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.