Game Preview: Pistons at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (31-9) will play their fifth straight home game at 7:30 p.m. tonight against a Detroit Pistons (15-26) team that got the best of them exactly three weeks ago.

When these teams collided in the Palace of Auburn Hills on Dec. 29, 2010, many assumed the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics would cruise to a victory over the struggling Pistons. The results, however, put a heavy damper on Boston’s ending to the year 2010.

Not only did the Celtics suffer their largest defeat of the season to the lowly Pistons, 104-92, they were also hit with an injury that looked as if it would derail the team from another championship run.

Kevin Garnett slammed home a dunk with 2:38 remaining in the first quarter of that contest, but the two points he gave his team meant nothing compared to what took place next. Garnett was grimacing from the moment he took off from the floor, and as he hobbled up court after the dunk he quickly fouled Tayshaun Prince to stop play and allow himself to be subbed out of the game.

As KG covered his face with his hands and he limped off of the court, it was natural to fear the worst. It looked as if Garnett had reinjured his surgically repaired right knee, and speculation rapidly began to grow throughout media outlets that he might be out for a long, long time.

Instead, it was quickly determined that the injury was simply a muscle strain in his lower right leg, and Garnett has since returned to the lineup and again solidified Boston as a championship contender. His first game back was Monday night against a heck of an opponent, the Orlando Magic, and he dropped 19 points, a team-high eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. His presence on the court changes the dynamic of the C’s and Paul Pierce acknowledged as much after Monday’s game.

“I mean I said to somebody else that we look like a totally different team, just with Kevin on the court,” said Pierce. “You can’t replace what Kevin gives to a ball club. He doesn’t always show up with his numbers but his presence and his feel for the game and everything he does for this team goes far beyond the numbers and you see it tonight. We look like a team who is ready, who is energized, who is locked in, and you know that’s the culture he’s brought here since day 1 since he’s been here and its infectious. He raises everyone’s play when he’s on the court.”

The hope is that his presence in the lineup tonight will result in a much better outcome during round two of Celtics versus Pistons.

Each team enters tonight’s game riding a three-game winning streak, and each team’s most recent victory was against a title contender. Boston knocked off the Magic, 109-106, on Monday in the TD Garden, while the Pistons blew out the Mavericks by 14 points on the same night in Detroit.

While the Celtics continue to hold onto the Eastern Conference’s top seed, Detroit is trying to make a push for a playoff spot. The Pistons have played .500 basketball over their last 10 games, and a lot of credit must be given to an unlikely source: Tracy McGrady.

McGrady was inserted into the starting lineup as point guard against Boston while Rodney Stuckey suffered from a stomach virus. The results were fantastic. McGrady notched team highs of 21 points and eight assists while shooting an effective 7-of-11 from the field. That performance, which was key in Detroit winning the game, has led to increased playing time since. John Kuester has sent McGrady onto the court for at least 25 minutes of playing time in eight of the team’s nine games and he has performed well.

The Pistons are likely to start McGrady again tonight, but a much healthier Celtics team will be very capable of slowing him and his teammates down. Boston essentially played without Garnett and didn’t have Rajon Rondo’s services in these teams’ first meeting. With those two back in the lineup tonight, Detroit’s chances of duplicating their 12-point win over the C’s in the first contest are slim to none.

Very Different Lineups

Although the first meeting between these two teams was only three weeks ago, the starting lineups for each team will be drastically different tonight than they were in late December.

Boston, in particular, will have an enormous spike in production with Garnett and Rondo on the floor. Garnett is the team’s defensive leader, and his absence was clearly felt in the first meeting with Detroit, as the Pistons scored 104 points. Rondo, who leads the league in assists with 13.4 per game, is the engine that runs the Celtics’ offense, and the team is much more efficient with him on the court.

Meanwhile, the Pistons are operating under some interesting circumstances that have resulted in their franchise face, Richard Hamilton, riding the pine on a nightly basis. Detroit has elected to bench Hamilton while his name floats around the trade rumor mill.

With Hamilton on the bench, McGrady has stepped in as the team’s starting shooting guard. He joins Stuckey, who missed the first game against Boston, in the backcourt. It also seems likely that Ben Wallace will miss tonight’s game with a lingering ankle injury, and that would leave rookie Greg Monroe as Detroit’s starting center.

Both lineups will clearly look substantially different this time around, but the Celtics have to be confident that their upgrades will pay much more dividends than Detroit’s.

Can Pierce Light Up Prince Again?

Garnett’s injury was a shot to Boston’s stomach in the early moments of that late December game in Detroit. It looked as if every player and coach on the team were shocked by the injury and were knocked off of their game. Well, everyone except for Pierce.

Pierce did everything he could to carry the Celtics to a victory and lit up Tayshaun Prince in the process. He dropped 33 points on 11-of-16 shooting and also got to the line for eight free throw attempts, all of which he made. But Pierce didn’t stop there. He also tallied five rebounds and game highs of eight assists and four steals.

Prince used to be known as a defensive stopper, and he’s still capable of defending at a high level, but Pierce showed in that game that he can handle Detroit’s lanky small forward with ease. If he does so again tonight, the C’s will be in great shape.

Defend the 3

For the second straight game, Boston will be forced to deal with a 3-point arsenal that ranks among the league’s best. Orlando is widely known as a team that loves the deep ball, but Detroit flies under the radar as a 3-point shooting team.

The Pistons rank fifth in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, at 37.9 percent. That number actually ranked ahead of the Magic, who make 37.6 of their attempts from downtown.

When Detroit beat Boston in December, the Pistons shot the ball incredibly well from behind the arc. They made 10 of their 15 3s, including a 4-of-6 performance by Charlie Villanueva. The Celtics will need to do everything they can to challenge Detroit’s 3-point attempts tonight and hope that the Pistons’ shots don’t fall at the rate they did in that first matchup.