Blakely's Celtics-Knicks preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Knicks preview

NEW YORK Ray Allen will return to the Boston Celtics lineup, which will give them another guy who can score from the perimeter. But lately, it has been the defense of Boston's guards that turned heads - and in many instances, turned opponents away with one empty possession after another.

Having won seven of their last 10 games (only Indiana has been better during that span in the East, winning nine of their last 10 games), the Celtics have done it in large part because of the defensive play of their guards. Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and company have been able to limit dribble penetration which has forced a number of teams to be more perimeter-oriented than they probably would want to be.

This has led to guards taking tougher, more contested shots which in turn, has meant fewer points allowed by the C's. In the last 10 games, Boston has allowed opposing guards to score 34.2 points per game which ranks just behind New Orleans (32.5) and Philadelphia (34.1).

Of course, limiting guards from scoring likely means a spike in points for frontcourt players, right? For New Orleans and Philadelphia, it does. They rank in the bottom 10 for points allowed to frontcourt players in their last 10 games played. Meanwhile, the Celtics are giving up 50.2 points to frontcourt players during he same time period, second only to tonight's opponent, the New York Knicks, who have allowed opposing frontcourts to score 48.9 points per game.

Boston's ability to keeping both guards and big men from generating lots of points, will be a primary factor in the outcome of tonight's game. But there are other keys to the game as well. We'll examine some of them now as Boston tries to move one step closer to locking up the Atlantic Division against a surging New York Knicks team that has won four of their last six games.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR The reigning Eastern Conference player of the week, Kevin Garnett, returns to the floor after C's coach Doc Rivers gave him last game off. Garnett was in a great groove scoring the ball, as well as defending and of course, rebounding. It's only one night and it shouldn't throw him totally out of whack, but Garnett is a creature of habit that does not like his routine to be disrupted. He understands the value that the Celtics place him in, knowing he has to play well and be healthy in the playoffs, for them to have any shot of making another deep playoff run. But you have wonder if missing the one game will impact his play, or possibly result in him getting off to a slow start.

MATCHUP TO WATCHBrandon Bass vs. Carmelo Anthony: With the Knicks going with a three-guard lineup, Anthony slides over to the power forward position which means he'll be matched with Bass. Look for the Celtics to switch this often on defense. But if Anthony is guarding Bass, this might be the game in which Bass displays a low-post game. Because Anthony is strong, arguably the strongest small forward this side of LeBron James. But Bass is stronger and heavier - two factors he needs to utilize often tonight.

PLAYER TO WATCHRajon Rondo will likely be guarded at times by Iman Shumpert, an athletic, defensive-minded, on-the-ball-defender cut from the same cloth as Avery Bradley. He's quick enough to get up on Rondo and strong enough to throw Rondo off stride. But to Rondo's credit, he has figured out a way to beat every kind of defense, every kind of defender, thrown his way whose mission is to limit his effectiveness which is evident by him racking up double-digit assists in 22 straight games.

STAT TO TRACKPoints will be hard to come by for both teams around the basket, a point that's drilled home when you look at the numbers in recent games. In the last 10 games, the Knicks are tops in the NBA in fewest points allowed in the paint, at 26.5. Right behind them? You guessed it. The Boston Celtics, who are giving up 27.4 points in the paint during the same period of time. It speaks to how they're defending, obviously. But it also says a lot about the opponents they have faced who rely a lot more on their perimeter shooting than pounding the ball inside or scoring off dribble penetration.

Horford admits he was 'very emotional' after 'special' win

Horford admits he was 'very emotional' after 'special' win

CLEVELAND – For about 30 or so seconds following Boston’s 111-108 Game 3 win over Cleveland, Al Horford was not Al Horford.

He’s a passionate player, but seldom is it on display in as outwardly a fashion as it was following their Game 3 victory.

In an interview with CSN’s Abby Chin after the game, Horford tried to put into words what the victory meant.

But the aggressive high-fives to teammates passing him by, the intense way he looked into the camera … that spoke volumes about what this game meant to the veteran big man.

“It’s big, it’s big!” Horford said in between high-fives with Jonas Jerebko and other Celtics who came past him.

