Celtics

Blakely's Celtics-Bobcats preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Bobcats preview

CHARLOTTE, N.C. When a team is out of the playoff race, each one of its games is more like a casting call for players hoping to catch on for next season.

So while facing those kinds of lowly teams might seem advantageous for a playoff-bound club like Boston that is looking to build up its win total, don't be so sure of that.

In Boston's 84-79 loss at Toronto on Friday, the Raptors had two starters, Allan Anderson and Ben Uzoh, who were both with the team on 10-day contracts. They were hungry, and they played well.

Anderson had 12 points and four assists while Uzoh had eight points, eight rebounds and five assists.

"I'll be honest, I didn't know any of them," said C's swingman Mickael Pietrus. "Sometimes you're going to have to deal with it."

Tonight, the Celtics take on another team at the bottom of the standings in the Charlotte Bobcats.

Several injuries have forced the Bobcats to play a litany of lineups, a trend that's sure to continue as this season winds down.

How the Celtics respond to that will indeed be a factor in tonight's game, one that the C's are likely to play without Paul Pierce (left big toe) and probably at least one other starter (Kevin Garnett, most likely). Here we'll examine a few other keys to tonight's game.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- When facing a team like the Bobcats, it's important for Boston to establish control of the game from the outset. That shouldn't be a problem against a Charlotte team that is next-to-last in the NBA in first-quarter points, with 21.7 per game. Meanwhile, the C's boost a defense that gives up 22.6 points in the first quarter. Only five teams in the league give up fewer points in the first quarter.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Brandon Bass vs. Byron Mullens: Bass' ability to defend and rebound at a high level, have been huge factors in Boston's success of late. In Mullens, he faces a player with the size of a true center, but with great range -- even past the 3-point line -- on his shot. It'll be important for Bass to use his quickness at both ends of the floor for the C's to win this matchup.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- If Kevin Garnett does not play, that will most likely mean Greg Stiemsma will start and Ryan Hollins will become the first (and only) big man off the bench. We have all seen what Stiemsma has done when given an opportunity to play a more meaningful role. It'll be interesting to see how Hollins handles this chance to play decent minutes.

STAT TO TRACK -- Charlotte has been a team where a sizable chunk of their scoring comes from their bench. So for Boston, it'll be important to not allow the Charlotte starters to catch fire. This season, the Bobcats starters average 54.2 points which ranks 29th in the NBA. Conversely, the C's first group has averaged 68.5 points which ranks seventh in the NBA.

Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”