Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Utah Jazz


Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Utah Jazz

By A. Sherrod Blakely

BOSTON The Rajon Rondo-Deron Williams point guard matchup is too obvious to ignore during the build-up to tonight's game between Boston and Utah.

But in all likelihood, it will be the play of the bigs that'll determine the outcome.

And unlike most of the Celtics games this season, the C's won't come into this one with a decisive edge up front.

The Jazz boast a frontline that includes Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and former Celtic, Al Jefferson.

"As far as size and talent and skill . . . they're pretty good," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

That kind of quality depth allows them to be a physical team, evident by the Jazz averaging 24.4 fouls committed per game on the road - tops among teams in the NBA this season.

That means a number of Boston's big men may find themselves at the free throw line more often.

Normally that would be something to cringe about, especially when you think about Shaquille O'Neal.

But lately, the Big Shamrock has been knocking down the freebies.

O'Neal is shooting 55.9 percent from the free throw line this season. In his last five games, Shaq has been almost Ray Allen-like from the line, converting 11 of his last 14 attempts (78.6 percent).

Free throw shooting could be the difference, especially against a Utah team that has been at its best this season in close games.

Utah has won its last five games decided by three points or less, the longest current streak of any NBA team. And don't let tonight's game into overtime.

The Jazz have been just as dominate, winning its last seven regular season games that went into overtime, the longest such streak in the NBA.

And that success in close games is fueled in large part by the play of Williams, considered by some as the top point guard in the NBA.

He is averaging 22.1 points and 9.5 assists per game. In the past 18 seasons, the only player to finish the season with numbers that impressive was New Orleans guard Chris Paul, who averaged 22.8 points and 11 assists per game during the 2008-09 season.

"He's terrific. He's a powerful guard," Rivers said. "He plays at an unbelievable tempo. What sets him apart, is he's the best shooting point guard of the group, of all those guards. That's what makes him so good."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Kyrie goes back to the mask tonight

Kyrie goes back to the mask tonight

The mask will be back tonight in Atlanta for Kyrie Irving.

The Celtics guard told reporters at the team's shootaround Saturday in preparation for Saturday night's game against the Hawks - where Boston will try and win its 15th in a row - that he'll grudgingly go back to wearing the clear plastic facemask he had been using to protect a facial fracture he suffered last week. 

Irving wore the mask against Brooklyn for a full game earlier in the week then ditched it in the second half of the victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday. He shot just 4-for-16 from the field (1-for-5 on 3's) against the Warriors and has made no secret of his disdain for wearing it.  


To get to 15, C's need to keep up the D

To get to 15, C's need to keep up the D

BOSTON – If you were to deconstruct the building blocks of the Celtics' 14-game winning streak, you would find the foundation lies in what they’re able to accomplish defensively.
And to the Celtics’ credit, their defense has been challenged in a multitude of ways already.


They have managed to beat teams with great one-on-one talent (Golden State), those that rely heavily on athleticism and length (Milwaukee) as well as those that put a premium on sharing the ball (Philadelphia), which will be among the ways Atlanta could potentially challenge the Celtics tonight.
While the Hawks (3-12) have had their struggles this season, it hasn’t necessarily been because of selfish play offensively.
Atlanta averages 327.9 passes per game, which ranks third in the NBA.
The problem hasn’t been getting players the ball; it’s what happens – or doesn’t happen – when they get it.
Despite being a top three passing team, the Hawks average 22.9 assists, 10th in the NBA. And they're connecting on 45.5 percent of their shots from the field, 14th in the league.
For Boston to continue its winning ways, it’ll again be because their defense will have taken away things the Hawks love to do.
When it comes to scoring, Atlanta has been one of the NBA’s best at generating offense off screens.
Despite having an offense that ranks 19th in scoring (104.2) this season, Atlanta has been among the league leaders when it comes to scoring off screens.
In fact, only two NBA teams (Golden State and Cleveland) have generated more points off screens this season than Atlanta (141).
That still shouldn’t be a major issue for the Celtics defense, which allows a league-low 94.1 points per game and has shown the ability to find success against any and every kind of offense.
Here are five below-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game between two teams at opposite ends of the success spectrum this season.

It’s one thing to score a bunch of points, but it takes a special player to do it in the latter stages of play, especially against an elite team that knows you’re looking to get points any way possible. We saw Kyrie Irving shrug off a horrible shooting night (4-for-16) in the 92-88 win over Golden State that included him draining all seven of his fourth-quarter free throws. But Irving coming through when the game counts shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. According to NBA.com/stats, Irving is averaging a league-best 5.8 points in “clutch” situations (last five minutes of a game with the margin being five points or less), ahead of notable standouts Damian Lillard (5.0) of Portland who is second and ex-teammate LeBron James (4.6) who ranks behind Irving, Lillard and Miami’s Dion Waiters (4.9).

Although he spent nine seasons in Atlanta, it has been anything but a sweet homecoming for Al Horford statistically speaking. In the four games he has played against his former team, Horford has averaged 8.8 points and 6.8 rebounds, which are his lowest career scoring and rebounding averages against any team. However, the 5.8 assists he averages against the Hawks represents his highest career average in that category against any team.

His athleticism has always made Jaylen Brown a standout and the way he has shot the ball this season in clutch situations has stood out as well. But what hasn’t been talked much about is his defense against 3-point shooters. NBA.com/stats lists Brown with 67 contested 3’s this season. That's tops in the NBA. And his 4.2 contested 3’s per game rank sixth in the league.

When you see the numbers, it’s clear that much of what the Atlanta Hawks do these days is centered around Dennis Schroder. But upon deeper inspection, it’s apparent that Atlanta is literally driven by the play of the 6-foot-1 point guard. Known for his attacking style of basketball, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he’s one of the league’s best at getting to the rim. According to NBA.com/stats, Schroder leads the NBA with 19.1 drives per game. The closest Celtic in that category is Irving who averages 9.7 drives per game which ranks 38th in the league.

With Schroder looking to run out in transition as much as possible, Taurean Prince has been more than willing to help fill lanes and provide an option for Schroder to pass to on the break. That has led to lots of spot-up shot opportunities for Prince this season. He comes into tonight’s game averaging 5.4 spot-up possessions per game, which ranks third in the NBA behind Detroit’s Tobias Harris (6.3) and New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins (6.2).