“A lot of people doubting us out there!” Horford said, staring intently into the camera as if he was saying, ‘yeah, I’m talking about you!’”

Less than 24 hours after the game, Horford’s emotions had cooled down considerably.

“It was an emotional game,” he told CSN following a short practice at the Q Arena on Monday. “Just, having to hear … since the blowout, everybody counting us out. Everybody really believing that it was over.”

The Celtics came into Game 3 having lost both Games 1 and 2 at home by a combined 57 points which includes the worst playoff loss (Game 2, 130-86) in franchise history.

So with that as the backdrop, knowing full well that no one outside of their locker room gave them an ice cube in hell’s chance at winning Game 3, the victory brought about a level of satisfaction that Celtics players had seldom experienced before if at all.

“The emotions at that time were high for our group,” Horford admitted. “And it shows what we’ve been talking about all year, a resilient group that has a lot of fight in them. We were hit with some adversity with Isaiah being down but our group responded.”

Thomas re-aggravated a right hip injury in Game 2, and was later ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. 

After falling behind 77-56 in the third quarter, the Celtics closed out the third with a 26-10 run to come within 87-82 going into the fourth quarter. During the run, Marcus Smart had 11 points which turned out to be equal to LeBron James’ scoring output … for the entire game.

This is Horford's 10th NBA season, all of which have included a trip to the postseason.

That, combined with having won a pair of national championships when he played at the University of Florida, serves as a reminder that the 30-year-old has been on the winning ledger of big games before.

But even he acknowledged Sunday’s Game 3 win was … different.

“I have had plenty of moments like this,” Horford said. “But this was definitely emotional. This was very emotional, exciting, on the road, no one really giving us any chance. To be able to come through like that, it just felt great. I’ve been part of emotional wins, but this one was a special one.”

That was evident in Horford’s energy-charged, post-game comments.

“Heart! Heart! This team got heart!” he yelled. “We got beat bad (in Game 2), but it’s all about how you rebound!”

And we get that message, loud and clear!

'Ecstatic' Thomas was with Celtics teammates via FaceTime after Game 3 win

'Ecstatic' Thomas was with Celtics teammates via FaceTime after Game 3 win

CLEVELAND – Gone but definitely not forgotten.

Isaiah Thomas, out for the rest of the playoffs with a right hip injury, wasn’t in the Q Arena physically, but his presence – and his face via FaceTime – were inside the locker room in the initial moments following their 111-108 Game 3 win over Cleveland.

“We called him right after the game,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “He got to celebrate with us a little bit. It’s sad that he’s not here. We wish he was here with us. We just want him to get better.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens added, “I didn’t even realize that had happened until later on. one of my first text messages was from Isaiah.  He’s hurting not being out there but he’s completely invested, for sure.”

He initially suffered the injury on March 15 at Minnesota, but re-aggravated it in the first half of Boston’s Game 2 loss to the Cavs. Less than 24 hours later, Thomas was deemed out for the remainder of the playoffs.

Instead of Thomas being the rock of sorts that the Celtics lean on with his play, he has become their rallying cry for the remainder of the playoffs.

“All we can do is play hard for him,” Bradley said. “He was excited with the way we played. We’re a family. Other guys got an opportunity to step up for us. Marcus (Smart) had a big game for us. It could be somebody else next game.”

Smart led the Celtics with a career-high 27 points which included a career-best seven 3’s going down.

And most important, the Celtics avoided going down 3-0 which would have all but sealed their fate in this series considering no team in league history has ever come back for a 3-0 series deficit.

Doing so without Thomas, the Celtics’ leading scorer and the top regular season scorer in the Eastern Conference, made the win all that more impressive for Boston.

“It meant a lot,” Horford said. “We know, Isaiah gives us so much and gave us so much this year. For him, we definitely wanted to come out and fight for him and our season and our team. It felt good to keep believing despite being down big. Just felt good to win the game and bring life back to our locker room. Because going down 3-0, that’s a death sentence pretty much. This was big.”

Not only to the Celtics players but also to Thomas who also texted head coach Brad Stevens full of excitement following Boston’s surprising win.

“He was excited,” Horford recalled. “He was ecstatic. I know he wishes he was here being part of it. We just need to keep doing it for him and our group and doing the best we can.”