Celtics

Celtics-Bulls preview: Outlasting the opponent

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Celtics-Bulls preview: Outlasting the opponent

CHICAGO In Boston's loss at San Antonio on Saturday, it was clear that the Celtics could not put up much resistance to the Spurs down the stretch.

In Chicago's loss at Memphis on Monday, they too sputtered at the end of the game.

As both Boston and Chicago continue their quest to get back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, both teams will look to improve upon finishing games.

Both teams pride themselves on their defense, particularly down the stretch.

But the ultimate goal every night is to score more points than your opponent, and scoring -- especially in the fourth quarter -- has been at times problematic for both teams.

The Bulls come into tonight's game having won five of their last seven games. They average 23.4 points scored in the fourth quarter this season, but in their most recent losses they averaged 21 points in the fourth.

The gap is even wider for the Celtics.

They average 23.7 points in the fourth quarter which ranks 14th in the NBA. In their last seven games, that number dips to 20.4 points in the fourth which to some degree speaks to why the Celtics are 3-4 during that span.

"At the end of the day, it has to be consistency in what we do," said Boston's Paul Pierce. "We have our schemes and the things we do. If we just do them right on a consistent basis, we wouldn't be inconsistent. When we look at the tape, it's because we're not doing the things we go over during practice."

Finding that consistency will be important for the Celtics against an improving Chicago Bulls team. Here are some other keys to tonight's game as the Celtics try and snap a two-game losing skid.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Celtics took just eight free throw attempts in their loss to San Antonio, so you can expect them to attack the rim more often as well as get the ball to Kevin Garnett early in the post. The eight free throw attempts were the fewest for the C's since they took five in a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last February.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Brandon Bass vs. Carlos Boozer. Bass is due for a breakout game after shooting just 2-for-8 in his last two games. That wouldn't be that big a stretch against Boozer who is not exactly known as a defensive stalwart.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo has rolled sevens -- as in turnovers -- in each of Boston's last two games. His name is all over the C's record books already, but he'll clearly be looking to avoid adding another historical footnote with what would be a third straight game with seven or more turnovers -- something no Celtic in franchise history has ever accomplished.

STAT TO TRACK: Boston is looking to avoid giving up 100 points or more for the fourth straight game, which shouldn't be too difficult to do against a Chicago team playing without their starting backcourt of Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton. Regardless of the opponent, the Celtics have not had much success when opponents meet or exceed the 100-point plateau with a less-than-stellar record in such games of 3-7 this season.

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.”