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Preview: Celtics-Suns

12.30.09 at 10:59 am ET
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It’s funny what a couple of losses can do to a team. Just last weekend everyone was hailing the Celtics resiliency and toughness after they found a way to beat the Magic in Orlando. Now, they’re careless and sloppy and not quite as dominant as everyone thought. Or maybe, they just miss Paul Pierce, especially late in games.

The C’s play the Suns Wednesday night and it’s a matchup that should have been circled back when the schedule came out because it’s two good teams who play an entertaining, but completely different, brand of basketball. If the Celtics lose, which they might, it would be three straight defeats and the ship will be sinking. Or something.

Do they need to tighten up? Absolutely. Do they need to play better? Sure. Are they headed for an inevitable playoff fall after a couple of lackluster games on the road in late December? Um, no. For one night, forget about the playoffs. Forget about wherever this team is eventually heading and just enjoy the hoops.

CELTICS (23-7, 7-3 last 10)

Points Per Game: 100.5

Points Allowed: 91.9

Differential: +8.7 (First)

Offensive Efficiency: 108.9 (10th)

Defensive Efficiency: 99.5 (First)

Pace: 92.0 (21st)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins

Injuries: Paul Pierce (knee), Marquis Daniels (wrist), Glen Davis (ankle)

SUNS (20-12, 5-5 last 10)

Points Per Game: 109.8

Points Allowed: 106.0

Differential: +3.8 (Ninth)

Offensive Efficiency: 114.6 (First)

Defensive Efficiency: 110.6 (27th)

Pace: 95.8 (Fourth)

Likely Starters: Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Amar’e Stoudemire, Channing Frye

Injuries: None.

Key Matchup: Nash vs. Rondo

Nash won a couple of MVP’s earlier this decade that in retrospect most feel he probably shouldn’t have won. That’s not a knock on Nash who has been one of the game’s great guards of this or any other era, just the reality of suspect MVP voting. What’s interesting, however, is that Nash may be having an even better season than his MVP years. He ranks first in every assist category in the league, and in free throw shooting. He is the top-ranked guard in True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage and owns the best Offensive Efficiency Rating in the NBA. He’s the key to everything the Suns do and represents yet another test for Rondo.

Celtics in a Paragraph: The Celtics turn the ball over a lot. They average a little more than 15 per game, which puts them in the lower half of the NBA. It’s even worse when you factor in pace where they rank near the very bottom of the league. More than a quarter of their possessions end in turnovers, which puts their 26-turnover performance in a 100-possession game against the Warriors in a little better perspective. That said, turnovers have always been an issue for the Celtics in this era. They had been doing a better job managing them this season, but even a little slippage in this area turns an issue into a full-blown problem.

Suns in a Paragraph: In the past 10 games the Suns have defeated the Lakers, Spurs and Magic and lost to the Blazers, Nuggets and Cavs. They remain a very good team in a hyper-competitive conference that is good enough to beat anyone, but probably not good enough to get to the Finals. That’s a shame for anyone who loves watching well-executed fast-break basketball. Until they break through, their style will always be suspect, but when the Suns did try to play a more conventional game they were not only boring, they were mediocre. For a league that prides itself on its creativity, the NBA can be surprisingly conservative.

What to watch For: Phoenix has four players that have already launched at least 100 3-pointers this season: Nash, Richardson, Frye and former Boston College star, Jared Dudley. Each of them shoot a high percentage, and as a team the Suns are shooting over 42 percent from 3-point range. Not coincidentally, Phoenix owns the best offensive efficiency rating in basketball. The Celtics are the top rated defense in terms of efficiency, so something has to give.

In their first meeting, Phoenix was able to spread the floor with high pick and rolls and with Nash running it there are no good options for defending it. The pressure will be on Rondo to fight through screens and provide pressure on the ball and the Celtics bigs to not leave Frye open for pick and pop jumpers.

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