Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

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Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

BOSTON Kevin Garnett is playing his best basketball in years, Paul Pierce is setting the tone early in games and the Celtics bench has come alive. The Miami Heat will surely look to slow down the Boston Celtics (29-22) on all those fronts. But if there's a barometer of late as to how the C's will fare, it has to be Rajon Rondo. His ability to set the tone of the game with his playmaking has been a huge factor in Boston's success which has catapulted them to the top of the Atlantic Division.

He comes into today's game having racked up double-digit assists in 12 straight games. In Boston's 100-79 win at Minnesota, Rondo had 17 assists -- two more than the entire Timberwolves team.

"It's really a credit to my teammates," Rondo said. "I'm passing them the ball, but at the end of the day, they have to make the shots."

Rondo's ability to break down Miami's defense will go far in determining if the Celtics can continue on their winning ways against a Miami Heat team that's trying to get to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.

Here are a few other keys to consider as Boston (29-22) plays the first of three games against Miami in this final month of the NBA season.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR This will be the second time these two have faced off, but much has changed since their matchup back on December 27. Paul Pierce (right heel) did not play in that game. Kevin Garnett, who now plays center, was playing primarily at the power forward position then. And Greg Stiemsma was just another rookie big man at the end of an NBA bench who didn't play. Today, he's the C's best shot-blocker who is now one of the first reserves to see action. "We're definitely a better team now than we were at the start of the season," Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. "Hopefully we'll just keep improving, and go into the playoffs playing our best basketball." Miami has a slightly different look as well with the recent addition of Ronny Turiaf who signed with the Heat on March 21 after being waived by the Denver Nuggets. It'll be worth monitoring how the new faces who weren't around or were in different roles the first time these two met, will fare today.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Avery Bradley vs. Dwyane Wade: Bradley's abilities to cut to the basket and (more recently) knock down jumpers will be put to the test against Wade, who is one of the more under-rated perimeter defenders in the NBA. Bradley's aggressive style defensively will face the ultimate challenge in Wade, a big-time scorer who has a way of getting the best defenders in early foul trouble. Whether Bradley starts or comes off the bench in place of Ray Allen -- he's questionable to play after missing the last five games with a right ankle injury -- this will be an interesting matchup.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Kevin Garnett's last two games at center pitted him against Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, easily two players Garnett had no problem getting amped up to face. Joel Anthony? Not quite the same sizzle. But Anthony potentially poses an even greater problem. He is a high-energy, all-out hustle kind of player -- the kind of player whose strengths work against what Garnett does best. Keeping Anthony from controlling the boards should be Garnett's primary responsibility today.

STAT TO TRACK -- Boston has been a lot more efficient offensively around the basket lately, aided largely by their dribble penetration which has resulted in a slight spike in points in the paint. That'll be key against a Miami Heat team that has been among the NBA's best all season in limiting opponents scoring around the rim. Teams have averaged just 36.9 points in the paint against Miami this season, the third-fewest allowed in the NBA. Although Boston's 34.8 points in the paint average ranks just 29th in the league, the C's have increased their points in the paint scoring to 40 per game during their current four-game winning streak.

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

BOSTON -- For a team where offense has been a major problem area this season, lighting the lamp four times against the Florida Panthers on Monday night was a welcomed sight for the Bruins indeed.

The Bruins won it in dazzling fashion with a 4-3 overtime win on a David Pastrnak rush to the net after he totally undressed D-man Mike Matheson on his way to the painted area, and then skill took over for him easily beating Roberto Luongo with a skate-off goal.

That was the game-breaker doing his thing and finishing with a pair of goals in victory, and continuing to push a pace that has the 20-year-old right wing on track for more than 40 goals this season.

That would give the Bruins just their fourth 40-goal scorer in the last 25 years of franchise history (Glen Murray in 2002-03, Bill Guerin in 2001-02 and Cam Neely in 1993-94), and mark one of the bigger reasons behind an expected offensive surge that may just be coming for a Black and Gold group currently ranked 23rd in the league in offense.

They just hope that the four strikes vs. Florida is indeed a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the season after serving as just the eighth time in just 26 games this season that they scored more than two goals.

“[There have been] a lot of tight games and low-scoring games, you’re right. It’s good, but as a goalie, I’m not happy when I let in three goals, ever. But it’s great to see that scoring support,” said Tuukka Rask. “When you get four goals, you expect to win, and a lot of times when we get three, I expect to win. It’s great to see [an uptick in scoring].”

