Game Preview: Celtics at Nets

BOSTON – The Celtics aren’t practicing much of late, but they’re sure earning the time off. Boston (15-4) extended its winning streak to a season-best six games Friday night, prompting Doc Rivers to give them Saturday off before the team’s 1 p.m. matchup with the Nets (6-14) on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

The Celtics are rolling through the NBA at full speed and are in position to hold onto first place in the Eastern Conference with a win on Sunday. Boston’s six straight wins have been laughers, too, as their average margin of victory over that span has been 12.2 PPG. But one game out of that bunch was much closer than anyone anticipated, and it was against these same New Jersey Nets.

Home court wasn’t a great advantage for the Celtics last season, but they’ve jumped out to a 9-1 start in the TD Garden thus far in 2010. That home success by Boston would lead you to believe that a young team like the Nets would crumble in a road game to the C’s, but that’s the opposite of what New Jersey did on Nov. 24.

With a new head coach in Avery Johnson, a new owner in Mikhail Prokhorov, and numerous free agent signings, this Nets team has developed a new sense of confidence. That confidence hasn’t translated into a whole lot of wins, but the Nets are certainly competing at a much higher level than a season ago.

New Jersey came into the Garden on Nov. 24 and completely outplayed the Celtics in the first half and held onto a lead for three quarters. The Nets took a 46-38 lead into halftime and opened that lead up to 10 early in the third quarter. At that point, it seemed like another embarrassing home loss to the Nets – the C’s lost to them at home last season – might have been in store for Boston. But that’s when the Celtics began to play their best ball of the game.

A balanced scoring attack in the third quarter helped Boston trim that deficit to only two points heading into the fourth quarter. Ray Allen and Shaquille O’Neal each scored six points in the third, while Paul Pierce scored five and two other Celtics added two. Boston had gotten back to its team-ball mentality, and it carried over into the fourth.

When the C’s decided to play their brand of basketball, New Jersey simply had no answers. Boston eventually pulled ahead by nine points in the fourth quarter and finished off the 89-83 victory at home. The C’s outscored the Nets 51-37 in the second half and limited New Jersey to 20 or less points in three of the four quarters overall.

That’s the type of play that has helped Boston to achieve this season-best winning streak, and if they can bring it out again on Sunday afternoon they should be able to up the streak to seven games. New Jersey has the talent and confidence to hang with the Celtics, as we saw in the first half of that first matchup, but if Boston sticks to its game plan and shares the ball, there is no reason why it shouldn’t triumph yet again.

Harris’ Availability

New Jersey has played its last two games without the services of former All-Star Devin Harris, and the team has lost both of those games. The Nets’ starting point guard suffered a left knee strain in the third quarter of his team’s loss to New York Tuesday night.

His backup, Jordan Farmar, has played very well in his place, averaging 22.0 PPG and 9.5 APG during his two starts. That’s great production, but the issue is that when Farmar is starting, it means the Nets lose a quality player coming off of the bench.

The Nets’ bench is short to begin with, so if Harris, who recorded 20 points, five rebounds and five assists against Boston on Nov. 24, can’t play, New Jersey is left with a much less capable group of reserves to compete with Boston’s.

Wake Up!

As you’ve already realized, this game isn’t your typical tip-off time between 7 and 8 p.m. This one is a Sunday matinee, and the Celtics don’t exactly love those early wake up calls.

It will be only the second time this season in which Boston has played a Sunday afternoon game, and the first resulted in what may be the team’s worst loss of the season. The Celtics took on the Raptors in Toronto on Nov. 21 – coincidentally the last time they lost a game – and wound up blowing a three-point lead, which they had gained via a dramatic comeback, in the final 21.3 seconds of the contest. It was a heart-wrenching loss, because the C’s had fought so hard to come back from their early-game struggles.

New Jersey is in the same category as the Raptors right now – a young team with talent that is trying to contend for the playoffs. The C’s came out with a lackadaisical mindset against the Raptors in their last matinee game and is resulted in a loss. They cannot afford to do the same this time around.

Wings Off the Bench

Boston’s depth of perimeter players was tested in the first game between these two teams when Delonte West went down with a broken wrist during the second quarter. In the blink of an eye, Von Wafer went from a player who likely wouldn’t see the court to someone the C’s would need to rely on for production. He answered the bell.

Wafer came into the game and played fantastic defense on New Jersey’s perimeter players, particularly Anthony Morrow, and that was huge for the Celtics. His play, combined with Marquis Daniels providing quality minutes, helped Boston overcome the sudden loss of West.

“Marquis (Daniels) gave us unbelievable minutes. I mean, unbelievable minutes,” Rivers said after that game. “And Von Wafer, you know, his stat line’s going to say basically nothing. (But) I thought his defensive energy was phenomenal, and it was great for Von in the locker room: everybody was grabbing him and giving him – because defense and Von Wafer can now go together. And that’s a great thing.”

The Celtics are likely going to need similar performances out of those two, as well as Nate Robinson, tonight, because the Nets are a perimeter-based team outside of Brook Lopez.