MILWAUKEE After giving his players a couple days off, Doc Rivers had no idea what to expect when the Boston Celtics took to the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics looked alive and refreshed, and clearly had a little more bounce than normal as they pulled away in the fourth for a 100-91 win that snapped a six-game winning streak for the Bucks (21-25).
With the win, Boston (25-21) is guaranteed to do no worst than .500 on their eight game road trip that ends Friday night at Philadelphia.
But for the C's, there's no time to think about how good this trip has been, until it's over.
For Boston, it's their second straight win over a team that they could potentially see in the playoffs.
"These last two wins have been big," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "We'll be ready tomorrow."
Strong defensive play in the second half, great help-side defense and an active bench all factored into the Celtics' win on Thursday. Here we look back at a few keys identified prior to the game, and how they actually played out.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: A big part of Milwaukee's run of late has been their ball movement. The most telling barometer for that is assists. And the Bucks have been racking them up in bunches lately. Milwaukee has had at least 30 assists in each of their last four games, something that hasn't happened in the NBA since Phoenix did in during the 2007-2008 season. And a five-game assist binge of 30 or more hasn't happened since Orlando did it during the 1994-1995 season. That ball distribution success will be put to the ultimate test by Boston, which allows a league-low 18.5 assists per game.
WHAT WE SAW: Milwaukee had another good game in terms of assists, but the Celtics really took them out of what they wanted to do, in the second half. The Bucks finished with 23 assists (snapping a four game run of 30 or more assists), but only six came in the second half.
"We were struggling to even handle the ball," said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "We weren't sharp in any area of the game."
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Kevin Garnett vs. Drew Gooden: Like Garnett, Gooden is also a power forward playing center. And like Garnett, Gooden has the ability to score facing the basket although he doesn't have Garnett's range on his shot. This is going to be one of the few games that Garnett will play at the center position where he doesn't have a clear-cut advantage over his matchup. And when you throw in the fact that Gooden is playing the best basketball of his career (he was Eastern Conference Player of the Week earlier this month), it makes for what should be a great duel.
WHAT WE SAW: This matchup wasn't even close. Garnett ratcheted up the defensively intensity all game on Gooden, who had six points after missing 10 of his 12 shots from the field. Meanwhile, Garnett had his team-leading 15th double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, in addition tallying six assists and three blocked shots as yet another example of how he's one of the most versatile players in NBA history.
PLAYER TO WATCH: It has to be Paul Pierce, who has been in foul trouble each of the last two games for the Celtics. He didn't fare so well when the two teams met on Feb. 29, scoring just 10 points on 5-for-12 shooting. He'll be defended by Carlos Delfino, which is one of the few matchups that clearly favors Boston. Don't be surprised if the C's try to get the Captain going early and often.
WHAT WE SAW: The Truth delivered the kind of big-game performance fans have come to expect from him in games like Thursday night's tilt. He came out attacking, and scored 11 points in the first quarter. After a quite second quarter, he erupted for another 14 in the second half before finishing with a game-high 25 points.
"That's what a couple days off will do to you, give you some fresh legs," Pierce said. "I had a little zip in my step tonight."
STAT TO TRACK: If Boston emerges with a win, the turning point will most likely be the third quarter. This season, Boston averages 24.3 points per game in the third, the 10th-best scoring mark for that quarter, in the NBA. The Bucks' third-quarter scoring defense ranks 19th in the league, with opponents averaging 24.1 points scored. But complicating matters some for Milwaukee in the third is that they average just 23.2 points scored in the third which ranks No. 23 in the NBA in third quarter scoring which, as you might expect, is their worst scoring quarter.
WHAT WE SAW: True to form, Boston's ability to close out the third quarter playing well positioned them for a strong fourth quarter push. After Milwaukee went on a 5-0 spurt to lead, 71-70 in the third, a pair of baskets by Kevin Garnett gave the C's a 74-71 lead going into the fourth. From there, they opened with a 14-6 run and never looked back. Although Boston only scored 18 points in the third, they were still plus-5 in the quarter by limiting the Bucks to 13 points on 6-for-21 shooting in the quarter.