Game Preview: Celtics at Bucks

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BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (9-7) will visit Milwaukee to take on the Bucks (7-7) at 8:30 p.m. tonight. This will be the third meeting between Boston and Milwaukee in less than a month’s time, with the first two games being split.

The C’s can walk into the BMO Harris Bradley Center knowing that they can grab a win, because they have already done so this season. They took down the Bucks 96-92 back on Nov. 10 thanks to 25 points and nine boards from Paul Pierce.

Pierce’s performance was quite a bounce back from these teams’ first meeting of the season. Boston hosted Milwaukee on Nov. 2 and lost 99-88, a game in which Pierce struggled mightily. Pierce scored just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting that night while his counterpart, Tobias Harris, scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting.

Boston might need another one of those bounce-back games from Pierce tonight in order to overtake the Bucks. The Captain was about the only Boston player who struggled during Friday’s blowout win over the Trail Blazers. He scored just 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting, but he did manage to contribute eight rebounds and five assists. Those all around numbers are great, but the C’s rely on Pierce for scoring, particularly when Rajon Rondo isn’t on the court.

That will be the case tonight, as Pierce and his teammates will play their second consecutive game without Rondo. Rondo will be serving the second game of his two-game suspension when the C’s take the court tonight.

Missing Rondo is always a detriment for the C’s, but it is particularly daunting for this game. Milwaukee has one of the most electric guard combos in the league with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Those two combined for 36 points Friday night when Milwaukee fell to Minnesota, 96-85. The Bucks didn’t win that game, but it was just another example of how Jennings and Ellis can and will score the basketball at a high rate.

The Celtics have been fortunate enough to avoid hot nights by Jennings and Ellis this season. Ellis has scored 23.0 points per game against the C’s this season, but he has scored those points on just 38.6 percent shooting. Jennings, meanwhile, has scored just 12.5 PPG on 35.7 percent shooting.

If similar numbers are built up tonight, it’s a near guarantee that Boston will come out on top. The C’s know that they can win in this building, and they know that they have to slow down Jennings and Ellis to do it again.

Strong Defense

The Celtics responded to Doc Rivers’ “soft” comment from Wednesday night with a very physical performance on Friday. They displayed an urgency to rebounded the basketball and dominate on defense.

Rebounding is great, but you can’t grab boards if the other team doesn’t miss shots. The C’s made Portland miss a lot while playing one of their best defensive games of the season. Portland shot just 34.8 percent from the floor and 20 percent from long range.

Boston hasn’t displayed that type of defensive tenacity on a consistent basis this season. Rivers is trying to bring that consistency out of his guys as we speak. Let’s assume that the Bucks are hoping Boston leaves its shutdown defense in the locker room tonight.

Team Assists

The Celtics have relied heavily on Rondo to carry their assist load against the Bucks this season. Rondo accounted for half of the team’s 22 assists in the first meeting and 11 of the team’s 20 assists in the second meeting.

As we all know by now, Rondo won’t be available for tonight’s game. The Celtics overcame his absence and were still able to rack up 20 assists Friday night against the Trail Blazers. Their offense operated very smoothly, shooting 49.3 percent from the field, and three players dished out at least four assists. Duplicating that type of team effort tonight would be very helpful against the Bucks.

Which Jennings Shows Up?

There is the good Brandon Jennings, and there is the bad Brandon Jennings. The good one helps the Bucks win, and the bad one helps them lose.

Jennings’ splits in wins and losses this season are drastically different. He’s averaging 17.6 points and 8.3 assists during Milwaukee’s seven wins. He has shot 48.5 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point range in those games. When Milwaukee loses, Jennings’ numbers drop to 15.9 PPG and 5.3 APG to go along with woeful shooting percentages of 35.5 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from long range.

Rondo may not be playing, but the Celtics are still hoping that the bad Jennings is.