Game Preview: Trail Blazers at Celtics
BOSTON – Rajon Rondo will begin his two-game suspension tonight when the Boston Celtics (8-7) host the Portland Trail Blazers (6-9) at 7:30 p.m.
The NBA on Thursday suspended Rondo for his role in Wednesday night’s shoving match with the Brooklyn Nets. The league released the news at about 6 p.m. Thursday night, giving Doc Rivers and the Celtics about a day to prepare for life without their All-Star point guard.
One would think that this is a perfect game for the C’s to be missing their point guard, seeing as they’re taking on a struggling Trail Blazers team that starts a rookie at point guard. However, Portland is loaded with talent and that rookie, Damian Lillard, is well on his way toward winning the Rookie of the Year award.
Lillard is 12th in the NBA in scoring with 19.1 points per game and he’s also dishing out a team-high 6.1 assists per game. He accounts for about 20 percent of Portland’s nightly scoring output and 32 percent of its assists. Lillard may be from a mid-major college in Weber State, but he is a big-time player in the pros.
Boston will need to slow him down without the services of Rondo. That could be a difficult task considering that there is no true backup point guard on the Celtics’ roster.
Leandro Barbosa has served as Boston’s primary backup point guard this season. The C’s have been happy with his performance, but Barbosa’s role is to be a scorer off of the bench, not a facilitator. Jason Terry is slotted into a similar role, and Courtney Lee is much more of a shooting guard than a point guard.
“Leandro is more of a scoring guard, but listen,” Rivers said on Thursday, “we’re going to use all of them if Rondo doesn’t play.”
The good news at the other end of the floor is that Lee is already considered to be a very good defender and Barbosa has surprised Boston with his defensive abilities.
“What we have found since getting him, he’s a heck of a defensive player,” Rivers said of Barbosa after Boston’s win over the Thunder on Nov. 23. “He has the ability to put pressure on the ball.”
Boston will need Barbosa to showcase those skills tonight against Lillard. The rest of the Celtics will need to be plugged in as well, as the Blazers throw several other very good players on the floor.
LaMarcus Aldridge is Portland’s best player and is averaging a team-high 20.4 PPG, which ranks seventh in the NBA. Alongside Aldridge in the frontcourt is J.J. Hickson, who is buying into the role head coach Terry Stotts has given him. Hickson has turned himself into one of the game’s best rebounders with an average of 11.1 boards per game this season and is the only player on Portland’s roster who is averaging a double-double.
The Blazers also have two talented wing players in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Those players combine to score nearly 35 points a night and have hit 75 3s this season, which is just one less than Boston’s entire team has accounted for.
The Celtics would have had their hands full against the Blazers even if Rondo were available tonight. The level of difficulty will only rise without him on the floor.
Paul Pierce usually turns himself into a “point-forward” when Rondo is not playing. Tonight, he needs to be himself. He needs to be a scorer.
Without Rondo, the Celtics will naturally slip when it comes to sharing the basketball. The offense will feature much more one-on-one basketball, and Pierce is by far the team’s best one-on-one scorer. He’ll have a size advantage against both Batum (weight) and Matthews (height). The Celtics should go to Pierce over and over, and over again, even though Batum is regarded as a top-flight defender.
Rivers earlier this week told his team that opponents are looking at the Celtics as a “soft” team. This has a lot to do with Boston’s lack of rebounding and physicality.
The team has a great opportunity to flip the switch in that department tonight. Portland isn’t exactly loaded with big, physical bodies. The Trail Blazers are 29th in the league in rebounding, just one spot ahead of Boston. Hickson, who stands at just 6-foot-9, grabs his all of rebounds off of effort and athleticism rather than size.
Boston can physically outplay this Portland team, but the question is, will they?
The Celtics will definitely be without Rondo due to his suspension, but they may be without a couple of other key players, too. Chris Wilcox has been sick for the past few days and did not participate in Thursday’s practice. Jeff Green, who suffered a right knee sprain Wednesday night, did not practice on Thursday either. As a result, the Celtics recalled Kris Joseph from the Maine Red Claws.
If Boston is forced to play without Rondo, Wilcox and Green, that means that the C’s will be missing three of their top rotational players. Wilcox is the backup center and Green is the backup small forward. Rivers may need to dip into his bag of tricks to navigate his way through a game with limited resources.