CLEVELAND It's hard to believe that the Boston Celtics' season is at a point where facing the Cleveland Cavaliers is a big game. But that's where we are as the two teams will be playing for the eighth and final playoff spot Tuesday night. Boston (15-17) currently holds the No. 8 slot, with the Cavaliers (13-18) just 1.5 games back.
A big part of Cleveland's unexpected rise to playoff contender status has been the play of rookie point guard Kyrie Irving.
He comes into tonight's game averaging 18.1 points (tops among rookies), 5.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
"They're playing great," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Kyrie Irving has put an entire franchise on his back in some ways, and has proven his pick was a pretty good pick."
The No. 1 overall pick in last June's NBA draft was named MVP of the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend.
Boston knows first-hand how good Irving is.
In the Celtics' 88-87 loss on Jan. 29, Irving split two defenders on a driving lay-up in the game's closing seconds for the Cavs win.
Of course Irving's play will be a factor in tonight's game.
But there will be others to pay attention to as the Celtics try and put a little more distance between themselves and the Cavaliers.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- Don't be surprised if the Celtics try to get Ray Allen going early in the game. For one thing, he hasn't had many big games this season so it would probably catch the Cavaliers off guard. Also, he has a favorable matchup in Daniel Gibson. Gibson is smaller and thus provides the potential for Allen to showcase his all-around game, which includes, from time to time, scoring in the post.
MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Rajon Rondo vs Kyrie Irving: This will be Rondo's first meeting against Irving this season. In the two previous matchups, Rondo did not play because of a wrist injury suffered against Toronto on Jan. 18. Irving is averaging 22 points in the two games against the Celtics, which includes the game-winner in an 88-87 win at the Garden on Jan. 29.
PLAYER TO WATCH -- Brandon Bass makes his return after missing the last six games with a left knee injury. Of course his 11.6 points per game will help. But his presence should also provide a boost to other Celtics -- namely Allen and Paul Pierce -- having better shots at the basket, and thus leading to a Celtics team that puts up a lot more points.
"Brandon is now a part of a lot of what we do," Allen told CSNNE.com. "We count on him . . . I think he's a great scorer. But he's under-rated in some of the other things that he can do."
STAT TO TRACK -- Controlling, or at the very least competing for, offensive boards will be huge for the Celtics. In each of the previous two games against Cleveland, the C's were minus-6 on the offensive glass. The struggles that night on the offensive boards mirrored a major problem for Boston all season. Boston is minus-103 this season on the offensive boards, easily the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA. In fact, no other NBA team has allowed even 80 more offensive rebounds than they were able to grab. And in Cleveland, you're talking about the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, with 13.2 per game. However, the Cavs will be without Anderson Varejao (right wrist fracture) who had 20 points and a career-high 20 rebounds (10 were offensive) in their last meeting on Jan. 31.