Blakely's Celtics-Spurs preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Spurs preview

BOSTON The San Antonio Spurs came out red-hot at the start of the season with wins in six of their first eight games, and are still rolling along with the playoffs just a few weeks away while currently riding a season-best eight game winning streak. The Boston Celtics stumbled out the gate with three straight losses, stumbled some more with five straight defeats just before the all-star break, but have been a different team - make that better - team since with an impressive 15-5 record which includes their current five-game winning streak.

Despite beginning the season differently, each has taken a path that has them playing their best basketball of the season on the cusp of the playoffs.

Of the two, the Spurs' play has indeed been the bigger surprise this season with Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, garnering most of the attention as title contenders out West.

And yet the Spurs (37-14) are just a couple games behind the Thunder (40-13) for the best record in the NBA.

"San Antonio's been playing well all year," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "They got out of the gates hot. I don't know if they've had a bad stretch. I don't know if anyone has done a better job than them, Pop (head coach Gregg Popovich) and that group. They keep adding guys to their mix. They've just been sensational."

The Celtics (30-22) have been on top of their game of late as well, reeling off five straight wins which has them on top of the Atlantic Division by 1.5 games over Philadelphia.

Both teams will try to continue with their strong play and build toward what they each hope will be a long playoff run, even if they each took different paths to get here.

"Obviously you want to peak at the right time, going into the playoffs," said Boston's Paul Pierce. "That's what we're trying to do. With San Antonio, they've been a consistent force all year long."

Here are some of the keys to tonight's game as the C's try to extend their season-best winning streak at home to nine in a row.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Boston's best shot at beating the Spurs is to do what they did against Miami - make sure it's not a game that comes down to the wire. This season, there are few teams that are better at putting away close games in the final couple minutes of play. In games in which San Antonio is ahead or behind within the last two minutes of play, they are 16-9. Only the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers have a higher winning percentage in such games.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Rajon Rondo vs. Tony Parker: In the Big Three era, Rondo has been fairly consistent with strong play against the Spurs. In the six games against them since 2008-2009, Rondo has averaged 14 assists with at least 12 in each game. In addition, he's averaged 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. Parker has emerged as the best scorer for San Antonio this season, averaging a team-high 19.3 points per game this season. And like Rondo, he relies on having jet-like quickness to get to the basket. But Parker is more of a finisher, while Rondo's dribble-penetration is usually to set up a teammate to score.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Brandon Bass is looking more and more like an X-factor for the Celtics. When he's on top of his game both as a scorer and a rebounder, the Celtics are an extremely tough team to beat. Bass has had five double-doubles scoring and rebounding this season. In those games, the C's are 4-1 with the lone loss coming in the season-opening loss at New York on Christmas Day.

STAT TO TRACK: There are a number of statistics that show how good Boston's defense has been this year, one of which is how they are giving up a league-low 36 made field goals per game. Keeping the Spurs at or below that total will not be easy, especially when you realize that they average a league-best 39 made field goals per game which is a big reason why they rank third in the NBA, in points scored (101.9) per game.

Al Horford makes his mark on Celtics win with defense

Al Horford makes his mark on Celtics win with defense

BOSTON – Al Horford had the kind of game that stands out because of the way he scored from so many different spots on the floor. 

But the true measure of his value to this team usually lies in what he brings to the floor defensively. 

Horford had one of his better games defensively in Boston’s 97-92 win over Sacramento on Friday, a game in which he had a season-high six blocked shots. 

For the season, the four-time All-Star is averaging a career-high 2.9 blocks per game.

He’ll be looking to do more of the same tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

While Philly doesn’t have a player as dominant and difficult to contain as DeMarcus Cousins, their top post player Joel Embiid has been impressive even with a minutes restriction after having missed the last two seasons with injuries and recovery. 

Against Sacramento, he had a season-high six blocked shots which was one short of tying his career high which came against the Kings during the 2010-2011 season. 

Although Horford has ranked among the NBA’s top big men when it comes to blocking shots, the Celtics knew when they signed him to a four-year, $113 million contract they were adding a player who could help with rim protection. 

The biggest play in the Celtics’ win over Sacramento came in the closing seconds when Horford was credited with blocking DeMarcus Cousins’ shot. Horford was fouled and went to the line and made his free throws to secure the victory. 

“Playing at the power forward position it really frees me up defensively,” Horford said. “I feel like I can run around a little more and have more impact. When you are a center a lot of the times you get caught up with the bigs and it’s a little harder to get out to shooters and stuff. I’m just trying to be active, as active as I can.”

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas who was among the Green Teamers to recruit Horford to sign with Boston, seeing him protect the rim the way he did on Friday was no surprise.

“We’ve always known when we recruited him we knew that was what he was good at,” Thomas said. “Even if he doesn’t block shots, he alters shots and changes them. He’s a hell of a player on both ends of the floor and he played a hell of a game (on Friday).”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens likes what he sees out of Horford defensively, especially now that he plays for Boston and not Atlanta which eliminated the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs last season. 

“He was terrific in our series,” Stevens said. “Terrific. And so, playing him 10 times last year, and so, I mean, I think I’m an idiot but after 10 times I had at least an idea. You know, he’s all over the place and he covers a lot of ground, he calls out calls, and I think he’s a competitive guy. And that proof is in his winning track record.”