling to the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon, Boston is in the same situation it was in while entering Friday’s game. The only difference is that tonight’s game will take place in the Verizon Center, rather than the TD Garden. The Celtics now trail the Heat by one game in the standings, and that means they’ll likely have to grab another important win over the Wizards tonight in order to keep their hopes of landing the second seed alive.

Considering the way the Celtics’ starters dominated the Wizards on Friday night, duplicating that important victory may not be too difficult for Boston. All five of the Celtics’ starters finished Friday night’s game with a plus/minus of at least plus-20, with Kevin Garnett’s plus-26 leading the way. He finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds for his 28th double-double of the season.

While Garnett led the way in the plus/minus category, Paul Pierce took over in the areas of scoring and rebounding . He led the team in both categories, as he racked up 22 points and 12 rebounds in his 40 minutes of action. Pierce didn’t have a great shooting night, as he made just five of his 14 field goal attempts, but he put pressure on Washington’s defense and finished the night shooting 12-of-13 from the free-throw line.

All five of Boston’s starters finished with at least 13 points, and much of that was thanks to Rajon Rondo’s aggressiveness. He tuned the Wizards up for 20 points and 14 assists, which tied his highest assist total since Feb. 4. Rondo’s production fell back off against the Heat on Sunday and he finished with just seven points and five assists. The C’s will certainly need him to return to his stellar play if they hope to win another bounce-back game tonight.

On Washington’s end of the spectrum, Friday’s game may not have felt as bad as the score would indicate. The Wizards were competitive for most of the game, thanks to the failures of Boston’s bench, and they got big performances from four of their starters. Andray Blatche (20 points, 10 rebounds) and JaVale McGee (15 points, 10 rebounds) both finished with double-doubles, while rookie point guard John Wall racked up 20 points, seven assists and five steals. Jordan Crawford also dropped in 19 points for Washington.

The story of this game, however, was that when Boston’s starters were on the floor, they continued to stretch the team’s lead. Their defense was tremendous and helped to force Washington into 21 total turnovers, which led to 23 points for the C’s.

Seeing as the playoffs are rapidly approaching, there’s no guarantee that Boston’s starters will have an opportunity to duplicate their efforts of Friday night. Doc Rivers may opt to begin to rest his core players in order to gear up for the playoffs, but he could also choose to go all-in on a continued push for that second seed. No matter what he may choose, one thing is certain: Boston will enter tonight’s game with a similar feeling to Friday’s contest, and it would love to end it in a similar fashion as well.

Big Minutes for Starters?

The Celtics have played three playoff teams in their last four games, and all of those contests have held significant meaning. As a result, Rivers relied heavily on his starters even when the C’s blew out two teams during that four-game stretch. Boston’s four core starters, which discounts the center position, have all played at least 30 minutes in each of the past four games.

Rivers is now in a peculiar position heading into the final two games of the regular season. His team isn’t playing great basketball, but that No. 2 seed is still available if the Heat lose one of their remaining two games. Does Rivers continue to push his starters and keep the team’s hopes of that higher seed alive, or does he begin to rest his starters and practice them hard in order to clean up the team’s deficiencies before the playoffs? We’ll get a solid grasp on his outlook tonight by seeing the amount of minutes Rivers plays his starters.

Boston Needs Bench Production

Three players sit on Boston’s bench who could start on the majority of NBA teams. Glen Davis, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic have all started in their careers, and all of them have done very well in those roles. However, their production coming off of Boston’s bench has been nearly nonexistent of late.

Davis, who has been Boston’s top frontcourt reserve for two years now, has broken double-figures in scoring only one time in his last six contests. Green has scored 10-plus points only once in his last 10 games and Krstic has done so only once in his last five games. That trio is incredibly important to Boston’s success, and when it is not producing the Celtics are going to struggle.

All in all, the Celtics have gotten only 17 points and 12 points from their bench in their last two games, respectively. If Rivers wants to give his starters any form of rest in these final two games while also grabbing wins, he’s going to need his important reserves to step up and give the team solid minutes off of the bench.

Setting Screens

One area of Boston’s struggles that has flown under the radar has been the team’s deteriorating ability to set great screens. There’s a reason why Ray Allen’s scoring and shot attempts have dropped off dramatically over the past two months. Finally, for the first time, someone acknowledged that issue publicly after Sunday’s loss in Miami.

“We gotta set picks,” said Rivers. “I think our pick-setting is horrendous right now. We have one pick-setter on the team and that’s Kevin (Garnett).”

With that issue finally being stated publicly, we now know that the C’s have brought that to the front of the table. Boston has plenty of big bodies to set those screens, and to turn things around they’ll have to use much better technique in doing so. If you see a big night from some of the Celtics’ perimeter players, you’ll know that the pick-setting was much better tonight than it has been recently.