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Preview: Celtics-Mavericks

01.18.10 at 10:30 am ET

Doc Rivers has a well-deserved reputation as a player’s coach, but that tag is too nebulous to hold any real meaning. Generally a player’s coach is regarded as someone (usually an ex-player) who is in touch with his team’s psyche and doesn’t try to make them bend to his will. A player’s coach allows the team to be the star instead of the system. Just as generally, player’s coaches are praised when things go well for knowing what buttons to push and derided for being too soft when things go poorly. That’s just the nature of the business.

Rivers is hardly soft. He demands a lot of his players and expects them to perform according to the coaching staff’s gameplan. But he rarely airs them out in public, at least not in a way that seems too personal. Perhaps more importantly, he seems to have a handle on when to go hard and when to make things light, as in holding a team dunk contest during practice on Saturday. It’s hardly an exact science and Rivers has, at times, taken blame when he felt that he pushed his team too hard in retrospect.

If he has a criticism it’s that he doesn’t incorporate the Celtics younger players into the lineup and give them a fair chance to contribute. It’s impossible to say for sure if Bill Walker, for example, can ever be a part of the rotation because he never gets a real chance to play meaningful minutes. But in Rivers’ defense, he’s not coaching a team for the future. The Celtics are built to win this season. That’s how he will be judged and everything he does needs to be seen through that prism.

That may be unfortunate for Walker and J.R. Giddens at this point in their career, but it makes sense for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and Rivers’ job is to get the best out of those players during the time that he has them on his team.

MAVERICKS (26-14, 5-5 last 10)

Points Per Game: 100.3

Points Allowed: 98.1

Differential: +2.2 (12th)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.5 (13th)

Defensive Efficiency: 105.2 (11th)

Pace: 92.1 (19th)

Likely Starters: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Erick Dampier

Injuries: Eduardo Najera (back), Tim Thomas (Achilles)

CELTICS (27-11, 4-6 last 10)

Points Per Game: 100.5

Points Allowed: 93.7

Differential: +6.8 (Second)

Offensive Efficiency: 108.9 (10th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.5 (Third)

Pace: 91.8 (21st)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace, Kendrick Perkins

Injuries: Kevin Garnett (hyper-extended knee), Marquis Daniels (wrist)

Key Matchup: Rasheed Wallace vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Welcome back Sheed. You haven’t played in over a week and on your first night back you’ll draw the NBA’s toughest covers in the midst of yet another stellar season. Nowitzki’s career arc will always be a matter of some debate because his team lost in the NBA Finals with a 2-0 lead when they were the favorites and then suffered a first-round upset the following year during his MVP season. But at the rate he’s going Nowitzki deserves to be remembered as much for his consistency and longevity as his playoff disappointments. In his 12th season in the league, Nowitzki is still averaging right around 24 points and eight rebounds per game and his advanced numbers have also remained steady. The Celtics need Wallace in this game precisely because of Nowitzki and there aren’t a lot of 7-footers out there who can play defense both inside and out.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: This is the beginning of a two-week stretch that will have the Celtics play Dallas, Portland, Orlando, Atlanta and the Lakers. When the schedule came out this seemed like it would be a good test to see where the Celtics are as a team and also what they might need to add in the weeks before the trade deadline. But the Celtics are not whole and that will make it more difficult to make definitive assessments after these two weeks are over. Right now they are playing day-by-day and the goal is to have a representative team on the floor and in place by the time the Lakers arrive next Sunday.

The Mavericks in a Paragraph: When Dallas traded Devin Harris for Jason Kidd the move was panned by a wide-range of writers and observers. You don’t trade height and you don’t trade youth are two well-worn maxims and in the case of the Kidd-Harris swap, the Mavs were dealing part of the future for a player who seemed better left in the past. Parts of three seasons have come and gone since the trade and it’s hard to argue that Dallas made a mistake, although some people will still try. Harris has become a solid lead guard, but hardly a franchise difference-maker, while Kidd is still going strong. He may not be the Kidd of old, but he has held up remarkably well. He also may not be the player who can get Dallas over the hump in the West but that’s a function of how tough the conference has been, more than any deficiency in Kidd’s game.

What to Watch For: The Mavs have three fast guards that they bring off their bench in Jason Terry, J.J. Barea (of Northeastern fame) and rookie Rodrique Beaubois. Outside of Rondo, the Celtics don’t have a lot of speed so it will be interesting to see how they set up the backcourt matchups depending on the personnel. The Mavs are also coming off a 22-point loss to Toronto Sunday night, while the Celtics haven’t played in three days. That could play a role tonight.

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