Game Preview: Celtics at Pistons

BOSTON – Head coaches in the NBA are always weary of the dreadful five-games-in-seven-nights task that is slotted into their schedule numerous times every season. The Boston Celtics (24-5) have three such stretches during 2010-11 and have already completed the first with a 4-1 record.

Their second five-in-seven group of games began last night with a 95-83 road win over the Indiana Pacers. Game No. 2 of that stretch will take place at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Detroit against the Pistons (10-21).

Oddly enough, the Celtics’ first matchup with the Pistons, on Nov. 2, tipped off the team’s first go-around with a five-in-seven set. Boston marched into Detroit and dominated the game en route to a 109-86 victory. Not a single Pistons player scored more than 17 points, while two Celtics notched at least 21. Kevin Garnett was the game’s top scorer with 22 points and Paul Pierce was close behind with his 21.

That game was in the bag at halftime, as the C’s had opened up a 57-44 lead at the break, but Boston is likely to have a much different experience tonight in the Palace of Auburn Hills. The reason things will feel a bit different this time around is because Rajon Rondo, who dished out 17 assists in these teams’ first meeting, will be sitting on the sideline in street clothes rather than slicing up the Detroit defense with ease.

Rondo sprained his left ankle on Dec. 15 against the New York Knicks and is on the verge of returning, but he will not get the green light tonight. He is likely to return to the lineup Friday afternoon against the New Orleans Hornets, so Boston will need to maneuver its way through at least one more contest without his services.

The Celtics have leaned on Nate Robinson to pick up the minutes Rondo has left on the table and he has had an up-and-down performance during that stretch. He averaged 16.0 PPG on 43.0 percent shooting during his first two starts after Rondo’s injury, but has gone on to make only eight of his 29 shots (27.6 percent) during Boston’s last three games.

When Robinson is on the floor, the Celtics need him to make shots. When he is misfiring, it puts a strain on the offense and that has been evident over the last three contests. Last night, in particular, Boston struggled through three quarters – scoring only 53 points through the first 31:39 of the game – before it was jumpstarted by an injury to Robinson.

The often reliable sparkplug collided head-to-head with Mike Dunleavy with 4:21 remaining in the third period and wound up heading back to the locker room for treatment. His exit may have helped Doc Rivers locate his secret weapon: Marquis Daniels.

Daniels has played some point guard this season but had not touched the level he reached last night. He scored eight of his 12 points and recorded all of his four assists after he replaced the injured Robinson. His performance sparked the team to 42 points over the final 16-plus minutes, and the C’s eventually pulled out the victory.

With that performance fresh in everyone’s mind, Daniels is likely to see quite a bit of time at the point guard position tonight against the Pistons. Detroit has a very good point guard in Rodney Stuckey – who had a very marginal game (15 points, three assists) against the C’s in November – but the Pistons don’t have many options to back him up. With that being said, Detroit will have a much better chance to match up with Boston when Daniels is running point guard because they’re forced to play big when Stuckey is on the bench.

The Celtics have won 15 of their last 16 games and will enter tonight’s contest with a strong rhythm after the dominance it displayed toward the end of last night’s game. Detroit isn’t playing too shabby, either, as it has won three of its last six games, with two of those losses coming by five points or less.

With Rondo on the mend and the Pistons playing much better basketball, this one is sure to be a tougher matchup than the blowout victory Boston experienced in November against Detroit. The Celtics have proven that they can find a way to win any type of game, and they may have to dip their hand into the magic hat again tonight.

Keep the Offense Ticking

After scoring only 78 points against the Orlando Magic on Christmas Day, Boston stumbled through nearly three quarters of basketball against the Pacers last night in Indiana. That’s nearly seven straight quarters of dubious offensive basketball, and the Celtics simply aren’t the same team while their offense isn’t clicking.

The good news is that when Daniels checked into the game for the stretch run of last night’s victory, Boston relocated its offensive stride and became dominant again. When the Celtics began to score points with ease, they were also able to step up their game at the other end of the court. The Pacers scored only 23 points over the final 16:21 of the game.

The hope is that Boston can carry that rhythm into tonight’s game as well. At some point, Robinson is going to begin making shots again, and if he can do that in addition to Daniels playing effective point guard minutes off the bench, the Pistons are going to be in trouble.

Unreliable Pistons

Although Detroit has been playing better basketball of late, it hasn’t necessarily gotten consistent performances from its top players. Guessing who will lead the team in scoring is like picking a name out of a hat.

There are two ways to look at that. First, which is how the Pistons likely perceive things, is that they’re playing team basketball and that is resulting in a different player leading the team in scoring every night. Second, which is an outsider’s point of view, is that no player on Detroit’s roster can step up to carry the load on a nightly basis.

Three players (Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Charlie Villanueva) have led Detroit in scoring during their six-game run of competitive basketball. Hamilton’s scoring has gone as high as 35 points and as low as five during that span. Prince has scored as many as 28 and as little as 10. Villanueva has been the most consistent, with his high of 25 and a low of 12.

Your guess is as good as ours as to who will step up for Detroit tonight. We’ll see if it’s anyone at all.

(Power) Forward Thinking

While there hasn’t been much consistency from the Pistons at the offensive end, there has been one consistent trend for them at the defensive end: they’re being dominated by opposing power forwards.

Opposing power forwards have put up ridiculous numbers against the Pistons over the last six games. Josh Smith, Blake Griffin, David West, Linas Kleiza (who likely saw time at both forward positions), Carlos Boozer and Boris Diaw combined to average 23.5 PPG on 58.2 percent shooting from the floor in those games. Most of those guys aren’t back-to-the-basket type of players, so that’s an indication that the defense has been especially porous in allowing them to make a combined 53 of 91 shot attempts.

The main culprit of those numbers is Villanueva, who plays more than 26 MPG at power forward for the Pistons. With those numbers in mind, be prepared for a healthy dose of Garnett, who also led the team in scoring with 22 against Detroit on Nov. 2.