NEW YORK Much has been said about the Boston Celtics' current back-to-back-to-back set of games and how challenging it will be.
Well as much as it will test the C's physically, overcoming the mental hurdle of facing a trio of teams with no playoff hopes to speak of, may be even more imposing.
It certainly was a factor in Boston's 84-79 loss at Toronto on Friday, a game in which the Celtics needed to win a lot more than the Raptors who now have 21 wins on the season. Things won't be any easier tonight against the New Jersey Nets (22-38) or the Charlotte Bobcats (7-51).
Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged after the Raptors loss that his team may have not taken Toronto as seriously as they should have in order to be successful. Making that even more complicated was the Raptors playing without starters Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani who were each out with an injury.
"I'm sure that is some of it," Rivers said. "You don't have guys on the floor, you could see there was no sense of urgency. There certainly was none. You could see that, even when they got a lead our guys played like 'oh, we'll come back.' You can't play that way because someone is going to make a shot eventually."
Although the New Jersey Nets are among the NBA's worst teams record-wise, the Celtics shouldn't have the same issue in terms of taking them seriously. The Nets are led by Deron Williams, one of the top point guards in the NBA. They have former Celtic Gerald Green developing into a reliable offensive spark off the Net's bench. And of course, there's winning which the Nets have done in three of their last four games.
How the C's approach the game will indeed weigh heavily in its outcome. Here we'll examine a few other keys in tonight's matchup as the C's try to get back on track after a disappointing road loss at Toronto and continue to secure a top-four seeding by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR - Boston's scoring defense has been solid as a rock, win or lose. It will be put to the test tonight against a New Jersey team that's showing signs of improvement in every area, notably scoring. They have a 6-4 record in their last 10 games, which has been fueled in part by their improved scoring. Although they rank No. 22 on the season in scoring, they're actually up to No. 13 over the last 10 games. Meanwhile the Celtics have the No. 3 scoring defense (89.5 points) this season, but have given up a league-low 84.1 points per game over the course of the last 10.
MATCHUP TO WATCH - Rajon Rondo vs. Deron Williams: You have two of the NBA's top point guards which is sure to bring out the best in both players. Rondo is coming off a 12-assist, zero-turnover night which has run his consecutive game streak with double-digit assists, to 20. And Williams, who will be a free agent this summer, is the seventh-highest scoring point guard over the past 10 games, with a 17.4 average. He has also averaged 11 assists in that span, second only to Rajon Rondo (14.2).
PLAYER TO WATCH - The Celtics were out-worked on the boards by Toronto, and it will again be a concern heading into tonight's game. As much as the Celtics will key in on Deron Williams, they might want to keep close tabs on former Celtic Shelden Williams. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 41 percent of Shelden Williams' rebounds have come off the offensive end which means the C's have to be on guard for the Nets getting multiple scoring opportunities.
STAT TO TRACK - When the Celtics reflect on what went wrong in the Raptors loss, you can bet that not scoring more points in the paint was one of the problems. Fortunately for them, they face a New Jersey teams whose points-in-the-paint woes are just as bad as their own. Boston is averaging an NBA-low 33.6 points scored in the paint this season. Right ahead of them are the Nets with a 34.6 points in the paint average.