When Rajon Rondo went down with an ACL tear on January 25, the climate in Boston had an air of extreme uncertainty. All the Celtics did to quell the storm was rip off six straight wins and move within eight games of the Easter Conference-leading Miami Heat.
Boston has been one of the hottest teams in the league in the last two weeks, but it faces a team in the Denver Nuggets that is playing some of the best basketball in the league right now.
The Nuggets have won their last nine games and sit six games back of the lead in the West. Denver is averaging the third-most points-per-game average in the league (104.8), aided by five straight performances of 111 points or more.
Sunday’s contest between the Celtics and Nuggets won’t make or break the season for either team, but one of the two will escape with added momentum on which to build heading into the All-Star break.
We’ll take a look ahead to the game’s biggest storylines and key matchups as two of the hottest teams in the league square off Sunday evening.
Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA
When: 6:00 p.m. EST
Television: Comcast SportsNet
Betting Line: Boston Celtics (-2), Over/Under 202.5 points (via PinnacleSports.com)
Injuries: Rajon Rondo (knee, out), Jared Sullinger (back, out) (via ESPN)
Two freight trains will be colliding in Boston Sunday night. Only a handful of teams in the league are playing as well as the Nuggets and Celtics at this point in the season.
The two teams haven’t faced off yet this year, but they’re set to square off twice in the next nine days.
Who will lead all scorers in Sunday's Nuggets-Celtics contest?
For the Celtics, losing Rondo was a major blow, but losing their superstar point guard hasn’t slowed their momentum. In fact, Boston’s offense has taken on a whole new look, generating scoring opportunities from good off-ball movement and a more up-tempo offense in the half court.
Avery Bradley has stepped up in Rondo’s absence, and while he won’t match the All-Star point guard’s production, he’s added a new element on both ends of the floor. In almost 30 minutes per game in Boston’s last two contests, Bradley has averaged 10.5 points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists and a steal, setting the tempo for a team finding its way without a true facilitator at the point.
While the Celtics have been under the microscope in the last two weeks, the Nuggets have ripped off nine wins in a row and still are not receiving the attention they deserve. Despite boasting two 15-plus point scorers, a young big man averaging nearly a double-double this season and incredible depth at every spot on the floor, no Denver player was selected to this year’s All-Star squad.
The Nuggets are hot, but Boston is the favorite in this contest, due in large part to how poorly Denver has played on the road this season. Fifteen of the Nuggets’ 18 losses have come on the road.
Avery Bradley vs. Ty Lawson
Denver’s offense primarily runs through Lawson, who is averaging 15.1 points and 6.9 assists in just over 34 minutes per game this season.
Lawson plays with terrific speed and quickness, and he excels at penetrating off the dribble and slashing to the rim. The key to stopping Lawson lies with Bradley and his defensive prowess.
Bradley is an elite defender in the half court. He’s not a big one-guard, but he has a three-inch height advantage on Lawson—an advantage he will use to keep Lawson from getting too comfortable behind the arc.
In his last four games, Lawson averaged 17.5 points and 9.25 assists in nearly 35 minutes per game. That’s the kind of production that keeps Denver’s offense running at full speed, and Bradley will be asked to keep Lawson out of the lane and off the stat sheet, forcing pressure on Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala to shoulder the load on offense.
X-Factor: Andre Iguodala
Iguodala is Denver’s third-leading scorer, but he’ll have to shine in other areas on Sunday to give the Nuggets a chance to upset Boston.
With Bradley matching up on Lawson for most of the game, Iguodala will have to find a way to create a lot of his own scoring opportunities against Courtney Lee. Lee is a solid defender, and while Iguodala isn’t a terrific perimeter scorer, he can do a lot of damage by maintaining his spacing and playing off Denver’s big men.
Iguodala’s biggest test will be in helping Lawson facilitate the Nuggets’ offense. He’s a terrific passer who has averaged 4.7 assists per game this season, and in an offense that will likely spread the floor against the Celtics, Iguodala must find a way to create scoring opportunities for his teammates in the paint and along the perimeter.
Iguodala is a terrific defender and true point forward who must play smart basketball on Sunday. He can’t focus on being the team’s primary scorer, but he’ll play a big role in creating those opportunities for the rest of Denver’s offense.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Avery Bradley
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Brandon Bass
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Andre Iguodala
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Kosta Koufos
There are a ton of good defenders on both sides of this matchup, and while both teams have played well at the offensive end as of late, look for Sunday’s contest to be a low-scoring affair. The over/under is set at 202.5 points, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the final score will come in under that mark.
As well as both teams are playing, it’s hard to predict a winner, but one of these two teams will see its impressive winning streak end. Unfortunately for Denver, its deficiencies on the road will be too much to overcome in Boston on Sunday. The Nuggets will drop a close one in the final minutes.
Boston is playing with a renewed sense of urgency and clicking on all cylinders right now. Only two of Denver’s nine straight wins have come on the road, and only one of them was against a team with more than 16 wins.
The Nuggets may be headed for a rough stretch in the coming weeks. Six of their next eight contests will be on the road, and a loss in Boston would set a poor tone for the rest of their road trip.
Look for Gallinari and Paul Pierce to lead the scoring in Sunday’s game. Both will benefit from good movement off the ball and away from the defensive stalemates at the top of the perimeter. Each player has the potential to score 25-plus points to set the tone for his team on the offensive end.
Prediction: Boston Celtics 100, Denver Nuggets 96