So what is there to be optimistic about from a B’s offensive perspective aside from Pastrnak blowing up for a couple more goals to keep pace among the NHL league leaders with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Laine?

Well, the Bruins are starting to see results from crashing to the front of the net, attacking in the offensive zone and finally finishing off plays after serving as one of the best puck possession teams in the league over the first few months.

Just look at how the goals were scored, and how the Bruins are working in closer to the net rather than settling for perimeter plays.

The first goal on Monday night was a result of Tim Schaller crashing down the slot area for a perfectly executed one-timer feed from David Krejci. Similarly David Pastrnak was hanging around in front of the net in the second period when a no-look, spinning Brad Marchand dish from behind the net came his way, and he wasn’t going to miss from that range against Roberto Luongo. Then David Backes parked his big body in front of the Florida net in the third period, and redirected a Ryan Spooner shot up and over Luongo for the score that got the Bruins into overtime.

It’s one of a couple of goals scored by Backes down low recently, and his third goal in the last five games as he heats up with his playmaking center in Krejci. The 32-year-old Backes now has seven goals on the season and is on pace for 26 goals after a bit of a slow start, and the offense is coming for that line as they still search for balance in their two-way hockey play.

“A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said Backes. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.

“With the way Tuukka has played, and our defense has been stingy and our penalty kill has been on, four goals should be a win for our team. It hasn’t always been easy for us this year. It’s been a process, but I think you’re starting to see the things that you need to see in order for us to score goals. We’re going to the front of the net and getting extended offensive zone time, and then you find a few guys like Pasta in the slot. That’s a good recipe for us.”

Then there’s Ryan Spooner, who enjoyed his best game of the season on Monday night and set up the B’s third goal of the game with his speed and creativity. It was noticeable watching Spooner play with his unbridled skating speed and creative playmaking, and it made a discernible difference in Boston’s overall offensive attack against Florida. It’s something that Claude Julien is hoping to see more of moving forward from Spooner after recent trade rumors really seemed to spark the 23-year-old center, and also knocked some of the inconsistency from a player that’s extremely dangerous offensively when he’s “on.”

“It’s obvious that if Ryan wants to give us those kinds of games, then we have lots of time for him. When he doesn’t we just can’t afford to give him that kind of ice time,” said Julien. “There are games where he hasn’t been as involved, and it’s obvious and apparent to everybody that when he’s not getting involved then he’s not helping our team. When he is playing the way he did yesterday, we can certainly use that player more than not. We’d love to see him get consistent with those kinds of games.”

So while it’s clear the Bruins aren’t completely out of the woods offensively and there are still players like Patrice Bergeron sitting below their usual offensive numbers, it’s also been a little mystifying to watch Boston struggle so much offensively given their talent level.

The Black and Gold fully realized that potential in taking a tough divisional game from Florida on Monday night, and they hope it’s something to build on as the schedule doesn’t let up at all in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while Dave Dombrowski is collecting stars and talent over at Fenway Park. I dig it.

*Interesting piece about switching teams in the NHL and leaving behind old allegiances when the job calls for it.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Harvey Fialkov looks at the connections between the Bruins and the Florida Panthers, and more specifically with the Panthers and the Boston-area.

*A rumor round-up across the NHL including the humorous nugget that the Bruins are looking to move Jimmy Hayes. Yes, they are looking to move Hayes. They are begging some other NHL team to take on the player and the contract for somebody that has one point since last February. It’s not happening.

*Escrow is at the heart of the next negotiation between the NHL and the NHLPA, and I really thought it was going to be years before I’d have to even think about the CBA again.

*Tough break for the Florida Panthers losing Keith Yandle for a long period of time after he was injured last night vs. the Bruins. FOH (Friend of Haggs) Mike Halford has the story at Pro Hockey Talk.

*Wild coach Bruce Boudreau talks his “bucket list”, which includes a lot of movies and even a stint as a movie reviewer for the Manchester Union Leader back in the day.

*Sounds like Pat Maroon might want to sit out the next few plays after calling hockey a “man’s game” among other things.

*For something completely different: Yup, I’m pretty okay with the Red Sox blowing up the prospect cupboard for Chris Sale.