Game Preview: Celtics at Cavaliers

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The past week has been a rough one for the Boston Celtics (36-34). They have lost five consecutive games and suffered injuries to two starters. They hope to change their fortunes at 7 p.m. tonight when they visit the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers (22-47), who have also dropped five straight.

Neither of these teams are on a hot streak and that has a lot to do with their missing stars. Boston will be playing without Kevin Garnett for the third consecutive game, while Cleveland has been missing Kyrie Irving since March 10 due to a sprained left shoulder.

Garnett’s absence has drastically affected the mindset of the Celtics. Paul Pierce touched on that subject before Monday’s practice and the effects were on full display when Boston fell Tuesday night to New York. The C’s were sloppy from start to finish and did not play inspired basketball.

“I thought we were flat, we didn’t play with a lot of energy, and I always say that’s something I’ve got to do or get them to do right,” Doc Rivers said after the loss.

Rivers couldn’t be more accurate with that assessment. Winning games in the NBA is difficult. Winning games in the NBA while you’re missing key starters is even more difficult. It’s nearly impossible to overcome such absences while playing with low energy.

Boston will be playing without two of its starters yet again tonight. Neither Garnett nor Courtney Lee (left ankle) traveled with the team to Cleveland for tonight’s game. Luckily for the Celtics, the Cavaliers are missing quite a bit of firepower themselves.

Not only is Cleveland playing without an All-Star in Irving, but it is also missing his partner in the backcourt, rookie Dion Waiters. Waiters has missed the past two games with a left knee injury and will not play tonight.

Irving and Waiters are Cleveland’s two strongest offensive players. Without them in the fold, the Cavaliers must look to Tristan Thompson and backup guards Wayne Ellington and Shaun Livingston to carry the scoring load.

As one might imagine based on Cleveland’s five-game losing streak, those players aren’t exactly filling the void very well. The Cavs are struggling mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 92.0 points per game during their losing streak. Their lack of firepower could aid Boston’s attempt at ending its own losing streak.

Get Pierce More Shots

Pierce is Boston’s best scorer. Period. The Celtics need to treat him as such.

Pierce has averaged only 12 field goal attempts per game over the past three games. That just isn’t enough attempts for the team’s top offensive threat. He averages 14.3 attempts per game this season and with Garnett on the mend, Pierce should eclipse that number every night.

The Celtics do need Pierce to be their top distributor with Rajon Rondo out of the lineup. However, they also need him to be their top scorer. He won’t fulfill that role while taking a limited number of shots.

Defending the Paint

Outside of Irving and Waiters, Cleveland’s best players are probably Thompson and rookie Tyler Zeller. They’re both big men, and that isn’t good news for the Celtics.

Boston is playing quite a bit of small ball with Garnett out of the lineup. Jeff Green is starting at power forward, and Brandon Bass, who’s naturally an undersized power forward, is starting at center. That duo played a large role in Boston allowing New York to score 50 points in the paint Tuesday night.

It’s possible that we’ll see more of the same tonight. Thompson and Zeller are going to have substantial size and length advantages over Green and Bass. Let’s hope those advantages don’t lead to another incredible scoring night in the paint for Boston’s opponent.

Take Care of the Ball

The Celtics were very sloppy Tuesday night as they racked up 20 turnovers against the Knicks. Boston’s turnover number has now risen in three consecutive games and that fact is ringing loud and clear to Rivers.

“Over the last five games our turnovers have been up,” the coach said. “We had a great ratio for a while of 15 forced steals and 12 turnovers, and now it’s the exact opposite right now, and we can’t play that way.”

Especially tonight. Believe it or not, Cleveland is one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers. They force 15.6 per game, which is the fifth-best mark in the league. Boston needs to stay far below that number tonight or else it could be staring down a sixth straight loss.