Game Preview: Pacers at Celtics

BOSTON – The troops are on their way back for the Boston Celtics (21-4), but some of them may have to wait until after the team’s matchup with the Indiana Pacers (12-13) to make their comeback.

The C’s have been playing without the services of Shaquille O’Neal for more than a week and Jermaine O’Neal for more than a month. Although both practiced Saturday afternoon, only Shaq has the chance to be back in the lineup for Sunday’s 1 p.m. showdown with the Pacers in the TD Garden.

Shaq’s return to the lineup couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana has an emerging center, Roy Hibbert, on its roster who Doc Rivers believes may be the most improved player in the league. In addition to the Celts having to defend him, it’s possible that they won’t have Semih Erden available for the contest. He has a strained groin and did not participate in Saturday’s practice.

While the injury bug may not have left Boston’s side yet, the team just continues its way down the winning path. The C’s will take an NBA-best 12-game winning streak into Sunday’s contest and a win will give them the longest streak the league has seen this season.

Many will look at this matchup and assume Boston will, in fact, up its streak to 13 games, but Ray Allen and his teammates understand that they can’t make the same assumption.

“We have to guard against looking at them the other way, like this is an off night or this is a game we don’t have to play as hard,” said Allen after noting how teams often play up to Boston’s level.

Indiana certainly is no slouch and it’s a team that has improved this season to the point where Rivers is convinced they are a playoff team. Boston must be aware of the Pacers because they have already knocked off two title contenders on the road this season in form of the Lakers and Heat. With those wins already in the bank for a growing Indiana squad, it will certainly bring plenty of confidence into the Garden for this game.

Boston was 2-1 against the Pacers last season, but this Indiana team looks a bit different than the 2009-10 version. Darren Collison has been brought in to run the show at point guard and the rest of the team is now healthy as well. Mike Dunleavy has returned to the lineup this season and is continuing his normal do-it-all type of game, and T.J. Ford is right by his side with solid play at the backup point guard position.

The makeup of Indiana’s roster is similar to the New York Knicks. They have a bunch of versatile forwards who can score, most notably Danny Granger, who is averaging a team-high 21.1 PPG this season. Boston struggled with the Knicks on Wednesday, and although the Pacers score at a much lower frequency than New York, the C’s will need to have their guard up for this game.

Pierce’s Defense

Granger is one of the best scorers in the NBA, but you don’t hear his name thrown around too often. Rivers touched on that fact after Saturday’s practice.

“I guarantee you if you ask everybody to name the players on the Olympic team, they would probably forget Granger,” Rivers said. “If you ask people who is one of the best small forwards in the East, you know, they would forget Granger.”

That’s hard to believe for a player Rivers to Kevin Durant, who we all know is an elite player. Granger has the length and shooting ability that can cause problems for any defender, and that may be the case for Paul Pierce in this game. Pierce will be leaned on heavily to slow Granger down, and if he can, it’s highly unlikely that the Pacers will turn in another marquee victory on the road.

Avoid Foul Trouble

Indiana isn’t a team that gets to the line a whole lot, but the Celtics will still need to be conscious of committing fouls against them. With Shaq and Erden being question marks, Rivers noting that Kevin Garnett’s legs were “sore” on Saturday, and Jermaine O’Neal definitely not playing, Boston will have limited options on the frontline.

Shaq’s return is great, but if he commits fouls at a high rate in this game the return will be all for naught. The Celtics cannot afford for him or any of the other big men to get in foul trouble on Sunday, or else they could be staring at a streak-ending loss.

Don’t Take ‘Em Lightly

While Boston’s sharpshooter did mention the fact that the C’s cannot afford to take the Pacers lightly, he did seem to think that Indiana is worse off than they really are this season.

When asked about the Pacers in general, Allen, who typically doesn’t follow the rest of the league in much depth, sounded as if he thought they were a six- or seven-win team right now. Instead, Indiana enters this contest floating around the .500 mark and could easily wind up playing Boston in the first round of the playoffs if things continue at this rate.

The Pacers have a lot of talent and their players compliment each other well. The last thing the Celtics can do is take them lightly. Boston has done a great job of coming out with the same energy and passion for every game this season, and the hope is that they’ll continue that trend tonight.