The Boston Celtics were able to defeat the defending-champion Miami Heat without point guard Rajon Rondo, but now face a bigger test in seeing if they can beat a lottery squad without their dynamic playmaker.
Rondo has a torn ACL and is out for the season, and his athleticism will be greatly missed at the TD Garden.
Though the Kings are a lottery team, a win is going to be anything but easy for Boston. Back on December 30, the team was blown out by young Sacramento, and that was WITH Rondo on the court. Since the former Kentucky Wildcat is out for this round, the Celtics' prospects do not look promising.
However, this game may be closer than initially appears. Both Sacramento and Boston have struggled of late, which could make for a tighter game. The Kings have lost four of five, whereas the Celtics have lost six of seven.
Throw in that the Celtics are coming off a highly emotional win against Miami, and the game becomes even more unpredictable.
Fans should definitely tune into this matchup of East vs. West, not only to see the talented players on either roster, but to see just how well the Celtics can handle the loss of such an important player.
Time: Wednesday, January 30th, 7:30 p.m. EST
Location: TD Garden, Boston, MA
TV: CSN HD, CSN California
Records: Sacramento Kings (17-29) vs. Boston Celtics (21-23)
Betting Line: Not available as of Tuesday, January 29, 10:29 a.m. EST
Injuries: Rajon Rondo (knee, out), John Salmons (illness, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Boston Succeed Without Rondo?
The Celtics rallied to beat a good team without Rajon Rondo, but now face a bigger test in trying to defeat a lesser squad with him on the bench. Given how badly the team lost to the Sacramento Kings earlier this season, fans probably aren't too optimistic going in.
Not only did Boston lose that game, but they were absolutely outclassed. Sacramento won the game 118-96, led by 27 points from point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Kings also shot 54 percent from the field, 50 percent from long range and out-rebounded the Celtics 45-35.
Boston got 20 points apiece from Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, but shot just 42 percent from the floor and 32 percent from downtown. Rondo had 10 assists to go with just two points.
Now, as weak as Sacramento's overall record is, the team has some great young players who, when hot, can take out better teams. The Kings have already defeated the Celtics once this season and also beat the New York Knicks on December 28. They may not have slain many giants, but those they have were dangerous ones.
In this case, the Kings will be seeking to do just what they did against Boston on December 30. They will want to outshoot them, out-rebound them and take full advantage of the dynamic Rondo's absence. Rondo was averaging 13.7 points and a league-best 11.1 assists per game before his injury, plus 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals, so it's clear just what Boston is losing.
Head coach Doc Rivers simply must be prepared for the young and feisty Kings.
This means that the Celtics must use whatever momentum is left from the victory over the Heat against Sacramento, and thus prove that they don't need a dynamic floor general to win. This will be tough, as the Celtics are the second-worst rebounding team in the league and Sacramento's frontcourt tandem of DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson will be seeking to control the paint as they did earlier in the season.
So long as aging Boston can keep up with the young guns on the inside, then they can definitely avenge their earlier loss to Sacramento.
Key Matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. DeMarcus Cousins
One of the Kings' best players is young center DeMarcus Cousins. Despite a volatile nature, the third-year man out of Kentucky is blessed with great size at 6'11", 270 pounds and has a bright future in the NBA if he learns how to keep his attitude in check.
On the season, Cousins is averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, slightly down from last season's marks of 18.1 and 11. He'll need to be in top form against one of the best defenders to ever play the game, Boston's Kevin Garnett.
It doesn't help that Cousins has to go against Garnett when his scoring has been down over his last five games. He has posted 8.4 rebounds over that stretch, but just 14.6 points. In January, however, he has averaged 19.2 points and 11.3 boards.
Garnett may be 36 years old to Cousins' 22, but he still has enough bite left to turn this battle into a victory for the Celtics. At 6'11", 253 pounds, he has 17-plus years of experience in the NBA and has what it takes to give Cousins a lesson in how to play the game.
That isn't to say that Garnett will completely manhandle the Kings' young center on the stat sheet. He is averaging just 15 points and 7.3 rebounds per game this season, both his lowest postings since his rookie year. Over his last five games, however, Garnett has looked like his younger self.
The man has posted 17.6 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 blocks through that stretch, and appears ready to step up his effort now that Rondo is out. Against Cousins, he must use his excellent man-to-man defense to take the youngster out of the game.
This means forcing Cousins out of the paint where he is most comfortable and forcing him to use his rarely-used jump shot. At the same time, Garnett must not be afraid to use his jump shot, while also playing the low-post and banging around under the net.
The battle is essentially one of youth vs. experience, and Garnett has the tools to control the outcome from start to finish. It's just a matter of him getting used to life without Rondo, his point guard since he joined the Celtics in 2007.
So long as he can execute his plan perfectly and play the experience card on Cousins, then Boston has a shot at avoiding another embarrassing loss.
X-Factor: Jeff Green
Without Rondo in the lineup, the Celtics need a spark. Not necessarily a top playmaker, but just someone who can inject some life into the lineup. Jeff Green fits this description perfectly.
Green has averaged just 9.6 points per game this season, but has performed well over his last five games. The former Georgetown Hoya has posted 11.4 points and shot just under 36 percent from long range over that stretch, solidifying his status as someone who can come off the bench and create some fireworks in the blink of an eye.
His jump shot may not be as strong as it needs to be for someone at his position, but that does not matter. Green is an excellent dunker, and has blown the roof off of arenas with his fine work above the rim this season.
He'll need to bring that electrifying nature to this game, as Boston will need a fiery player to at least partially fill the void left by Rondo. Granted, Green is not a great playmaker like his injured teammate, but that is not what Boston needs him to do.
Most important of all, Green must be ready to utilize his jumper when necessary, no matter how weak it is compared to his inside game. He must also be willing to be a playmaker, driving the lane and dishing to a teammate at the last minute when the opportunity presents itself.
Long story short, all that Green must do is play his game. This means driving the lane and drawing a foul if the opportunity is there—and not being afraid to rise up for a dunk.
One play from him can be enough to give the Celtics some momentum, which will be key in this game and in every game they play for the rest of the season.
The Celtics may not have Rondo, but they are not a team to roll over and play dead in the face of adversity. Their victory over Miami proved that.
As a result, they will defeat the Sacramento Kings, and quite handily.
Kevin Garnett will force DeMarcus Cousins out of his comfort zone, resulting in the young center being taken out of the game almost completely. Paul Pierce will have another good scoring night, sinking key shot after key shot. It may be tough for both he and Garnett to perform without Rondo, at least initially, but they will dig deep and use their years of experience to just take the Kings to school.
Who will win?
Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton and their teammates will thus be forced to resort to the worst strategy possible: try and shoot their way out of a jam. That will be tough with Boston's lockdown defense in full force, plus Jeff Green having a good game off the bench.
This is really Boston's game to lose and, in this case, it's just not going to happen, regardless of how much younger Sacramento is.
Boston Celtics 103, Sacramento Kings 89