TORONTO The Boston Celtics are riding a four-game winning streak, playing the kind of basketball you want with the playoffs just two weeks away. The Toronto Raptors are gearing up for another trip to the NBA lottery in which they will once again fail to make the playoffs. It's the kind of game that, on paper, the Celtics should have no problem winning.
Although we haven't seen much of it lately, the C's have shown a knack for playing both up -- and down -- to their level of competition.
And that in itself makes tonight's game a dangerous one for Boston.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley doesn't expect the C's to take the Raptors -- or any non-playoff team at this point in the season -- too lightly.
"No matter what team, we're still going to play hard," Bradley told CSNNE.com. "We're still playing against good teams even if they don't go to the playoffs. We just have to come in, no letdown, and just continue to play the same way we've been lately. Not only that, but we need to improve, improve for the playoffs."
Because of the condensed schedule -- tonight will be the first of three games in three nights for the C's against teams out of the playoff race -- the Celtics understand the importance of taking out teams as quickly as possible to rest the starters and give the backups a chance to get up and down the floor.
The Celtics have won nine of their last 11 games. In those nine wins, six have come by double digits which has allowed the C's to play their bench more than usual.
"We need to improve for the playoffs," Bradley said. "As a team, there's a lot of things we need to work on seeing as though we don't practice much. We need games, so we need to keep taking steps forward and not taking steps back."
Not looking past the Raptors will certainly be a contributing factor to tonight's game. Here we take a look at some other keys to tonight's game as the Celtics look to win their fifth in a row and move one step closer toward locking up the Atlantic Division and securing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR For all that has gone wrong for the Raptors this year, they have been a decent team defensively. Teams are averaging 94.9 points per game against them, which ranks 14th in the NBA. More impressive is that they are not allowing teams to get off a ton of shots against them. Opponents average 77.8 field goal attempts against them this season, which ranks No. 3 in fewest field goals allowed. But the problem is that often teams don't need to make a lot of shots, because the few shots they are taking do in fact go in. Boston takes the fewest number of shots (77) per game in the NBA, but they rank fifth in field goal percentage (46 percent).
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Brandon Bass vs. Amir Johnson: One of the most under-rated parts of the Celtics' run of late has been the defense and rebounding of Brandon Bass. The mid-range jumper is going to be there all the time, but it has been his ability to hold his own on the boards and not allow guys to score at will on him, that's helping the Celtics finish out the regular season strong. Johnson will start in place of Andrea Bargnani (calf), but has been with the first group for 37 games this year. He's more of an energy guy who feeds off of put-back baskets and tip-ins. Because so much of his game is about effort and not execution per se, Bass has to limit Johnson's ability to make multiple effort plays.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Mickael Pietrus looked good on Wednesday with eight points and six rebounds in just under 29 minutes - a lot more productive than most would have thought considering he hadn't played since March 23 due to a concussion. After showing no post-concussion symptoms, the C's and Pietrus are hoping to just continue building off of that game and develop a nice rhythm heading into the playoffs later this month.
STAT TO TRACK: Prepare to see the Boston Celtics spend a lot of time at the free throw line tonight. Attacking the basket off the dribble is always a goal of the Celtics, well aware that it generates more free throw attempts which for a good free throw shooting team like the C's, creates easy opportunities to score. But they'll likely get an assist or two in their effort tonight against Toronto, which averages an NBA-high 23.4 personal fouls committed per game. Not surprisingly, that has led to a plethora of free throw attempts by opponents. According to NBA.comstats, the Raptors are allowing opponents to shoot an NBA-high 27 free throw attempts per game.