Watch It! – Jazz at Celtics

Here are five things to watch out for when the Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz meet at 7:30 p.m. tonight at TD Garden.

Little Guy, Big Offense

If you don’t know what Isaiah Thomas did Friday night, you must be hiding under a rock. The little guy went off.

Thomas scored a career-high 52 points during a 117-114 win over the visiting Miami Heat. He was blistering hot all night long, making 15 of his 26 field goal attempts, nine of his 13 3-point attempts, and all 13 of his free throws.

That was a heck of a way to go out in 2016, and a heck of a way to finish off a truly impressive month of basketball. Thomas finished December having averaged 30.3 points per game, including two performances of at least 44 points, and he now ranks fifth in the league in scoring this season with an average of 27.7 PPG.

... But Paint Points Could Be Minimal

There may be one issue tonight in relation to Thomas continuing his incredible stretch of basketball. That issue is named Rudy Gobert.

Gobert is Utah’s starting center, and he’s a good one. He enters tonight’s game averaging a double-double in points (12.6) and rebounds (12.1), but what’s most important during this matchup is his shot-blocking ability.

Gobert, who is 7-foot-1, long and athletic, enters tonight’s action ranked second in the league in blocks per game with an average of 2.6. One of his top goals every night is to protect the rim.

Although Thomas has a unique ability to score over and around much taller players, he may find it very difficult to score in the paint tonight against Gobert and the Jazz.

Availability of Smart, Zeller

The Celtics have been hit hard by illnesses over the last couple of weeks. Multiple players and staff members have caught either a stomach bug or a head cold.

The latest players to join that list are Marcus Smart and Tyler Zeller. Smart caught the stomach bug, while Zeller has been dealing with an ear infection and sinusitis for quite some time, according to Brad Stevens, and it worsened over the weekend.

Both players checked in to the hospital Sunday night and were not released until Tuesday morning. They are both game-time decisions for tonight.

Both of these players are important to the Celtics. Smart has been playing great basketball of late and is one of Boston’s elite and most versatile defenders. Zeller, meanwhile, is a 7-footer who the Celtics can throw at Utah’s large frontline that features Gobert, Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw.

Similar Trajectories

Boston and Utah are more similar than one might think, at least when it comes to the basketball court. These two teams are on incredibly similar trajectories in terms of becoming forces in this league.

Boston’s win total over the last four seasons, in order from 2013-14 to this season, have been: 25, 40, 48 and 20. Utah’s, meanwhile, have been: 25, 38, 40 and 22.

Both teams have impressive, young cores that create matchup issues for opponents. Both teams also have talented young coaches in Stevens and Quin Snyder.

The two teams split their meetings last season, with each team winning on its home floor.

Tough Cover

Utah’s top player is unquestionably Gordon Hayward. He is making a strong case for being selected to the All-Star team this season for the first time in his career.

Hayward is a top-20 scorer in the NBA who enters tonight’s action with an average of 22.4 PPG. That number ranks 19th in the league. He also averages 6.2 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game and is a strong defensive player.

Hayward is a very difficult cover because he is a 6-foot-8 small forward who has the offense run through him. He is one of the team’s key ball handlers and playmakers, and he is also one of Utah’s top 3-point threats. The swingman fires up an average of 5.0 treys per game and makes 36.2 percent of them.

Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Jaylen Brown, all of whom are at the very least considered to be very capable defenders, are the most likely candidates to defend Hayward throughout tonight’s game. If Smart is available, he will likely see some minutes defending Hayward as well, as Stevens likes to mix up looks against elite offensive players.

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