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.

Celtics are living by the 3-pointer at a historic level

Celtics are living by the 3-pointer at a historic level

BOSTON – It has been well-established that the Celtics are a three-point shooting, bombs away kind of team and nothing seems like it’ll deter them from continuing along that path.
 
But as we prepare for the second half of the season, beginning tonight against the New York Knicks, we come to realize Boston’s launching of 3-pointers isn’t just unusually high.
 
This group of Celtics rank among the league's all-time leaders in 3-point attempts by the halfway mark of the season.

And when you look at the company they’re keeping when it comes to 3-point shooting, it speaks to how important it has become in this NBA to have as many long-range shooting threats on the floor as possible if you're trying to win at a high level.
 
Boston’s 494 3-point attempts thus far this season ranks fourth all-time by the halfway point of a season. But this season, that’s just good enough to be third behind Houston and Golden State with 617 and 505 three-point attempts, respectively.
 
The other team in the top four all-time is last season's Golden State squad, which took 519 three-pointers by the midway point of the season.
 
And all those 3’s by the Celtics have included an NBA-record six straight games in which they made at least 15 3-pointers.
 
That has allowed the Celtics to score at least 100 points in 15 consecutive games, the franchise’s longest such streak since they reached the 100-point plateau in 19 straight games in 1991.
 
Of course Isaiah Thomas’ 3-point shooting stands out, particularly when you see how dominant he has been this season in the fourth quarter with a league-best 10.1 points per game.
 
But his offense, while potent, is aided heavily by the shot-making snipers coach Brad Stevens surrounds him with on a nightly basis.
 
That’s why you didn’t see Stevens or president of basketball operations Danny Ainge freak out earlier this season when the Celtics were struggling.
 
Kelly Olynyk, who shot better than 40 percent on 3’s a year ago, was still on the mend after offseason shoulder surgery.
 
Jae Crowder, whose 3-point shooting has steadily improved throughout his career, had some minor injuries that set him back and maybe more important, didn’t allow him to get into the kind of shooting rhythm we see now which has allowed him to shoot a team-best 42.6 percent on 3’s.
 
Al Horford, Thomas, Amir Johnson … they all missed some time due to injuries this season, which has impacted the team’s chemistry and timing.
 
But the past couple of weeks have seen the Celtics healthier than they’ve been most of this season, and it has allowed them to play with the kind of space they want which has allowed Thomas and his cohorts to take lots of lightly contested to open 3’s most of this season.
 
“We’ve got pretty good shooters on this team where you’ve got to pick your poison,” Thomas said. “We’re shooting at a high level, and I got to say, you just have to pick your poison who you want to stop and my job is just to make the right play each and every time down.”
 

Mitchell (knee) 'feeling well' as he prepares for AFC title game

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Mitchell (knee) 'feeling well' as he prepares for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Mitchell indicated before Wednesday's practice that he's feeling pretty good despite missing last weekend's Divisional Round matchup with the Texans due to a knee injury. 

"I'm feeling well," he said. "Just taking it day by day. Preparing. I just go from there."

Mitchell suffered the injury in a Week 16 win over the Jets at Gillette Stadium. He missed the regular-season finale and has been limited in practice in recent weeks. 

Mitchell was present for Wednesday's fully-padded practice outdoors, and he said it was crucial for him to prepare as though he will play even if he's unsure as to whether or not he'll be called upon. 

"That's the most important thing," he said. "Be ready for any opportunities that could come about."

He added: "As a competitor, no one wants to miss a game. What's important is the team going out theere and competing whether I was out there or not."

Should Mitchell be at all limited moving forward, the Patriots would likely continue to lean upon Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan as their top options. Both Danny Amendola and Michael Floyd were in uniform for last weekend's playoff matchup with Houston as well. 

Hogan suffered a thigh injury that knocked him from the Texans game, but he said on Tuesday that he was progressing well, and he was also on the field for Wednesday's practice. 

Mitchell said there is a sense of confidence in the receivers room that because of their depth, they'll be good to go as a group even if one or two members of the unit are at less than 100 percent. 

"We know there's some things we can't control," he said, "but our coach does a good job of getting everybody ready."