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.