Preview and Chat: The Boston Celtics

Darius Soriano —  February 9, 2012

Records: Lakers 14-11 (7th in West), Celtics 14-10 (7th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (14th in NBA), Celtics 102.3 (19th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.5 (11th in NBA), Celtics 97.5 (2nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (game time decision); Celtics: Marquis Daniels (questionable), Keyon Dooling (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The road woes have continued as Lakers are coming off two losses in games that were completely winnable. Whether or not that inspires confidence due to the fact that the team can compete and put themselves in position to win or reinforces the holes in the roster remains to be seen (though I think most fans have made up their minds). However the result of those games affects the team though, the Lakers have had some days off and time to reflect on what needs to be done and put in some practice time to shore up some of their issues. Kobe called Mike Brown “chippy” after Wednesday’s session so we can only hope that some needed practice time with an emphasis on defense and offensive execution does this group some good.

What may also do the team some good is the potential return of Steve Blake. The Lakers’ PG is finally recovered from his chest/rib injury and has been cleared to practice, making him a game time decision for tonight. We’ll see if Blake actually gets some run tonight or if he waits until tomorrow (vs. the Knicks) or Sunday (vs. the Raptors) but the prospect of getting him back in the lineup should be a net positive for a team that can use the depth while offering another late game option at the lead guard spot.

We’ll have to see how Blake’s return affects the rotations, however. Since Blake has been out, Andrew Goudelock has proven to be an offensive spark off the bench and continuing to find him minutes where he can handle the ball and attack off the dribble should be a priority. That said, I’d rather have an issue of needing to find time for a capable player than how to limit the minutes of one that can’t perform well.

The Celtics Coming in: After a slow start to the season, the Celtics have found their stride by winning 5 in a row and 9 of their last 10 contests. They’re back to defending at an elite level (2nd in defensive efficiency) and have found a rotation that works by going 8 deep with Avery Bradley, Mickael Pietrus, and Brandon Bass doing the heavy lifting for their second unit.

What’s also helped is the Paul Pierce playing like Paul Pierce again. Early in the year, the Celtic captain struggled with an injured heel missing the team’s first 3 games. When he returned, he was slow and looked like father time had rapidly caught up with him. As the season’s progressed though, Pierce has found his game and in the last 4 games has averaged 21, 7, and 7 while shooting nearly 37% from long range. When you combine Pierce’s production with the aforementioned elite level D, it’s no wonder the C’s are back to looking like a team that can do some damage in the playoffs.

Celtics Blogs: Jeff runs one of the great (and OG) sites in Celtic Blog and the guys at Celtics Hub do a tremendous job of covering this team. Check out both sites.

Keys to game: While motivation hasn’t been an issue for the Lakers this season, it really won’t be an issue tonight. These teams flat out don’t like each other whether talking the rivalry between the franchises in general or the history these teams have had since 2008. There may be bigger games on the schedule from a standings perspective, but there’s not one that means more on a personal level to a lot of the guys suiting up tonight.

To win the game though, the Lakers must clean up some of the issues that have dogged them in recent contests. That means keeping up a consistent attack offensively and sticking to what works over the course of the game. Tonight that means attacking the paint and making an aged Boston front line deal with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on the majority of the possessions. While Jermaine O’Neal and KG are historically strong defenders, they’ll still have their hands full with the Lakers starting duo and they must be forced to protect the paint. This is especially true for Bynum working on O’Neal. Drew needs to establish the post early, not just because he has an advantage but to see what the C’s strategy will be when defending him. Will they double team or play him straight up? The answer to that question will then influence how the Lakers can attack the rest of the Celtic D the rest of the night.

The Lakers, of course, can’t ignore Kobe though. The Lakers still need to work their screen sets and try to get Kobe the ball in areas of the floor where he can do damage. The Celtics have traditionally played Kobe straight up with an eye at helping quickly whenever he gets near the paint and if that continues tonight, I expect Kobe to work the mid-range with his jumper and try to find the creases in the defense by curling into the paint. These actions can also serve as a great set up for Kobe’s teammates because when Kobe curls into open space, the defense is sure to react which can then give the other Lakers (especially the screeners) the opportunity to make clean catches and go to work against a recovering defense. With this in mind, I hope to see Kobe and Bynum working on the same side of the floor so that when ‘Drew sets a screen he can then step in, seal his man, and look for a quick pass from Pau at the high post.

Defensively, the plan to slow the Celtics is the same as it’s been since this group was formed back in 2008. Some of the pieces may be different but the primary actions will be the same. Rondo will push the ball in the open court to try and get the defense to retreat so he can hit trailing shooters in rhythm to take unconsted jumpers. In the half court, the C’s will run Ray Allen off a myriad of picks to free him up on the wing to take his silky jumper – especially from behind the arc (a shot he’s hitting 50% of the time, by the way). If Allen is covered, Pierce will be sitting weak side looking for a catch either at the high post or behind the arc where he can go to work and get off his jumper from his pet spot of the elbow or the shoulder of the three point line.

To defend all these actions the Lakers must first get back on defense and mark shooters in the open court. In the half court, we’ll see if Mike Brown stays with Phil Jackson’s strategy of putting Kobe on Rondo to discourage him from penetrating while also disrupting passing angles. This year Rondo is a more confident jump shooter and will take that open look more often, but it’s still the sound strategy. Slowing Pierce, meanwhile, will come down to an engaged Metta World Peace. If MWP can bring the same type of intensity he brought to the Clippers game he should be up to the challenge of denying Pierce his spots on the floor and playing a physical brand of D that keeps him off balance. If MWP isn’t up to that standard, it may end being a long night considering how well Pierce has been going of late.

The other key tonight is the bench play. The C’s have added Pietrus and Bass and both have been solid contributors for them by knocking down open jumpers. Bass is key to the P&R game the C’s like to run and Pietrus is very good at finding open space behind the arc (especially in the corners) to get off clean looks. The Laker reserves must be aware of these two and mark them consistently because they will hurt you if given the open shot. Also key will be Avery Bradley’s ability to pressure the ball and whether or not Goudelock is up to the task of facing a defender that will hound you. Goudelock must show poise tonight while also not getting tentative. His biggest asset has been his willingness to attack the paint in the P&R and he mustn’t lose that tonight in the face of extreme ball pressure.

In the end, this is a game that matters a lot. Not just because it’s a rivalry game, but because it can get the Lakers back on track and give them a chance to still have a winning road trip. A loss tonight puts them at 1-3 on the Grammy trip and would hurt them psychologically and in the standings. It’s time to get a win.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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