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Preview: Spurs at Celtics

01.05.11 at 12:03 pm ET
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With a little more than three minutes left, and his team down 11 points in New York, San Antonio Gregg Popovich pulled his starters Tuesday night, effectively signaling, no mas. This was interesting for two reasons. First, NBA teams just don’t do that, especially not in New York where the media scrutiny shines the brightest, and second, the Spurs play the Celtics tonight.

Popovich got away with it because he’s Popovich, and because even the most rah-rah fan would have to admit that pulling back on a game that could maybe go either way — but looks doubtful — in early January is not really a bad idea. Plus, it’s the freaking San Antonio Spurs, who won four championships since 1998 without a tenth of the drama normally associated with NBA teams, and who have the best record in the league. If Pop wants to make a statement, who’s going to argue with him?

After the game, Popovich called his team’s effort “pathetic,” and again, he had no arguments from his players who should be in a feisty mood for their one visit to TD Garden. This one doesn’t need any more advance hype — although it would be much better if Kevin Garnett was able to play against Tim Duncan.

The Spurs have the best record in the league (and the league’s best offense), while the Celtics sit at No. 2 with the league’s best defense. In many ways the Celtics are modeled after the Spurs, with Doc Rivers taking many lessons from his days in San Antonio with him to Boston.

This is simply as good as it gets in the NBA.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (29-5, 8-2 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 112.4 (Points per 100 possessions, 1st)

Defensive Rating: 103.7 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 9th)

Pace: 93.3 (Possessions per game, 10th)

Likely Starters: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Tim Duncan

Injuries: James Anderson (Foot, out)

CELTICS (26-7, 7-3 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 107.6 (11th)

Defensive Rating: 90.8 (1st)

Pace: 90.8 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal

Injuries: Kevin Garnett (Calf, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Glen Davis vs. DeJuan Blair

Big Baby meet Dajuan Bear, in which 550 pounds, give or take, of bulk do battle on the boards. Blair averages 6.6 rebounds a game in 20 minutes of action. But crunch those numbers further, adjust for pace and time spent on the court and Blair is a more effective offensive rebounder than Kevin Love. Lost in the Love-fest Monday night was the fact that Davis grabbed one solitary rebound. He’ll have to do better tonight.

THREE STORYLINES

1. Can the Celtics defense contain the Spurs?

When we think of the Spurs we don’t often think of offense, but they have the league’s best this season thanks to an insanely efficient attack that features a league-best 40 percent shooting from behind the arc. Manu Ginobli, Richard Jefferson, George Hill and Matt Bonner all have True Shooting percentage over 60 percent and that’s before anyone has to account for Duncan or Tony Parker.

2. Is this an NBA finals preview?

While all the attention in the Western Conference has focused on the Lakers and their various serial dramas, the Spurs have quietly reinvented themselves as the class of the conference. It doesn’t hurt that they have been relatively injury-free or that they have once again unearthed a gem in Gary Neal, who floated around Europe for three years before coming to the NBA. The Spurs are loaded.

3. How healthy is Rajon Rondo?

In his two games since returning from his ankle injury, Rondo has been good, but he hasn’t been Rondo. We have yet to see the explosive athletic ability that is the hallmark of his game and what truly separates him from his contemporaries at the point guard position. He’ll have his hands full with Parker tonight.

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