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.

With Thomas drawing attention, Stevens turns to Rozier in big moment

With Thomas drawing attention, Stevens turns to Rozier in big moment

BOSTON – Prior to Saturday’s game, Terry Rozier talked to CSNNE.com about the importance of staying ready always, because “you never know when your name or number is going to be called.”

Like when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter with less than 10 seconds to play?

Yes, Rozier was on the floor in that scenario and the second-year guard delivered when his team needed it.

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But Rozier’s fourth quarter heroics which forced overtime against Portland, did not provide that much-needed jolt that Boston needed as the Blazers managed to fend off the Celtics in overtime, 127-123.

For Rozier’s part, he had 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

The 15 points scored for Rozier was the most for him since he tallied 16 in a 30-point Celtics win at Orlando on Dec. 7.

But more than the points, the decision by head coach Brad Stevens to draw up a play for him in that moment, a time when most of what Boston does revolves around the shooting of Isaiah Thomas who has been among the top-3 scorers in the fourth quarter most of this season, was surprising to many.

And at that point in the game, Thomas already had 13 fourth-quarter points.

Stevens confirmed after the game that the last shot in the fourth was indeed for Rozier, but Thomas’ presence on the floor was important to its execution.

“He (Thomas) also draws a lot of attention,” Stevens said. “So I think you just weigh kind of … what kind of shot you’re going to get, depending on who it is.”

Rozier had initially screened for Thomas, and Thomas came back and screened for him.

“I was open as soon as I caught … and I let it fly,” Rozier said. “Coach drew up a play for me and it felt good to see the ball go in.”

Being on the floor at that time, win or lose, was a victory of sorts for Rozier.

He has seen first-hand how quickly the tide can change in the NBA for a young player.

After a strong summer league showing and a solid training camp, Rozier had earned himself a firm spot in the team’s regular rotation.

But a series of not-so-great games coupled with Gerald Green’s breakout night on Christmas Day, led to his playing time since then becoming more sporadic.

Rozier, in an interview with CSNNE.com, acknowledged it hasn’t been easy going from playing regular minutes to not being sure how much court time, if any, he would receive.

But he says the veterans on the team have been good about keeping his spirits up, and one in particular – Avery Bradley – has been especially helpful.

Like Rozier, Bradley’s first couple of years saw his playing time go from non-existent to inconsistent. But Bradley stayed the course and listened to the team’s veterans who continued to tell him that his hard work would pay off sooner or later.

Those same words of wisdom Bradley received in his early days, he passes on to Rozier.

“It’s big,” Rozier told CSNNE.com. “He (Bradley) tells me things like that. I felt I was ready for this (inconsistent minutes) after all that he told me. It’s big to have a guy like him that has been through it all with a championship team, been around this organization for a while; have him talk to you is big. It’s always good. That’s why I stay positive, and be ready.”

Which is part of the reason why Stevens didn’t hesitate to call up a play for the second-year guard despite him being a 33.3 percent shooter from 3-point range this season – that ranks eighth on this team, mind you.

“He’s a really good shooter,” Stevens said of Rozier. “I think with more opportunity that will show itself true, but he made some big ones in the fourth quarter. We went to him a few different times out of time-outs, and felt good about him making that one.”

And to know that Stevens will turn to him not just to spell Thomas or one of the team’s other guards, but to actually make a game-altering play in the final seconds … that’s major.

“It helps tremendously,” said Rozier who added that his confidence is through “the roof. It makes me want to do everything. You know defense, all of that. It’s great, especially to have a guy like Brad trust you."