Coming off one of their better wins of the season Tuesday night over the Brooklyn Nets the Boston Celtics look to build off their strong performance when they open a three game west coast trip Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. against the L.A. Clippers. Currently the hottest teams in the league the Clippers are taking on a Celtics team that has struggled to maintain any kind of momentum thus far this year. Indeed while stumbling to a 14-13 record almost a third of the way through the schedule Boston has failed to win more than two games in a row at any point while the LA is currently in the midst of a 14 game winning streak. The order is tall for Boston, but they desperately need a positive result in order to start building confidence.
Keys to Victory:
Rondo on Defense -
Much like the rest of his Celtics teammates point guard Rajon Rondo has been inconsistent on the defensive end this year. Overall a very strong defender thanks to his quick feet and long arms Rondo has nevertheless had far too many stretches this year where his man has gotten past him much too easily. This has not been the case for the past two games however. Two games ago against the Milwaukee Bucks Rondo totally dominated Brandon Jennings, limiting him to 12 points on 4-11 shooting and seven turnovers. The Celtics lost anyway thanks to cold shooting, and Jennings did manage 8 assists and 11 rebounds, but he still had very little success when Rondo was in the game. The Celtics point guard clearly took the matchup personally, extending full court pressure and denying Jennings the ball for much of the night. On Christmas Day against the Brooklyn Nets Rondo was even better. He has always taken the matchup with Deron Williams personally and on Christmas he limited the Brooklyn star to just 10 points on 3-7 shooting with 6 assists and 4 turnovers. Thursday brings a new challenge for Rondo – Chris Paul, the man widely regarded as the best point guard in the league. Hopefully Rondo will take this matchup personally as well. It wouldn't be a surprise given that he was almost traded for Paul last offseason. Paul is better than Jenning and Williams, so Rondo probably wont be able to shut him down the way he did with the other two, but Paul is the key to Clippers' attack. If Rondo can make him work for everything the Celtics have a much better shot at winning.
The more things change the more they stay the same. A lot of things have changed with the Celtics over the past three years but one things hasn't – they are still terrible on the boards. Occasionally they simply get overpowered or outnumbered down low. Often times when Kevin Garnett jumps out to play help defense and forces a miss it ends up not mattering because the Celtics somehow ended up with nobody under the basket and gave up an easy second chance layup. However just as often the Celtics just display bad rebounding fundamentals. They simply jump for the ball instead of boxing out. Against the Clippers, who boast the ridiculously athletic front court tandem of Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan, the Celtics cannot afford to make this mistake. No one in the NBA out jumps Blake Griffin, and if the Celtics don't put a body on he and Jordan all night long then they are in big trouble. The Clippers are dangerous enough on offense without getting 20 more shots than the opposition.
Limit the Turnovers, Dig in on D -
When fans think of the Clippers they think of "Lob City" and Paul throwing alley-oops to Griffin. However the truth of the matter is that LA isn't a spectacular offensive team. They are absolutely deadly in transition, but if forced to play in the half court they don't really have a go to guy other than Paul, who in his heart of hearts is still a pass first player. When you see them in half court sets there really isn't all that much going on, particularly if Paul can't penetrate. Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe give them guys on the bench who can create their own offense, but this still is not the greatest half court team. Where they are really dangerous is in transition but there is an easy way to combat this – don't turn the ball over. Doc Rivers has said repeatedly that turnovers, particularly live ball turnovers, are kryptonite for the Celtics especially against strong fast break teams like LA. The Celtics need to make sure they don't turn the ball over and play strong half court defense or the Clippers will run away from them.
The under the radar reason why the Clippers have been so successful thus far is actually their half court defense. Their offense isn't that great despite all those highlight reel plays, but their defense is absolutely excellent. Opponents are averaging only 91.9 points per game against LA. Griffin in particular is spectacular, so the Celtics will probably struggle to get Kevin Garnett going in the post and will need to find points from somewhere else. The solution should be to try and get out on the break. One of the best ways to neutralize a running team like the Clippers is to run against them. The Celtics need to get stops and get out in transition for easy baskets. When they are forced into the half court they need to drive at Griffin and Jordan and try to get them into foul trouble. Trying to force the ball down low to KG, or staying on the perimeter and not attacking LA's interior presence, is a fast track to defeat.
It's never really fair to say that a team isn't trying hard, but there have been games this year when Celtics101 has been convinced that the Celtics weren't trying hard enough. There have been a lot of "meh" games where Boston just seemed to be going through the motions and the effort and intensity, particularly on the defensive end, was missing. However when Boston returned from their 0-3 road trip and got criticized by President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge they played one of their highest intensity games of the year the next day against Milwaukee. Sparked by Jeff Green and Courtney Lee the Celtics looked more engaged on that night than they had all year. They still lost because the starters simply couldn't find the range on offense, but they followed it up by trouncing the Nets on Christmas Day. The Celtics have the talent to beat any NBA team out there, but step one is to simply outwork them.
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