The banged up Boston Celtics are on a three-game winning streak, and face a big test when the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers come to TD Garden on Sunday. The Clippers have lost five of seven, slipping to third in the competitive Western Conference race.
Los Angeles is dealing with injuries as well. Star point guard and team leader Chris Paul is having a hard time coming back from a bone bruise in his knee, but that should not deter the Clippers from using their youth and fast offense against an aging Boston squad.
More importantly, the Clippers have already defeated the Celtics once this year, on December 27 at the Staples Center. That game was a blowout, and Boston will definitely want revenge.
That's not going to be easy to come by in their second and final meeting of the season. Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger are both out for the season, and the Celtics will need to dig deep to find what it takes to beat a slumping Clippers team.
Contrastingly, Los Angeles is going to look to use this game as one to get back on track. They handily defeated the Celtics before, and they will want to do it again.
Put the two approaches together, and you've got yourself one hell of a game.
Time: Sunday, February 3, 1 p.m. EST
TV: NBA TV, CSN HD, PRIME TICKET
Records: Los Angeles Clippers (34-14) vs. Boston Celtics (23-23)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, February 2, 4:29 p.m. EST
Injuries: Rajon Rondo (knee, out), Jared Sullinger (knee, out), Trey Thompkins (knee, out), Chauncey Billups (foot, out), Chris Paul (knee, day-to-day), Jamal Crawford (nose, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Celtics Seek to Extend Streak to 4 Against Slumping Clippers
If the Celtics are going to beat the Clippers at TD Garden, they'll have to win on pure heart. They took on Los Angeles at the Staples Center on December 27, and the results were disastrous, at least for Boston fans.
Boston was blown out 106-77, scoring just 30 points in the second half. Kevin Garnett led with 16 points, but 18 turnovers damned the Celtics.
The Clippers were led by 21 points from Matt Barnes and 17 from Jamal Crawford, plus 11 dimes from Chris Paul.
But the scene has changed for both teams now. Boston is without its key playmaker in Rondo and has no second-unit size due to Sullinger's recent back surgery. The Clippers are also missing key players due to injury, but are still the younger and better team.
The heart exhibited on both ends is going to be sky high, but only one can win this contest. Based on certain factors, it's a much harder call than one may think.
Key Matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. DeAndre Jordan
With Rondo and Sullinger both out for the season, the Celtics will really need an amped-up effort from Kevin Garnett. That alone could be wishful thinking, but it's true.
The future Hall-of-Famer has posted 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in his 18th NBA season, and still has the size at 6'11", 253 pounds. However, Garnett is also 36 years old and has slowed down considerably. He can still play, but not at the same level he could in the prime of his career.
His last five games would not suggest that. Garnett has posted 16.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks over that stretch, showing that he still has a small piece of his former self left in the gas tank.
That part of Garnett is going to need to make an appearance against the Clippers, who will have the all-about-defense DeAndre Jordan guarding the Celtics veteran. Jordan is also 6'11", but has a much bigger body at 265 pounds. He also has what it takes to take Garnett's jumper out of the game and force him into the low-post.
On the season, Jordan has averaged just 8.9 points per game. However, his 6.9 boards and 1.4 blocks cement his status as one of the game's best pure defensive centers, which are few and far between in the game today.
Garnett is simply going to have to use his superior experience against Jordan, who is currently in his fifth season. This means creating off the dribble and not being afraid to break out the jumper, while also crashing the boards and breaking out the physical post game that has helped make him a household name.
No matter how you look at it, this is going to be a tough defensive battle on the inside. There may not be a clear winner, but whoever has the slightest advantage throughout the game is going to end up on the winning team.
X-Factor: Brandon Bass
The Celtics have enough depth at guard to at least slightly compensate for the loss of Rondo, but losing Sullinger is a different type of monster. The team is now extremely weak in the paint, which means that Brandon Bass needs to put up a solid performance.
Even after signing a three-year contract over the summer, Bass has been a disappointment for the Celtics. He has solid size at 6'8", 250 lbs, but has posted just 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds over 25.8 minutes per game.
The numbers are disheartening, as Bass averaged a career best 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds in his first season in Boston. He worked the low-post well and was also able to break out an occasional jump shot.
Bass was also an effective performer in the postseason for the Celtics last season. He averaged just 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds, but managed to score 16 points and hustle from start to finish in the deciding seventh game of the East Finals. His team may have lost, but his performance was quite memorable.
The former LSU Tiger simply needs to find some of that same competitive fire against the Clippers. It's not going to be easy since he'll have to deal with the bigger, stronger and faster Blake Griffin, but that cannot deter him from his goal.
The Celtics need help in the rebounding department, and Kevin Garnett cannot do all of the work himself. That means Bass needs to step up his effort, and regularly too. If he can kick that off with a big game against the Clippers, then Boston could actually have a shot at winning this game.
This game is going to be different from the first Clippers-Celtics game in one way. The final score is going to be far closer. Both teams are playing short-handed, and that's going to effect both of their respective approaches.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the Clippers are still the better team, even without Chris Paul. Eric Bledsoe will go into playmaker mode, and both Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford will lead Lob City to another victory.
Now, to the Celtics' credit, they will manage to keep the score close from start to finish. Paul Pierce will sink clutch threes, and Kevin Garnett will be a force in the paint, making DeAndre Jordan work every step of the way.
Boston will sadly be sunk by Brandon Bass, who will struggle to find some of the explosive athleticism from last season. His slow pace will allow Los Angeles to run wild on offense, leading them to pull away late in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the game, two things will be certain. The Los Angeles Clippers' confidence will be back, and Celtics GM Danny Ainge will have no choice but to start exploring the trade market.
Los Angeles Clippers 101, Boston Celtics 94