The Boston Celtics' hot streak ended as soon as it began. Following a six-game winning streak, the team has lost three straight.
Fortunately, they will have a shot at a somewhat easy win against the young Cleveland Cavaliers, who currently rank second-to-last in the Eastern Conference. Not only have the Cavs lost four of five, but they also just received devastating news. Center Anderson Varejao will miss the rest of the season recovering from a blood clot following knee surgery, and his size and rebounding abilities will be greatly missed.
Varejao's absence gives the Celtics a strong defensive advantage, and they'll need to jump at every opportunity in the paint. Boston ranks eighth in points allowed, but is the second-worst rebounding team in the league.
On Cleveland's end, the Cavaliers must use their youth to outpace the Celtics from start to finish. This won't at all be easy, as both teams faced off on December 19 and Boston was able to win by a double-digit margin.
The scenery has since changed from TD Garden to Quicken Loans Arena, which could make for a close game tonight.
Time: Tuesday, January 22nd, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, Fox Sports Ohio HD
Records: Boston Celtics (20-20) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-32)
Betting Line: Boston (-4.5), Cleveland (+4.5)
Injuries: Anderson Varejao (knee, out), Daniel Gibson (illness, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Cavaliers Beat Celtics Without Varejao?
The Cavaliers are going to be at a great disadvantage for the rest of the season now that Anderson Varejao will not return to play. They were without him when they faced the Celtics in Boston on December 19, and his presence was felt.
Not only did Paul Pierce score 40 points that night, but Cleveland tied Boston in rebounding, 35-35. If Varejao were playing, perhaps the game would have been closer than the final score of 103-91. Not even 22 points from Kyrie Irving and 20 from rookie Tyler Zeller helped keep the score close.
But that was in Boston, where the Celtics have gone 13-8 on the season. On the road, they have only gone 7-12.
That isn't to say that the game is in the bag for the Cavaliers. Boston may struggle on the road, but Cleveland has been anything but great at home. At Quicken Loans Arena, they have gone just 4-12 on the year.
Throw in that Cleveland ranks 24th in points allowed at 100.6 per game and 20th in points scored, at 95 per contest, and this young squad faces an uphill battle in its quest to pull off the upset.
Key Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Kyrie Irving
The Cavaliers have potential, but their offense is still a bit one-sided. Until Dion Waiters starts making shots more consistently, the team has no viable go-to guy for second-year point guard Kyrie Irving. As a result, the team's offense tends to start and stop with the former Blue Devil.
After breaking out in his rookie season, Irving has looked even better this year. He is averaging 23.1 points and 5.7 assists per game, and has also done great work from long range in making 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
Tonight, he'll have to fight quite a battle to put up anything near that type of production. Irving is going to be guarded by the ever-pesky Rajon Rondo, and needs to have a better performance than when the two met in December.
Irving scored 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting against Rondo on December 19, but the former Kentucky Wildcat's lockdown defense held him to just two assists on the night.
Rondo needs to have that kind of defensive night, and also be the quarterback of Boston's offense. He is only averaging 13.3 points per game, but leads the league in passing with 11.1 assists per contest.
Rondo also averages 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals, not at all bad for someone just 6'1", 186 pounds.
His job tonight is going to be to take Irving out of the game completely. The 2012 Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.4 points and 6.4 assists over his last five games, but has struggled in making just 24 percent of his shots from downtown.
So long as Rondo can ensure that those struggles still continue, and then some, then the Celtics have a great shot at overcoming their road woes.
X-Factor: Tristan Thompson
The key to defeating the Celtics is beating them on the boards, and the Cavaliers will need a solid performance from Tristan Thompson in order for that to come true. The second-year forward out of Texas has posted 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game this season, and has the size and superior defensive skills at 6'9", 227 pounds to go toe-to-toe with the slow-footed Brandon Bass.
Like the rest of his teammates, Thompson faces an uphill battle. He pulled down 12 rebounds when Cleveland faced Boston in December, but shot just 2-of-10 from the field.
Fortunately, Thompson has been somewhat hot over his last five games. He has averaged 14.8 points and 11 rebounds, and has shot 52.5 percent from the field.
He'll need to be in that form if Cleveland is to have a shot at just keeping the game close, which alone will be tough against Boston's superior experience.
However, if Thompson and Tyler Zeller can both put in a collective effort in the paint to out-rebound the Celtics, then the Cavaliers can definitely win this game. That means overcoming inexperience which, as we have seen with every young NBA team, is no easy task.
As much as the Cavaliers would love to win this game, it's just not going to happen. Boston may be struggling this season, but their collective experience and talent combined with head coach Doc Rivers' tough defensive philosophy will propel them to another win over young Cleveland.
Who will win?
Paul Pierce will have another excellent scoring performance, taking full advantage of the inexperience of Alonzo Gee. Rajon Rondo will have a double-double in points and assists, and also have some key steals against Kyrie Irving. In the paint, Kevin Garnett will be a pesky defender, as per usual.
Just the same, the Cavaliers will put up a respectable effort and go on runs at certain points. Irving will sink some important threes, and Tristan Thompson will play excellent defense under the basket. Thanks to him, Cleveland will have the slight rebounding edge and be able to keep the game close.
Sadly, keeping the game close does not carry the same weight as winning. As a result, Boston will snap its three-game losing streak tonight while Cleveland goes on to lose yet again.
Boston Celtics 101, Cleveland Cavaliers 95