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.