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Preview: Kings at Celtics, Game 38

01.12.11 at 11:13 am ET
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Doc Rivers wasn’t happy with his starters Monday night in a loss to the Rockets, so he beat them up in practice on Tuesday. Rivers wanted a live, physical full-court practice with lots of rebounding work, which is part of the reason he elected to hold Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins out of the session.

Rivers is worried that his team is getting too complacent. “We’ve won games where I didn’t think we were mentally ready to play the game, but we were mentally tough enough to fight through it and win the game,” Rivers said. “But we’ve also lost some games where we haven’t had that mental toughness.”

What concerned him most against Houston was that his team took too many shortcuts. They switched screens when they didn’t have to. They looked for the home run play when an easier one would have sufficed.

“We just got to stay on it,” Rivers said. “We are a veteran team that knows there’s another level that we can play at and we play at it at times. So we just got to stay on top of it.” The blame, he said, rested mainly with the starters.

Rivers is taking a calculated gamble that he can get his team back on track by whipping them into shape and refocusing their attention. You may recall that similar motivational tactics had no effect on last season’s Celtics. That, along with the injuries, made them an incredibly frustrating team throughout January, February and March.

This year, Rivers has said, is different. It has to be. On the same night they lost to the Rockets, the Miami Heat slipped passed the Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference. “I know they’re playing well, honest to gosh, I could care less,” Rivers said. “I am only concerned with our team.”

And he is concerned. Transition defense, pick and roll coverage, offensive execution, all these things must be corrected sooner rather than later and it needs to start tonight against the Kings.

KINGS (8-27, 3-7 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 102.7 (Points per 100 possessions, 24th)

Defensive Rating: 108.9 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 23rd)

Pace: 93.8 (Possessions per game, 9th)

Likely Starters: Beno Udrih, Luther Head, Francisco Garcia, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins

Injuries: Tyreke Evans (Ankle, questionable)

CELTICS (28-9, 5-5 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.3 (10th)

Defensive Rating: 100.4 (2nd)

Pace: 90.7 (23rd)

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

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

KEY MATCHUP: Shaquille O’Neal vs. DeMarcus Cousins

Strip away the fines for being late, the choke sign he gave Golden State’s Reggie Williams just before Cousins himself played a key role in a monumental Kings’ collapse, and the all-around knuckleheadness that has defined most of his rookie season and you have a 270-pound, 20-year-old beast in the post.

Cousins has averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in his last seven games, which is an obvious indication of the kind of ability he brings to the game. Shaquille O’Neal, meanwhile, has slowed considerably after a hot start. Shaq is a notoriously hard player to impress, but count on Cousins bringing his best.

THREE STORYLINES

1. Will the Celtics respond?

With or without Garnett — and it looks doubtful — the Celtics simply have to play better. The Bulls game was an obvious letdown. The Rockets game, not so much. These are the kind of games they should win handily unless they want to have a repeat of last season. In a way, this has become a statement game for the Celtics.

2. Snowpocalypse 2011

The Kings made it to town after playing an overtime game last night in Washington. Routine is everything for NBA teams and there’s no telling how today’s blizzard will affect both sides, or how many people will be able to make it to the game.

3. Speed kills

The Celtics seem to have this problem with fast teams. They were pushed to the limit by Minnesota and New York and beaten by Houston, three of the five fastest teams in the league according to pace. The Kings like to push the ball and crash the glass. If the Celtics do the things they should do, i.e. rebound and get back in transition, they will be able to handle Sacramento. If not, it could be another long night.

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