Celtics Psyched for 1st Matchup vs. Houston's Revamped Backcourt
HOUSTON - The Boston Celtics stunned a James Harden-led Houston Rockets team on Dec. 28, when they overcame a 26-point halftime deficit to pull off their greatest comeback win of the season.
While the last matchup between the two squads was spectacular - resulting in probably the most impressive victory of Boston's season - it's worth mentioning that Harden did not have his right-hand man by his side on that occasion.
This time, he will.
Saturday night, the Celtics will face the daunting task of not only guarding the league's top scorer, but also stopping one of the greatest ball-handlers in the history of the NBA. It's an assignment that not many teams in the league have been able to complete successfully this season, as Houston (48-13) is a whopping 33-3 when Harden and his new backcourt partner, Chris Paul, have been on the court together.
"They can both be the best player in the league on any given night," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said ahead of the matchup. "They're just incredible. They can take turns, but they can also space the floor."
Houston was already dangerous with Harden as its primary playmaker before acquiring Paul this past summer. Last season, Harden led the NBA with 11.2 assists per game, while also tallying the league's second-highest scoring average with 29.1 points per game. Adding Paul, the NBA's active career assists leader, has opened up the floor even more for Harden, as he does not have to run the offense on every possession that he's on the floor for.
"If Harden has to have the ball all 48 minutes that's hard," Stevens said Saturday as the C's took the court at Toyota Center for their morning shootaround. "That really wears on you. But now to have a guy next to him that's a hall-of-fame caliber player, it's just crazy to think about. They have 48 minutes of All-Star play at point guard when those guys are out there."
The Celtics, of course, have an All-Star point guard of their own that will be going up against them. And he's very much looking forward to the challenge of slowing down Houston's imposing backcourt tandem.
"It's exciting," said Kyrie Irving, who is leading the league in points per minute (0.96 PPM) since the All-Star break. "It's exciting for all of us, especially guards, to go against two elite players like that. They command a lot of attention out there on the floor and it's our job to limit them to the opportunities they can get."
While Harden (31.3 PPG, 8.9 APG) is still the focal point of Houston's offense, the Celtics understand that Paul is more than just a sidekick. The 13-year point guard is averaging 18.8 points, 8.2 assists and a career-high 5.7 rebounds per game. He's also averaging 2.5 3-point makes per game, which is more than double the career average that he entered the season with.
"Chris Paul has really been more aggressive since he's been here," observed Al Horford. "He's shooting the 3-ball and looking to score more, so we really have our hands full. What it really comes down to for us is defending as a team. We can't leave any of our guys out there on their own. We all have to be out there to help our teammates."
As Boston's top perimeter defender, Marcus Smart is chomping at the bit to get the opportunity to defend two of the league's greatest playmakers during the same game. He realizes it's probably the greatest challenge he'll face all season, but also believes it's one that he and the Celtics can handle.
"It's two talented guys on the offensive end, but the ball can only be in one of those guys' hands at a time," said Smart, who held Harden to 0-of-7 shooting from the field when defending him one-on-one during their last matchup. "So, we just go out there and guard them. This coaching staff has us ready. We just have to focus, lock onto the game plan and execute it."