Game Preview: Raptors at Celtics (Preseason)

BOSTON – This year’s preseason is short and sweet for the Boston Celtics and it will come to a close when they play host the Toronto Raptors at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Boston’s preseason just began on Sunday in Toronto, but the condensed 2011-12 season will limit the team to only two exhibition contests. The first resulted in a 76-75 victory for the Celtics over the Raptors.

Sunday’s contest was unusually interesting for a preseason opener, particularly considering that neither team had gained much valuable practice time over the course of training camp. The game went down to the wire, with the end of Boston’s bench outlasting Toronto’s starters thanks to a putback layup by Greg Stiemsma with 12.6 seconds remaining.

That opening game unexpectedly wound up being a learning experience for Boston’s young guns. Paul Pierce did not play in the game, and will not play again tonight, which meant more playing time for the rest of the team. Doc Rivers allowed the young players to finish the game because his starters had already logged their minutes and grabbing a preseason victory wasn’t essential to him.

Rivers said on Tuesday that the decision to play his bench at the end of the game was made on the fly. The same decision may take place tonight, but he also left the door open for his starters to close out the game.

“We’re going to play our guys, and we may play them at the end,” Rivers said. “Really, even the Toronto game I was going on feel. If I thought they needed it I would have kept them out there and it will be the same [tonight].”

Rivers obviously didn’t believe his starters needed it on Sunday. All of the starters, with the exception of Jermaine O’Neal, played between 24 and 28 minutes, and that was enough to satisfy the head coach. The minute totals will probably climb for all five starters tonight, but Rivers was noncommittal regarding the numbers he will be shooting for.

“As far as minute distribution, there’s no game plan going into [tonight] for me,” he said. “I may try to see some combinations, but other than that, no.”

That was his public statement, but Rivers probably has an idea of how he’ll work the rotation tonight. With a Christmas Day showdown against the New York Knicks just four days away, Rivers needs to set the tone for the regular season. He can do that by treating this preseason finale as if it is a regular season game in terms of playing time.

It may only be the second preseason game, but it’s the last preseason game of 2011. Every second of this contest will be valuable to prepare for Opening Day.

Establish Continuity

One of the major issues the entire league will experience this season is a lack of continuity and chemistry between its players. With a shortened training camp and preseason, it’s difficult for new teammates to get to know each other both on and off the court.

Based on Rivers’ comments on Tuesday, it sounds as if the Celtics are on the right track regarding those two aspects, but there is still work to do.

“Chemistry is phenomenal. Continuity’s not very good,” said Rivers. “But really, the chemistry – I’ve even heard the veterans talk about how this team, you can see that that will not be a problem this year. But the continuity, that’s going to take some time.”

Continuity is established by having players log legitimate game experience with each other on the floor. There’s no doubt that it will look better tonight, in game 2, than it did on Sunday in game 1.

Protect the Glass

Even with the Raptors shooting a worse percentage from the field throughout the entirety of Sunday’s game, the Celtics were outrebounded 39-35 and they gave up 12 offensive rebounds. That is unacceptable against a team that is not known for its interior presence.

Toronto is loaded with athletic players and perimeter players, but rebounding is not one of the team’s strengths. Still, the Celtics allowed Andrea Bargnani to grab nine boards and Ed Davis to grab 10, which helped lead the Raptors to a rebounding advantage when the game came to a close.

Rivers will hammer home to his players that they must protect the glass tonight. Kevin Garnett (seven rebounds), Brandon Bass (five rebounds) and Chris Wilcox (five rebounds) all rebounded well on Sunday, but they’ll need some help in that area tonight.

Play To Win the... Position

This is Rivers’ final opportunity to watch his players in game action before the real season begins on Sunday. That means this is the players’ final opportunity to prove that they deserve to be in the rotation when the regular season arrives. Rivers is still actively evaluating his team and deciding who will be in that rotation in a few days.

“You can see, pretty much, there will be a couple of positions that will still be at play,” said Rivers. “For the most part there’s eight [players], without me saying them, that you know they’re going to play. Then there’s two where guys are going to have to fight for spots.”

The main position that is wide open is the backup shooting guard position. The major candidates to fill that role are Avery Bradley and rookie E’Twaun Moore. Those players wound up with nearly identical stat lines on Sunday (four points, zero rebounds, zero assists). Tonight’s game holds a lot of weight for those two youngsters, because the one who underperforms will likely be on the outside of the rotation looking in.