BOSTON – This first half of the season has been a daunting one for the Celtics schedule-wise, one that has seen them face plenty of tough-to-score-upon defenses.
But tonight’s opponent, the Utah Jazz (22-13), may be the toughest of them all.
Generating enough offense to win will indeed be challenging for the Celtics (20-14) who will host a Jazz squad that gives up fewer points than any team in the league this season and are coming off a 101-89 win at Brooklyn on Monday night.
One of Utah’s primary targets to limit will certainly be Isaiah Thomas who is averaging a career-high 27.7 points per game this season, and is coming off a career-high 52 points in Boston’s 117-114 win over the Miami Heat.
He’s accustomed to being a focal point of opposing defenses, regardless of how stout they may be.
“Every night I just go and do my job,” Thomas said. “I don’t care who we’re playing against, or what defensive team or what not, I have a job to do for my teammates. And that’s go out, be aggressive and make plays for others and score the basketball. Whether they’re a good defensive team or not, I have to do my job and get a win.”
While center Rudy Gobert draws a lot of attention for his rebounding and rim-protection skills, he’s just one of the many cogs that have made Utah such an elite team defensively.
“They’re super-long at almost every position,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “And obviously, Gobert is as long and as good a rim protector as there is in all of basketball. And so, they’ve been a top-five defense when healthy the better part of the last 2 1/2 years … they have a really good team.”
In addition to going into Monday’s game against the Nets having given up a league-low 94.7 points per game, Utah also sat atop the NBA’s defensive standings in fewest fast break points allowed (10.1), fewest assists per game (17.4), effective Field goal Percentage defense (.476), opponent 2-point percentage (.456), opponent 3-pointers made (7.9) and attempted (22.2).
In other words, they seemingly defend every spot of the floor at a high level which is one of the chief reasons why the Jazz seem poised to break through and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They are currently fourth in the Western Conference standings.
As much as the Celtics pride themselves on getting the job done defensively, they know their offense just might have to carry the day tonight.
They come into tonight’s game scoring 106.1 points per game along with averaging 24.9 assists which ranks 10th and 3rd, respectively, in the NBA.
Boston also ranks among the NBA’s leaders in 3-pointers made (11.2, 4th in the league) and 3-pointers taken (31.6, also 4th in the NBA).
One player that the Celtics may not have to worry about is George Hill, who is in the NBA’s concussion protocol program and did not play against Brooklyn on Monday. The concussion is certainly not to be taken lightly (remember, Al Horford missed nine games with a concussion earlier this season), but the bigger issue for Hill and the Jazz has to do with the elbow he caught from Phoenix’s Alex Len on Sunday which resulted in a cut to the mouth that required 22 stitches to close.
There is some concern that bringing him back too soon may put him at risk of having it re-opened. And considering injuries have limited Hill to just 13 games this season (they’re 9-4 in those games by the way), the last thing they want to do is put him in harm’s way for potentially missing more games.
Regardless of whether Hill suits up or not, tonight’s game should be a good one for a pair of teams whose play of late has them trending in the right direction.
“A lot like us, they’ve been up and down from an injury standpoint and health standpoint,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “But they’ve weathered it well. They’re playing great. They’re going to be a handful, for sure.”