The Boston Celtics' battle to get back in contention continues Friday and does not get any easier. The young and feisty Indiana Pacers will visit TD Garden in search of their third straight win. The Celtics, on the other hand, are hoping to avoid a fifth straight loss.
Indiana is slowly emerging as a team to beat, even in the absence of star scorer Danny Granger. The Pacers got off to a sluggish start, going 8-8 in November, but have recently started heating up. They are 19-13 and atop the Central Division thanks to a stingy defensive approach employed by coach Frank Vogel.
That isn't to say that Indiana is without its flaws. Despite a fine defense, the team ranks just 28th in scoring.
I don't care how much the Celtics have struggled defensively this season. Doc Rivers' experienced crew knows how to play D, and that could pose a problem for a young Pacers squad.
Throw in a rowdy Boston crowd, and this game is a lot closer than it appears to be on paper.
Time: Friday, January 4, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, Fox Sports Indiana HD
Records: Indiana Pacers (19-13) vs. Boston Celtics (14-17)
Betting Line: Boston -3 (vegasinsider.com)
Injuries: Chris Wilcox (thumb, out), Kris Joseph (ankle, day-to-day), Fab Melo (concussion, day-to-day); Danny Granger (knee, out), George Hill (thigh, day-to-day), Lance Stephenson (illness, day-to-day), Sam Young (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Aging Celtics Seek Upset Victory Over Hotshot Pacers
The Pacers are a team to beat in the NBA, and it's shocking that more haven't taken notice of them. Keep in mind that this is the same team that was a No. 3 seed in last year's playoffs, so their youth are definitely a group to watch. The fact that they have continued to play well and overcome a slow start without Danny Granger is a testament to their overall talent.
However, experience does count for something, regardless of circumstances. This is why the Boston Celtics cannot be counted out. A loss Friday means prolonging what is already Boston's longest losing streak of the season, and further proving that the Celtics are old and essentially done for.
Regardless of what the team's overall record is now, the Celtics know that they are better than that. This is the team that came within one win of making the NBA Finals in 2012, and the only major difference this season is that shooter Ray Allen is not on the roster.
This means that the core group of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo should be fully locked in against a young team that only recently started playing well again. This trio has been through so much together, from winning a championship in 2008 to playoff disappointments, and this is the moment for them to unite and show just what Boston can do on a good day.
That isn't to say that the Celtics can just become good again overnight. Over the team's current four-game losing streak, they have lost by a combined 79 points. Forget being on the older side, Boston just looks sleepy and uninterested in games now, and absolutely defeated.
The aforementioned trio must shake off those cobwebs and enter the game with a new attitude. Rather than looking to use their collective experience and outclass the Pacers, they should instead just try to keep the game close, win or lose. All that is needed is a little momentum, and that may be just enough to push them forward.
If Indiana isn't prepared for such an onslaught from aging Boston, then perhaps they aren't as great a team as the numbers suggest.
Key Matchup: Paul George vs. Paul Pierce
The main man behind the Pacers' good performance as of late is forward Paul George, who has done an amazing job stepping up in Granger's absence. Normally a dunker and pest, George's scoring abilities this season have been noteworthy.
Through 32 games, George has averaged 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. He has also been excellent from three-point range, making 39 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
George has also been great over his past five games, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds while shooting 44 percent from the floor.
His battle with veteran Paul Pierce thus becomes all the more important, as Pierce was very similar to George in his younger days. He still has some lightning left in the bottle.
Despite Boston's struggles, Pierce has been relatively consistent. Even at age 35, he is averaging 19.8 points and 5.4 rebounds to go with 1.5 steals. Pierce has also shot 43 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from long range, maintaining his status as one of the game's better scorers and clutch shooters.
The Celtics need to shut down Paul George to have a remote shot at winning. It's not an easy task, but Pierce is definitely the man for the job. He has superior experience, knows the type of player very well and can use that knowledge to beat George on both sides of the floor.
It won't be easy by any means, particularly because George is younger, quicker and a better athlete, but Pierce cannot go in with a defeatist attitude. It's his home court in front of his home crowd, and this is a battle he needs to win not only for himself and his team, but for Celtics Nation.
X-Factors: David West and Roy Hibbert
In the event that George is slowed down by any means, the Pacers will need to hope that another forward of theirs has a good game. David West has been a fine stretch forward ever since his days with the New Orleans Hornets, and he has continued to be that for the Pacers this season.
The former Xavier Musketeer has averaged 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting a highly respectable 49 percent from the floor, and has also provided great size on defense with his 6'9", 250-pound frame. He'll be matched up with the slow-footed Brandon Bass, so the odds are definitely in West's favor.
The Pacers must also hope to have a big game from Roy Hibbert, who has struggled with his offense all season. He has averaged 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on defense, but just 9.6 points on 40 percent shooting in the scoring department. For a 7'2", 280-pound center, that percentage is unacceptable.
Hibbert has the age and size advantage over Boston's aging Kevin Garnett, so there is really no reason for him not to be in complete control on both sides of the floor as he continues to make his case for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Both he and West must be at the top of their respective games in Boston Friday, as the Pacers cannot afford to fully rely on George.
Boston really needs a win Friday, but I'm sad to say that they won't get it. Indiana is just too young and too fast for Boston's old dogs, and the Celtics' age will really show.
Roy Hibbert will give the fans a cruel reminder as to why Boston is the worst rebounding team in the league, defeating Garnett on the defensive glass from start to finish. How he does offensively remains to be seen, but he and David West will do exactly what they need to do to bring home a Pacers victory.
Paul George and Paul Pierce will battle to a stalemate, but the aging Celtics star will have a tough time late in the game. George's defense will become too much, leading to some bad shot selection.
Who will win?
That isn't to say that Boston won't be able to keep the game close. After all, Rajon Rondo is an excellent playmaker and will use his refined offensive game to keep the Celtics in the game until the early minutes of the fourth quarter.
At that point, George and West will just take over, sinking key shots and making the defensive plays that need to be made.
By the final buzzer, Boston will receive the cruel wake-up call that their time among the Eastern Conference's best is up, and that Indiana's is just beginning.
Indiana Pacers 98, Boston Celtics 89