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Preview: Celtics-Rockets

04.02.10 at 11:05 am ET

When the month of March began the Celtics were coming off a loss to the Nets and looking at 17 games in 31 days and 10 of those 17 at home. This was a chance for them to reassert themselves at TD Garden as well as get some of their pride back after struggling through January and February.

The Celtics went 11-6 in March and 7-3 at home, which are both solid marks, but not particularly noteworthy. They swept the Texas teams, but blew a halftime lead in Utah. They beat the Nuggets, but lost by 21 to the Spurs. They handled sub-500 teams on their schedule, but got crushed by Memphis. And, once again, they couldn’t hang with the Cavaliers for 48 minutes.

Have the Celtics improved over the last month? Absolutely. Have they inspired any more confidence that they have a serious postseason run in them? Not really. They are still in fourth place in the East and ninth in point differential. They remain good, maybe even dangerous, but outside the ranks of the top contenders.

ROCKETS (37-37, 4-6 last 10)

Points Per Game: 101.5

Points Allowed: 101.9

Differential: -.4 (16th)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.0 (17th)

Defensive Efficiency: 107.4 (16th)

Pace: 93.8 (8th)

Likely Starters: Aaron Brooks, , Trevor Ariza, Jermaine Taylor, Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola

Injuries: Yao Ming (Foot surgery), Shane Battier (Knee), Jared Jeffries (Achilles), Kevin Martin (Shoulder, questionable)

CELTICS (47-27, 6-4 last 10)

Points Per Game: 98.6

Points Allowed: 94.5

Differential: +4.1 (9th)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.1 (16th)

Defensive Efficiency: 102.6 (2nd)

Pace: 91.7 (20th)

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

Injuries: Pierce (Shoulder, probable), Perkins (Knee, probable)

Key Matchup: Ray Allen vs. Jermaine Taylor

Ray Allen has played over 37,000 minutes in his NBA career and scored over 20,000 points. Jermaine Taylor is starting simply because everyone else on the Rockets is injured. Look for Allen to have a big night.

The Rockets in a Paragraph: Houston is not going to the playoffs this season but they are well-positioned to become one of the NBA’s elite teams as early as next year. Provided Yao Ming can come back from his latest injury. Darryl Morey, the former Celtics executive, has assembled a deep and intriguing roster specifically designed to play with Yao. Their window may be small, considering Yao’s injury problems, but while the rest of the league will be scrambling this summer in free agency, the Rockets are already set.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: How important is the third seed? We’ll soon find out. The Celtics have slipped back behind Atlanta in the race to avoid Cleveland (and to a lesser extent, Milwaukee) in the early rounds of the playoffs. The players and coach have not expressed much interest in the race, but the feeling here is that finishing third would provide a somewhat easier path to an extended playoff run.

What to Watch For: This is something of a must-win for the C’s who face the Cavs on Sunday and are looking at a break-even homestand, even though it started with promise. The Rockets are banged up and out of the playoff hunt, but they still have a handful of dangerous players. If the Celtics can exploit their mismatches they should cruise. If not, they will be in for yet another long night.

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