Two of the NBA's hottest teams will face off on January 11, and the clash of offense vs. defense will make for a great game. The Houston Rockets' five-game winning streak ended in New Orleans on January 9, and the team will look to shake that off quickly in Boston.
Though the Rockets may look stronger on paper, winning in Beantown will not be easy. The Celtics have won four in a row and will look to make it five as their homestand continues. The team has gone 11-6 at home and finally seems to have found the momentum that it lacked prior to guard Avery Bradley's recent return.
However, Boston is in for a tough battle against Houston. As great as the team has been during its current winning streak, the Celtics are still the worst rebounding team in the league and rank 21st in points scored.
Houston isn't a strong defensive team by any means, ranking 29th in points allowed, but it does lead the league in team scoring and rank 10th in rebounding. Its core group is also much younger than Boston's, and that could definitely be a factor in the game.
The aging Celtics may indeed have a hard time keeping up against speedy Houston, but momentum could be on their side. The game is on their home court, and they will provide an excellent battle for fans to watch as they work to defend it.
Time: Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, CSN Houston
Records: Houston Rockets (21-15) vs. Boston Celtics (18-17)
Betting Line: Houston (+3), Boston (-3)
Injuries: Chris Wilcox (thumb, out), Fab Melo (concussion, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Celtics Extend Streak Against Feisty Houston?
The Celtics are looking to extend their winning streak to five games, but their game against the Rockets is about more than just that. Both teams faced off in Houston back on December 14, and Boston was extremely sluggish.
The team shot just 40 percent from the floor and was out-rebounded 45-41 en route to a 101-89 loss. Paul Pierce was limited to 18 points on 5-of-18 shooting, and James Harden's 21 points led the way for Houston.
But the scenery has changed now. The game is at TD Garden, where thousands of rowdy and passionate Boston fans will provide the Celtics with any momentum or jolt that they need to push them the extra mile. More importantly, head coach Doc Rivers has his best man-to-man defender in Avery Bradley back in the lineup.
Of course, it's going to take more than home-court advantage and one player to stop the Rockets' attack. All of the Celtics need to be fully focused and locked in against this fast-paced offense, and just one mistake can permanently shift the momentum. Houston has a lot of weapons, and all it takes is for one of them to get hot in order to keep the Rockets flying high.
In Boston, the Celtics will need to ensure that the mothership comes back down to Earth if they are destined to reach a five-game winning streak.
Key Matchup: Omer Asik vs. Kevin Garnett
As was previously mentioned, the Celtics are the worst rebounding team in the league while the Rockets are far superior. However, Houston center Omer Asik is just a bit inexperienced in terms of being both a starter and elite big man.
Don't get me wrong. The Turkish seven-footer has still done pretty well this season. He has posted 10.3 points per game, and also ranks fourth in the league with 11.1 rebounds per contest.
Asik is a generally good fit for Houston's fast-paced offense, but his flaws on that side of the court are notable. Whenever he receives the ball, he appears a bit hesitant in terms of what to actually DO with it. This could explain his 2.2 turnovers per game, but that number can go down with time and patience on his coaches' end.
This makes it all the more important that Asik perform well in Boston tonight. He is going to be matched up against the ever-dangerous and physical Kevin Garnett, who still has plenty of bark and bite despite being 36 years old.
However, Garnett's bite is not as sharp as it used to be. He plays the low post well and is a pesky defender, but his seven rebounds per game are his lowest since his rookie season. He still has the size at 6'11", 253 pounds, but the skills are definitely starting to diminish.
Asik may be inexperienced, but is 10 years younger than Garnett. All offensive struggles aside, he must use his size to make Garnett work extra hard in the paint, essentially tiring himself out.
In doing this, Asik will expose Garnett's growing weaknesses on defense, and the rest of his teammates will react accordingly. By taking Garnett out of the game, the Rockets have license to run wild on offense.
Unfortunately for them, that means getting past his experience, and Garnett will see to that being no easy task by any means.
X-Factor: Avery Bradley
The Celtics cannot solely depend on Avery Bradley to carry them during this hot streak, but they definitely need him to be at his best against the Rockets. Despite not having much size at 6'2", 180 pounds, the man's defense is spectacular. Since returning to the lineup, he has averaged 1.2 steals per contest.
That said, Bradley's defense will need to be in top form since he will likely be guarding the dynamic James Harden. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has done an excellent job as Houston's starting shooting guard, ranking fourth in scoring with 26.5 points per game.
It is imperative that Bradley shut Harden down, because a bad shooting night from him can sink the Rockets. In games where he has shot under 40 percent from the field, Houston has gone 4-8.
Bradley must also be sure to be an impact player offensively as well. He has struggled there since returning, shooting just 39 percent from the field, but that can be attributed to him just getting his legs back and readjusting to life on the court.
He needs to drive the lane against Houston and also not hesitate to pull up for a jumper. Chances are that the Rockets will underestimate him just a bit since he only recently came back from injury, and Bradley needs to make them pay for doing so.
By being a force on both sides of the floor and not letting a slow offensive game get him down, Bradley can help keep this game close from start to finish, and leave the Rockets wondering just how they got beaten.
Boston's hot streak has been fun to watch, but it will sadly come to an end against Houston. The Rockets are too young and too fast for the aging Celtics to keep up with, and not even Avery Bradley will be able to help slow the fast-paced attack down.
As good as Bradley is when in top form, he is also inexperienced and is only in his third NBA season. All in all, he still has a lot to learn.
James Harden will thus go to town on him, using his 6'5" frame to drive past his defense and also create off the dribble. Omer Asik's offense will be gone thanks to Kevin Garnett's defense, but his own defensive effort will carry the Rockets to victory.
Who will win?
Chandler Parsons will sink key threes and Jeremy Lin will dish off nice passes, and not even a case of Paul Pierce having the hot hand will be able to put the Celtics over the top. Rajon Rondo will do all he can to create plays and keep Boston in the game, but Houston will be in control midway through the fourth quarter and celebrate another victory by the final buzzer.
The Celtics' streak will then come to an end, but the players will definitely deserve a pat on the back for showing that they are anything but an aging squad quickly headed downhill.
Houston Rockets 107, Boston Celtics 101
All statistics in this article are accurate as of January 10, 2013