The Boston Celtics may have stumbled out of the starting gate this season, but enter tonight's game against Houston on a two-game winning streak. This includes a thrilling double-overtime win against the Dallas Mavericks on December 12, in which Paul Pierce netted a season-high 34 points.
But that was at TD Garden, where the Celtics own an 8-4 record. They play at the Toyota Center tonight and have gone 4-5 on the road this season.
Similarly, the Rockets have gone 8-5 at home compared to 2-6 on the road, so it will be interesting to see how the two teams match up in that regard.
Houston is also just one game below .500 and would love to get back on track, not to mention start playing some consistently good basketball. James Harden is turning into a bona fide, multi-talented star and teammate Jeremy Lin is slowly getting out of his early season funk.
It will be intriguing to see how the Rockets' youth matches up with the experienced Celtics, who still can play well despite an older core. In a game of fast offense vs. tough defense, the stage is set for a close result.
Time: Friday, December 14, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, CSN HD, CSN Houston
Records: Boston Celtics (12-9) vs. Houston Rockets (10-11)
Betting Lines: Boston (+2 1/2) vs. Houston (-2 1/2), via Bovada
Injuries: Avery Bradley (shoulder, out)
Key Storyline: Celtics Look to Overcome Road Woes and Extend Streak Against Young Rockets
The Boston Celtics are a good team, but have had issues on the road this season. Granted, it isn't unusual for a team to play better at home compared to on the road, but Boston's age has really shown on the road. This includes losses to the Detroit Pistons on November 18 and an overtime heartbreaker to the Philadelphia 76ers on December 7.
Contrastingly, the Houston Rockets have played some great basketball at home. From a blowout of the New York Knicks on November 23 to a thrilling comeback against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 4, it is clear that this young team is quite comfortable at the Toyota Center and has an extra bounce in its step when it comes to defending home territory.
They will need that bounce tonight against Boston. The aging Celtics are looking to extend their winning streak to three games, and can use their balanced attack to slow down the Rockets.
It won't be easy for Boston to do, as they are currently the worst rebounding team in the league. Houston ranks sixth in this category, but also ranks last in points allowed, at 104.8 per game.
Boston must thus take full advantage of Houston's holes on defense and use their collective experience to fully control the game. In doing so, they increase their chances of extending their streak and dealing the young and feisty Rockets a loss at home.
Key Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Jeremy Lin
The key to Houston succeeding is for point guard Jeremy Lin to perform well, and he has slowly started to turn things around following a slow start. Over his last five games, the Harvard grad is averaging 12.6 points, 4.6 assists, and is shooting 42 percent from the field. On the season, he is averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 assists,and shooting 40 percent from the field.
Unfortunately for Lin, his turnover woes have not deserted him. He is averaging 2.7 per game, and he will have a tough time limiting them with the ever-pesky Rajon Rondo guarding him all night long.
Rondo has been great at the point this season, per usual. Not only has he posted 13.2 points, a league-best 12.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game, but he has also shown marked improvement with his mid-range jumper. The former Kentucky Wildcat has shot 52 percent from the field, and his 5.3 rebounds per contest make him a constant triple-double threat.
Rondo is likely going to have one goal tonight, at least on defense. Shut Lin down. The Rockets' offense relies on the point guard to get the ball to the stars and also contribute his fair share on offense, and Lin will have a hard time doing both with Rondo sticking to him like glue.
More importantly, Rondo needs to show Lin just how inexperienced he really is. He is only two years older, but Rondo has already done some things in six seasons that most NBA players don't accomplish ever. The man has been to the NBA Finals twice, won a championship ring, and has played in three All-Star Games.
Lin has never even played in the playoffs, making Rondo a better-rounded player as a whole. Unless he can fight past his opponent's stingy defense and overcome the attack of the experienced Celtics, then he could be in for one long evening.
X-Factor: Omer Asik
As the Rockets' starting center, Asik has been everything GM Daryl Morey hoped he would be and more. He currently ranks fourth in the league in rebounding with 11.6 per game, and has also managed to contribute 10.6 points on offense.
Asik will receive one of the greatest tests of his career tonight, as Houston will look to him to dominate the boards against veteran Kevin Garnett. The Turkish seven-footer is only 26 years old, and 36-year-old Garnett is one of the best interior defenders in the league, even if he is slowing down with age.
This makes it all the more important that Asik perform well tonight, exposing Garnett as an aging center who is slowly losing his edge in the paint.
That isn't to say that the Rockets' hopes of playing a good game stop and go with Asik. Bench guard Toney Douglas has averaged 14.8 points and shot 54 percent from long range over his last five games, and head coach Kevin McHale will need him to provide sparks of offense so as to keep the games close.
However, when it comes to actually winning the game, Houston absolutely needs Asik to win his battles in the paint. Garnett has posted respectable numbers this year, 16 points and 7.1 boards per game, and Asik must use his quickness and superior size to show that he owns the floor under the basket at the Toyota Center.
It may take him some time to get warmed up, but he will get the key rebounds and blocks that could help swing the game. He will expose Boston's age in doing so and further increase Houston's odds of winning.
The Rockets may have a raucous crowd behind them tonight, but fate will be on Boston's side. In a glorious upset, the aging Celtics will ride the momentum of their double-overtime victory against Dallas to their third straight win.
Houston will still have some bright spots throughout the night. Asik will win his rebounding battle against Garnett, and James Harden will provide solid production on both sides of the floor.
Who will win?
That still won't be enough for Houston to win, as Boston's perimeter defense absolutely shuts down Toney Douglas, who will have a low scoring night complete with a horrific field goal percentage.
Boston's offense will be led by Paul Pierce, who will sink all of his important shots with Rondo getting him the ball. He will receive just the right amount of help from Jason Terry, Rondo and even Jeff Green, who will continue to build his case for Sixth Man of the Year.
Houston will fight a hard battle, but it will be Boston who emerges victorious when the dust settles after the final buzzer.
Boston Celtics 102, Houston Rockets 97