Game Preview: Celtics at Trail Blazers

BOSTON – The TD Garden was blessed with 10 Boston Celtics games in the month of January, but now it’s time for the C’s to hit the road for what may be their most difficult road trip of the season.

Boston (34-10) opens up a four-game, West Coast trek at 10:30 p.m. tonight against the Trail Blazers (25-21) in Portland. When asked about the trip on Tuesday night, Doc Rivers mentioned that he petitioned to the league to have it altered because of its difficulty.

“We get our schedules before the season starts, before you get them, and we have a chance to change games,” said Rivers. “This is the one trip we actually really tried to get changed. We just wanted another day, but they said, 'No.' ”

Why did Rivers and the Celtics want an extra day? We’ll let him tell you.

“The only thing I don't like about this trip is the travel and games so quickly," he said. "Traveling to Portland and playing a game the next day is brutal. And then you fly backwards to Phoenix, where you lose an hour, and then you play L.A. (Lakers) in a [12:30 PST] game. That's a lot of games.”

Well, as we already know, Boston’s wish was not granted, so the difficult stretch begins tonight in Portland.

The Trail Blazers have had a successful season thus far despite the injury bug biting them left and right. Portland currently has four of its top players on the injured list in the form of Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby, Greg Oden and Jeff Pendergraph. All of those players have undergone a knee surgery of one kind or another to repair an injury. Roy, who had arthroscopic surgery performed on both of his knees, and Camby, who had arthroscopic surgery on one knee, are both expected to return this season.

They are, however, unavailable tonight. That means the Celtics will be taking on a Trail Blazers squad that is a shell of its regular self, but that does not mean for one second that Boston will have an easy time winning this game.

Nate McMillan has to be up for consideration for the Coach of the Year award this season. He has navigated his team through injury after injury and led his players to 25 wins in their first 46 games. To be above the .500 mark is nothing short of remarkable, and many thanks must be given to players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews.

Aldridge has taken his game to another level this season, and particularly over the past two months. He is scoring nearly five more points a night than his career average of 16.7 PPG, and he has dropped at least 20 points in 18 of his last 26 games. He has scored less than 23 points only twice in his 13 appearances in January.

Matthews, who was signed as a free agent this summer, is also scoring nearly five more points a night this season than his career average of 11.8 PPG. He averages 16.2 PPG this season with a high of 36 coming on Jan. 7 against the Timberwolves. With Roy out of the lineup, he has become the primary perimeter shooter for Portland.

Both Aldridge and Matthews had very solid games against the C’s in Boston on Dec. 1, 2010. Portland lost the game 99-95, but Aldridge scored 18 points to go along with six rebounds, and Matthews scored a team-high 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Matthews hit five of his seven 3-point attempts in that contest.

Despite the presence of Aldridge and Matthews tonight, the Celtics may be able to make a claim that they are the more healthy team for their second consecutive game, a claim they have seldom been able to make this season. That worked out just fine on Tuesday night, when Boston dominated Cleveland in a 112-95 victory at the Garden. None of the Big Three played more than 26 minutes in that game, yet Paul Pierce still managed to score 24 points.

The Celtics would love for a similar performance to take place tonight against a Trail Blazers squad that is coming off of a blowout loss on their home court at the hands of the Sacramento Kings. Portland fell to Sacramento 96-81 on Monday night, which was just the fourth game of the season in which Aldridge has failed to score in double-figures. Boston, meanwhile, will be looking to duplicate its Tuesday night performance against the Cavaliers and start this difficult road trip out on the right foot.

Just How the C’s Like It

Boston is the best grind-it-out team in the league, meaning it is most equipped to win games that are defensive battles and wind up as low-scoring affairs. Such a game may be on tap tonight against a Portland team that is not known for its offensive prowess.

Although the Trail Blazers possess solid talent from top to bottom, they score only 95.8 PPG. That number ranks 24th in the league, while Boston sits at 13th with 99.6 PPG.

Boston and Portland are two of the most methodical offensive teams in the league. Both teams’ pace, which is the average number of possessions a team uses during games, is below 93. The Blazers rank third-lowest in the league with a pace of 91.4, while the C’s are tied for seventh-lowest with a pace of 92.7.

Needless to say, this game is not likely to see offensive fireworks, and that’s exactly how the Celtics like it. Boston heads into this game giving up only 91.8 PPG, which is second in the league, and that defensive formula has resulted in the top record in the Eastern Conference.

Pierce Can Dominate

When these two teams faced off for the first time back in December, Pierce took advantage of Brandon Roy, who was clearly not playing at 100 percent health. Boston’s captain had a ridiculous shooting night (9-of-11 on field goals, 4-of-5 on 3s, 6-of-6 on free throws) and finished with a game-high 28 points. He won’t have the advantage of playing against an unhealthy Roy tonight, but he will still have an advantage.

Coveted third-year forward Nicolas Batum is now Portland’s starting small forward and he has performed well in the role. He is currently averaging career highs in points (12.0 PPG), rebounds (4.8 RPG) and assists (1.4 APG). The problem tonight, however, is that he’ll be defending one of the most physical small forwards in the game.

Pierce is a small forward who loves to play with contact at both ends of the court. That’s not a good sign for Batum, who stands at 6-foot-8 but weighs only 200 pounds His lanky frame will be defending Pierce, who weighs 235 pounds all night long. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Pierce has a clear size advantage there, and it would be shocking if he doesn’t try to take advantage of it throughout the game.

Could Be a Downtown Night

Lace up the sneaks, Ray Allen, this might be your kind of game.

Due to the lack of size Portland possesses this season with all of their injuries at the center position, many teams have attacked the Blazers in the post and taken advantage of the frontcourt mismatches. With such taking place, Portland is often forced to send double-teams toward the block, which leads to the perfect inside-outside game for its opponent. The Celtics have said all season long that they want to play inside-out, and they should be able to do so tonight.

Be prepared for Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce, Marquis Daniels and (maybe) Shaquille O’Neal, who is with the team on the trip but not likely to play tonight, to post up early and often. When those double-teams arrive, they will look to kick the ball out to one of the league’s deadliest 3-point arsenals. The Celtics are fourth in the league with a 38.8 shooting percentage from downtown, led by Ray Allen’s 45.3 percent clip from 3-point range.

The Celtics took 14 3s against Portland in December, making six, and opponents average more than 17 3-point attempts against the Blazers this season.