Celtics-Lakers preview: An emotional matchup

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Celtics-Lakers preview: An emotional matchup

LOS ANGELES Regardless of the record, NBA fans have come to expect a good show when the Celtics and Lakers get together. So it was a bit stunning, to say the least, to see how easily Boston handled the Lakers just a couple weeks ago to the tune of 116-95.

And the sad part? The game wasn't even that close.

Fast forward to tonight's game, one in which the Celtics are actually better than they were when these two met while the Lakers are still trying to establish an identity.

But the challenge of sweeping the Lakers, always daunting, is even more difficult now.

For starters, the Celtics are coming off a loss at Denver Tuesday night while the Lakers were home, resting and preparing for tonight's game which will be their first following the all-star break.

And then there's the recent death of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, the kind of real-life setback that could very well serve as a catalyst in their efforts to rally their way into the playoffs.

"It's a lot of stuff to handle," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. "And we're going to be right in the firestorm."

After offering his condolences to the Buss family, C's Kevin Garnett acknowledged that the environment for tonight's game will make an already challenging night even tougher in many ways.

"It should be a lot of emotion in the building," Garnett said. "On top of the most anticipated rival. Nothing more, nothing less than that. Both teams are trying to obviously get on some type of roll, like into a rhythm themselves, period."

How Boston handles all of the off-the-court distractions will indeed play a role in whether the Celtics can brush off Tuesday's loss at Denver and start up another winning streak.

Here are some other factors that may come into play tonight.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Kobe Bryant is going to score a ton of points regardless of what the Celtics do defensively. Limiting the four starters around him from having a big game will be crucial. It certainly was when these two met earlier. Bryant had a game-high 27 points, but he was the only Lakers starter to score in double figures.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Paul Pierce vs Metta World Peace. This was a matchup that Pierce dominated in their first meeting on Feb. 7. But with the Celtics coming off a game at Denver on Tuesday, there's no telling how much did last night's loss took out of Pierce.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Courtney Lee remains a wild card of sorts for the Celtics. His scoring and defense helped keep the C's in Tuesday's loss to Denver. And his overall game was big in Boston's win over the Lakers earlier this month. He had 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.

STAT TO TRACK: Boston has to feel better about its chances of winning the rebounding war with Pau Gasol (plantar fascia) sidelined with an injury that's expected to keep him out until sometime in March. The Celtics saw first-hand how well -- or woeful depending on who you root for -- the Lakers are without Gasol. In the first meeting, Gasol was out with the foot injury. It is not a coincidence that Boston out-rebounded the Lakers 48-43.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.