Game Preview: Nuggets at Celtics

BOSTON – One thing the Boston Celtics (16-4) won’t be looking to do during tonight’s 7 p.m. matchup with the Denver Nuggets (13-7) is play follow the leader.

Boston will enter tonight’s contest riding a seven-game winning streak and will be looking to avoid the lead Denver set Tuesday night in Charlotte. The Nuggets headed into last night’s matchup with the Bobcats on their own seven-game streak, but that came to a screeching halt on a night George Karl thought would be full of memories.

The Bobcats outplayed Denver for nearly the entire contest before the Nuggets made a hard push down the stretch to make it a game. Denver rallied from an eight-point deficit with 90 seconds left and had a chance to tie it at the buzzer, but Chauncey Billups’ jumper from the corner was awry.

The wasted comeback resulted in a loss that was draining for the Nuggets on numerous levels. It ceased their season-long win streak, which got them back in the hunt in the Western Conference, but it also delayed the celebration of Karl’s 1,000th career win as an NBA head coach.

Now just one night later, the C’s will be looking to delay that celebration again and keep their own streak alive. If Boston’s streak ends, Karl will gain entry into an esteemed club of coaches that currently has only six members.

The issue that looms for the Celtics is that they literally have no idea what their roster will look like tonight. Seven players did not participate in Tuesday’s practice for various reasons, and three of those players (Kendrick Perkins, Delonte West and Jermaine O’Neal) are definitive no’s for tonight’s game. The other four (Rajon Rondo, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis and Shaquille O’Neal) may be possibilities, but Robinson is the only probability.

“I don’t know, maybe all of them,” Doc Rivers said Tuesday of the outlook for that group. “I think Nate will be back; Nate had a family thing. Rondo is iffy. Shaq is iffy. So we’ll see. Baby’s sick and depends on the severity of that. I don’t know.”

As you can see, it doesn’t sound promising for the Celtics in terms of what the roster could look like tonight, but they will have to fight through it no matter who is available. That’s exactly what they did on the practice court on Tuesday, as they essentially ran through sets with makeshift lineups.

“We had one lineup [Tuesday] when the guys were laughing, and I said, ‘Hey guys, this may be our lineup,’ ” Rivers remarked. “So we had to work on it [Tuesday], so it just is what it is.”

Davis was not at today’s morning shootaround, but Rondo, Robinson and Shaq did walk through the morning session, though their availability for tonight’s game is still not a certainty.

If Boston is forced to use those improvised lineups from Tuesday’s practice, which featured four different players testing their point guard skills and Luke Harangody seeing time at center, it will certainly be a difficult task for Boston to continue this winning streak. It will be hard to begin with, as Denver is playing very good basketball and is loaded with offensive firepower.

Either way, the Celtics know they have one job to do, and that’s to do whatever it can to win ballgames until the team is fully healthy.

As Rivers put it, “We’re just going to try to win as many games as we can while we go through this crisis.”

Force Tough Shots from Melo

There’s no denying Carmelo Anthony’s offensive talents. The man is one of the premier scorers in the league and nearly impossible to stop. Rivers described him as a “professional scorer,” and noted that there aren’t a lot of those in the NBA right now.

That fact sets in the realization that the C’s are unlikely to shut Anthony down tonight. The goal will simply be to force him into difficult shots and not allow him to pile up easy points.

“He wants the inbetween game,” Rivers said of Anthony. “So we would love to force him to drive, but usually Melo is going to get what Melo wants because of his size. I mean, it’s rare that somebody bothers him enough where he can’t get what he wants.”

Paul Pierce is the man who will try to limit Melo from getting what Melo wants. In other words, he’ll have to increase the level of difficulty of the shots Anthony attempts and hope that it pays off.

Team Defense Will Be Key

This Nuggets squad isn’t known for its defense. It’s known for its scoring.

Denver heads into tonight’s game ranked fifth in the league in scoring and features six players averaging at least 11.1 PPG. Its scoring depth may be unparalleled in the league, and as Rivers noted on Tuesday, it’s not as if these Nuggets players are just making jumpers. They create offense.

“They’re so versatile,” Rivers said. “They put guys in different spots, they go small, they go big, they have the Ty Lawson-Chauncey Billups lineup, they got the Carmelo at the 4 lineup. I mean, all of them are scorers, and they’re not only just catch-and-shoot scorers. They have four, five guys that can create offense off the dribble. You don’t see a lot of teams built that way, and that’s what makes it so difficult.”

On the flip side, the Celtics have an entire roster capable of executing team defense, and that’s what makes it so difficult to score against them. That team defense will need to be on display tonight in order to slow Denver down.

KG, C’s Must Attack Glass

This could be a key category in every game played in the NBA, but it’s particularly important for the Celtics tonight. Although they’ll be missing Davis and could be playing without Shaq – which would leave the team with only Kevin Garnett, Semih Erden and Harangody as natural power forwards and centers – Boston has an opportunity to win the battle on the boards tonight.

Of the 15 teams in the NBA that currently have a winning record, Denver is the fourth-worst in terms of rebounding percentage. The Nuggets grab only 49.1 percent of available rebounds, and they also allow opponents to grab the fourth-most rebounds per game in the league, at 43.2 a night.

Garnett has been a monster on the boards of late, having grabbed 31 total rebounds over his past two games. If he can maintain a similar pace tonight and get some help from his fellow bigs, it will bode well for Boston’s chances.