Game Preview: Bobcats at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (29-9) have grown accustomed to embarrassing the Charlotte Bobcats (15-21) over the past two seasons. The Celtics have limited the Bobcats to 62 points or less on two occasions during that time span, and they’ve won those games by an average of 32.0 PPG.

One of those contests was a 93-62 victory for Boston in Charlotte on Dec. 11. While competition may have been missing during that game, it will likely return when these two teams meet at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Boston is in the midst of its worst stretch of the season and has won only six of its last 10 games overall. That lag may be a bit overblown as far as media is concerned, because the C’s have gone 5-2 since the calendar turned over to 2011.

Meanwhile, Charlotte enters tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak, which accounts for more than one-quarter of their wins this season. Although only one of those wins came against a winning team, the Chicago Bulls, the Bobcats are clearly playing much better basketball. Doc Rivers is taking notice of such play, and he attributes it to one Bobcat who has stepped up his game.

“They’re playing well, they really are,” Rivers said of the Bobcats after Thursday’s practice. “I think (D.J.) Augustin is playing really well [lately]. I think it’s over his last six or seven games he’s shooting 47.9 (percent) from the 3, from 49 (percent) from the field, maybe even higher. That’s a pretty good percentage.”

With Augustin and his teammates playing inspired basketball of late, the assumption is that a blowout is unlikely and that the Bobcats will manage to score an average amount of points tonight. Rivers, however, isn’t ruling out the chance of another emphatic win.

“Well we hope it can happen, but you don’t expect it,” said Rivers of another dominant performance against Charlotte. “You go into the game doing your game plan and whatever happens, happens. But yeah, it would be nice if it could continue.”

If Boston is able to make it continue, such a loss will be the first of its kind under a new regime in Charlotte. Michael Jordan, the team’s majority owner, made a tough call in December when he relieved Larry Brown of his head coaching duties. Paul Silas stepped into his place as the interim coach on Dec. 22, and the Bobcats have won six of their eight games since.

Silas, who previously coached the Hornets while that franchise was located in Charlotte, brings a much different coaching style to the table than Brown. Brown has been known to be a defense-first coach who likes his team to play in the half court. He was also known to be very hard on his point guards. Silas, however, is more apt to have his teams play in the open court, and that has allowed players like Augustin and Tyrus Thomas to flourish of late.

Charlotte has scored at least 96 points in every game they have played under Silas, and they’ve scored more than 100 in four of those eight contests. In contrast, the Bobcats average only 93.3 PPG this season, which gives you an idea of the pace they played at while under Brown for the majority of their games.

The Celtics will have a difficult task at hand tonight against the new and refreshed Bobcats. Rivers knows that Charlotte is running more these days, and he also knows that his team’s transition defense hasn’t been up to par in its recent games. He has commented on slippage in that area for a good two weeks now, and the hope is that the C’s will clean that up now that they have gotten two practices under their belt this week.

Practice can only do so much, though. Boston is missing the most important piece to its defense, Kevin Garnett, and that has resulted in a lack of communication at that end of the floor.

“What we miss with Kevin is his voice,” said Rivers before Wednesday’s win over the Kings. “Kevin is the best talker on defense in the NBA, maybe in the history of the NBA. It doesn’t matter what you do – we were watching our transition defense the last two games and how awful we were, and it was clear what was missing – that guy running down the middle of the floor pointing at everyone, ‘Get over there, go over there, here comes…’ You just don’t have a guy like that. You can’t replace that.”

Many believe tonight’s game will be Boston’s last without their communicative leader, as Garnett may return to the lineup for Monday night’s game against the Orlando Magic. This game will be a test without him, because this Bobcats team isn’t the one Boston has seen over the past two seasons. This Charlotte squad will run and is ready to compete. Boston’s two practices in a three-day span may be just what it needed to refocus in time for this showdown with a Bobcats team that is riding high.

Slow Down Charlotte’s Offense

The Celtics’ defense hasn’t had any problems slowing Charlotte down over the past few years, but doing so will be a much more difficult task tonight. The Bobcats are scoring more points under Silas because he has loosened up the reins on the offense.

Two players who have benefited from a looser offensive game plan are Augustin and Thomas.

As Rivers noted on Thursday, Augustin has been shooting lights out since Silas took over. He is averaging 19.9 PPG over his last eight games, which coincide with Silas taking over, and has dished out 7.1 APG as well. The Celtics must be mindful of his knack for taking 3-pointers, because he has attempted nearly six per game under Silas.

Thomas has also benefited from the new offense and seems to be playing with a lot less pressure on his shoulders. He has played in six of Charlotte’s eight games since Silas took over and scored at least 14 points in three of them. The big point, however, is that he is taking more shots. Silas has given Thomas the green light and that has resulted in at least 13 shot attempts in four of those six games. In his 25 games this season under Brown’s tutelage, he attempted that many shots only three times, total.

Take Advantage of the Venue

Boston is tied with Chicago for the second-best home record in the NBA, at 17-3, and has blown out two of its last three opponents in the Garden. Charlotte, meanwhile, has stumbled to a terrible 4-12 record on the road this season.

The Bobcats have been blessed with a home-friendly schedule since Silas began roaming their sidelines. Seven of the eight games he has coached have been at home. Charlotte may be used to playing under Silas by now, but they surely aren’t used to playing under him on the road.

The Garden is never a good place for an opponent to begin learning how to handle road games, particularly on a Friday night. Boston will have a great advantage tonight in playing in front of its home crowd, and it needs to use that crowd as fuel throughout the game.

Keep the Pace Offensively

The two key issues Boston has experienced in its struggles of late have been transition defense and limited ball movement. One of the key reasons for the latter is the fact that the C’s haven’t begun their offense quickly enough.

“We want to start our offense at 18 (seconds on the shot clock), not at 10,” said Rivers at Thursday’s practice. “And then the last two games it was down to the 12 (or) 10 number on our first pass. It’s tough to score in a 10-second offense.”

It’s particularly tough to score in a 10-second offense in Boston’s system. The Celtics run numerous plays based off of movement, misdirection, staggered screens and extra passes. Those things cannot be executed correctly when rushed. So keep your eyes on Rajon Rondo’s ability to get the ball up court in a hurry tonight and, in turn, force his team into its offensive sets early in the shot clock.