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Preview: Celtics at Cavaliers

11.30.10 at 9:10 am ET
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priceThe last time the Celtics went to Cleveland, they were one day removed from their opening night showdown with the Miami Heat and they arrived in Ohio as conquering heroes for having vanquished LeBron James. The Celtics left with something other than their gratitude: a loss.

One of those nights, is the operative phrase in the NBA, but now the Cavs have the Celtics attention for the rematch.

“First off, they’re a team,” Kevin Garnett said. “It’s not like you can lock in on one or two guys. They share the ball, they run their sets, they know what they’re doing. They know what kind of team they are. They’re a hard-working team. They’re a team to be reckoned with. They’re not just some team that’s out here getting almost wins. They’re playing hard for 48 minutes.”

The Cavs opened the season with a respectable 5-5 mark, but reality has set in a bit as they lost three straight on the road and four of the last six. It’s not that they don’t have talent. The East being what it is, there’s no reason why Cleveland can’t compete for the last playoff spot, but after a long break and three days in between games the Celtics figure to be a bit more prepared this time around.

This is another one of those games the Celtics should win and if they can rack up enough of these victories now, it will make that more possible to compete for the top seed in the conference. But they have to be ready.

“They can all beat you,” Doc Rivers said. “They’re going to play hard against us, everyone is, and on the road especially if you don’t come with the right focus, you can lose any night.”

celtics_logoCELTICS (12-4, 7-3 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.9 (NBA rank: 9)

Defensive Rating: 101.1 (3)

Pace: 90.5 (26)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal

Injuries: Jermaine O’Neal (Knee, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out)

cavs_logoCAVALIERS (7-9, 4-6 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 102.5 (28)

Defensive Rating: 107.3 (16)

Pace: 92.8 (16)

Likely Starters: Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Joey Graham, J.J. Hickson, Anderson Varejao

Injuries: None.

KEY MATCHUP: Shaquille O’Neal vs. Anderson Varejao

Shaq missed practice Monday after getting the time confused, but he made the flight and is expected to be in the starting lineup Tuesday night. The Celtics nominated Shaq for Player of the Week honors after he averaged 18 points and better than 10 rebounds in their three wins.

The offense has been an added bonus, but against the Cavs, Shaq will have to protect the paint from Varejao, one of the Celtics longtime antagonists. “Varejao is just tough,” Rivers said. “Him and [Joakim] Noah, to me, not only do they look alike, but they play alike. They’re amazing players. You love those two guys because they do all of it without a play called for them and they cause havoc.”

The Celtics kept Varejao mostly under wraps in their first meeting, and it will be up to O’Neal, along with Garnett and Glen Davis to match his energy.

KEY NUMBER: Bench production

The Celtics bench has lost a number of key contributors and is a bit of a patchwork these days. The Cavs, on the other hand, have several productive players in their second unit: Antawn Jamison, Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon and Ramon Sessions, among them.

Maintaining leads has been an issue for the Celtics and that means more minutes for the starters. They need to get production from Nate Robinson and Glen Davis in particular in order to keep the second unit afloat, and keep the starters from having to do too much work.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

It sounds like a broken record, but after 16 games the Celtics and Magic have asserted themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The difference between the two will come down to who takes care of their business on the road in games where they have an advantage.

The C’s are beginning a four games in six days stretch which will see them play tough games at home — Chicago and Portland — and go on the road against sub-500 teams — Cleveland and New Jersey. Winning these kind of games is what it’s all about.

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