Blakely: Previewing Celtics-Mavericks

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Blakely: Previewing Celtics-Mavericks

DALLAS Nothing has come easy for the Boston Celtics (15-15) this season, so it makes sense that the only way they can avoid slipping below-.500 for the season is to hit the road and beat the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.

Mind you, this is a Mavericks team that's coming off a lackluster loss at New York on Sunday. But at this point, it doesn't matter who the opponent is. The Celtics simply have to play better.

"We have to have better focus when we go into these games," said Paul Pierce. "Or we're just going to continue to get embarrassed. We just gotta have pride, pretty much."

A bit more pride in their play, which has straddled the line between poor and pitiful lately, can only help.

But they'll need more, especially against a Dallas team that's looking to bounce back following a road loss at New York on Sunday.

Here are some of the factors that will likely play a prominent role in tonight's game as the Celtics try and avoid a fourth straight loss.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- The Dallas Mavericks are one of the best teams in the NBA at getting out the gates quickly. They average 25.8 points scored per game in the first quarter, which ranks No. 2 in the league. And the last thing the Celtics need to deal with is a team that comes out scoring early. One of the keys to the Celtics scoring defense being ranked No. 2 in the NBA, has been how they've handled themselves in the first quarter. Teams are scoring 22.8 points per game against the C's in the first quarter, which ranks eighth in the NBA in first quarter scoring defense.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Jermaine O'Neal vs Brendan Haywood: O'Neal is coming off one of his strongest performances of the season with the Celtics, grabbing 11 rebounds to go with eight points and five blocks. With so few bigs available either because of injury or non-basketball related matters, the C's need J.O. to step his game up. Haywood doesn't present nearly as many challenges as Tyson Chandler (now with the New York Knicks) did last season, but he is a serviceable big man that, if you're not careful, can cause problems either scoring or rebounding the ball.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Mickael Pietrus is a streaky player who can get hot at any time. The dude is overdue -- way overdue -- to have one of those big scoring-binge kind of nights. Boston has lost five of its last six games and in that span, Pietrus has averaged 4.2 points while shooting 32.1 percent (9-for-28) -- both well below his season averages. And in his last three games, he's missed 11 of his 12 shots which includes missing all 10 of his 3-point shots.

STAT TO TRACK -- As has been the case in most of their games this season, turnovers will go far in determining whether the Celtics can pull off an upset tonight. Their turnover numbers this season mirror their struggles just to maintain their current middle-of-the-pack status. Boston averages 15.4 turnovers per game, which ranks 19th in the league. The Mavericks are led by former Celtic Rick Carlisle, whose teams have always been strong defensively dating back to his days as the Detroit Pistons head coach. The Mavs are forcing 15.9 turnovers per game which ranks ninth in the league.

Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

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Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

Isaiah Thomas has established himself as one of the NBA’s top players in the fourth quarter of games this season.

“I’d rather play that than any other quarter,” Thomas said.

But there will be times when the game’s flow or head coach Brad Stevens’ gut will tell him to go in a different direction with Thomas’ minutes which is something the two have had conversations about which has helped eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings.

“We’ve had player-coach talks, how he feels and how I feel,” Thomas said. “That’s the relationship we have. We changed it up a little bit (in the win over Sacramento) and I’m just happy we got the win.”

In that game, Thomas was replaced by Terry Rozier with 3:20 to play in the quarter and Boston trailing 66-63. He returned to the floor at the 8:31 mark and the Celtics were down 76-74.

“The key is, there are some times where you feel like those last few minutes of the third quarter will be real important moving forward,” Stevens told reporters prior to tonight’s game. “Especially based on how your team is playing. And you just have to make that decision. You have to make that decision, you take him out early in the third like we did (against Sacramento) and put him back in earlier; or play him through until the two or one-minute mark in the third, and then give him his rest up until the seven or six. Either way, we’ve talked about it like I do with all our guys, especially the guys that are playing and big in the rotation.

Stevens would love to come up with a game plan and stick to it with little to no changes being made.

But the NBA game is unpredictable and his job as the head coach is to make the necessary on-the-fly changes that best position the Celtics for victory.

“Ultimately there will be days that it will be very consistent and there might be a time or two where I’m gonna go with my gut,” Stevens said. “They know that and we’ve talked about it.”

And while Stevens’ decision may not sit well with some, players understand it’s all done to achieve one goal – win. 

“There’s a number of reasons why you make a decision to leave someone in or take someone out,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, we have to figure out game to game, moment to moment, what’s best for our team. That’s what I’m charged with. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. I’m not gonna act like that. Ultimately, those guys know I’m thinking about it all the time.”