The Boston Celtics have lost their first two matchups against the Brooklyn Nets and will look to amend that at the Barclays Center on Christmas Day. Fortunately for them, the Nets have been slumping, having gone just 3-8 in the month of December.
The Celtics have not fared much better at just 4-6, but there is more to this game than just salvaging a season series and getting out of a slow start. A win would tie Boston with Brooklyn for second place in the Atlantic Division, five-and-a-half games behind the first-place New York Knicks. Granted, it's not much, but it's still definitely a step in the right direction, especially during a season that has been disappointing thus far.
This also happens to be Boston's first game against Brooklyn following a brawl in their November 28 match. The Nets won that game 95-83, and tensions will be running high tonight.
It's Christmas Day, the game will be played on national television and it will be in front of a rowdy Barclays Center crowd. Both teams may be struggling, but this one is going to be a barnburner.
Time: Tuesday, December 25th, 12 p.m. EST
Records: Boston Celtics (13-13) vs. Brooklyn Nets (14-12)
Betting Lines: Boston (+3), Brooklyn (-3), via Bovada
Injuries: Leandro Barbosa (personal, out), Chris Wilcox (thumb, out), Jeff Green (face, expected to play), Avery Bradley (shoulder, out), Kris Humphries (abdominal, out)
Key Storyline: Can Celtics Solve Slumping Nets?
The Celtics came within one win of the NBA Finals last season, but have struggled mightily in 2012-13. Kevin Garnett's age and the slow pace of Brandon Bass have caused the defense to be subpar, and the presence of ageless wonder Ray Allen is sorely missed.
Naturally, Boston has thus had trouble keeping up with any and all younger teams, and the Brooklyn Nets are no exception. Whereas the Celtics' core outside of Rajon Rondo are an aging Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Nets are young and feisty. Their age comes in the form of Jerry Stackhouse, who serves as a bench shooter.
One would think that this puts the Nets in a prime position to defeat the Celtics again, but fans should not jump the gun just yet. Deron Williams has continued to struggle with his shooting, making just under 40 percent of his field goals, and his inconsistency has hurt the Nets all month long. Brook Lopez missing six games this month is just the icing on the cake.
The Celtics may not be the best team this year, but one thing is true. They are still more experienced than the young Nets.
Seeing as how Brooklyn is slumping, they are in a position to use this experience to control the game from start to finish. This is definitely possible, as Paul Pierce is starting to heat up. The 10-time All-Star is averaging 25.4 points, seven rebounds and 2.4 steals over his last five games, has made an astonishing 55 percent of his field goals and is also shooting 54 percent from long range.
Boston must thus use that performance as a means of motivating the entire team. If Pierce can put up those types of numbers at age 35, then the Celtics can go into Brooklyn on Christmas Day and give themselves a nice present in a victory over the Nets.
Key Matchup: Gerald Wallace vs. Paul Pierce
Pierce may be on fire, but his season as a whole has been very modest. He is averaging a respectable 21 points per game and only just started to get his field goal percentage (currently at 44) up to where it should be.
In Brooklyn, he's going to have one hard time scoring points.
This is because he will be guarded by one of the league's best pests in Gerald "Crash" Wallace, who has performed excellently for the Nets this season. He is averaging 11.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, and has also shot a respectable 37 percent from three-point range.
The matchup between the two is going to be interesting, as we have yet to see just how they play against each other. Wallace missed the teams' first meeting on November 15 due to a sprained ankle, and he was ejected in the second game following his role in the brawl between Rondo and Kris Humphries.
This game will thus mark the first time, barring any setbacks, that the hot scoring of Pierce and tough lockdown defense of Wallace meet up over the course of an entire contest. Both men are of the same height at 6'7", and Pierce has 15 pounds on Wallace at 235.
Despite that, Wallace is younger at age 30 and is a superior athlete. He only scores when necessary and is quicker than the aging Pierce, who is a fine pest and athlete in his own right.
Brooklyn's key to victory is shutting Pierce down, and head coach Avery Johnson will be relying on Wallace to do that from start to finish. Take Pierce out of the game, and the Celtics' offense immediately becomes anemic.
X-Factor: Joe Johnson
Since Deron Williams' shooting has been subpar due to a wrist injury, the Nets will need Joe Johnson to be at his absolute best against Boston. The natural scorer has turned on the afterburners following a slow start and is averaging 17.2 points per game while shooting 43 percent from the field. Johnson's work from beyond the arc has also been good, as he has made 38 percent of his long-range shots.
Since superb defender Avery Bradley is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Johnson is likely to be guarded by a much weaker defensive presence in the aging Jason Terry. This sets him up to have another fine game against Boston, having scored 19 points against the Celtics on November 15 and 18 on November 28.
Granted, Williams could have a fine shooting and scoring performance from the get-go, and the Nets will immediately have a good chance at winning. After all, they have defeated the Celtics twice before, and home-court advantage is just an added bonus tonight.
Johnson still needs to perform well just the same. GM Billy King brought him in to be the second half of a 1-2 punch involving Williams, and his rich contract means that he must demand the ball game after game and be willing to be the man who takes the important shots.
Against a tough defensive Celtics team, it is essential that he do just that and more. Should he and Williams get into a groove, then the game can become out of reach quickly.
By nothing short of a Christmas miracle, the Celtics will defeat the Nets in Brooklyn. Maybe it will be because of Paul Pierce's continued hot streak, maybe something in the special Christmas uniforms will provide the team with a collective rush or maybe the Nets will all just have bad games.
Either way, this will be Boston's time to shine and Brooklyn's to continue struggling.
Paul Pierce will have another incredible scoring game, and Rajon Rondo will have a near triple-double once again. Jason Terry will sink some key three-pointers, and Kevin Garnett will showcase some of his old self and dunk on Brook Lopez.
Who will win?
Of course, Brooklyn will do all it can to keep the game close, which it will be from start to finish. Williams will fight through scoring struggles to notch a point guard's double-double, and Wallace will provide some key threes along with Joe Johnson, who will lead the team in scoring.
Unfortunately for the Brooklyn fans, it will not be enough to stop a Celtics team fully motivated to perform well on Christmas. Boston lost a Christmas heartbreaker to the New York Knicks last season and to the Orlando Magic the year before, and head coach Doc Rivers is not likely to let it happen again for the third year in a row.
In a hard-fought battle, the Celtics will come away with the win in Brooklyn, and it will be the best Christmas present the team can ask for.
Boston Celtics 99, Brooklyn Nets 94