The Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets return from the All-Star break on Tuesday night with a high-profile matchup. Both teams have 30 games left in the regular season to secure a playoff spot, but face different challenges to reach that goal.
In Boston, there was a feeling of doom and gloom after watching several players succumb to season-ending injuries. The Celtics have actually improved their play, however, winning eight of 10 games leading up to All-Star weekend.
As for the Nuggets, they entered the break on a three-game losing streak. They gave up over 115 points per game during that span and the team's defense is the biggest concern moving forward. Denver ranks 26th in opponent's scoring average.
It will be interesting to see how both teams get the proverbial second half underway. Here's all the viewing information for the game, followed by a preview and prediction as the Nuggets welcome the Celtics to the Mile High City.
Where: Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 9 p.m. ET
Watch: NBA TV
Live Stream: NBA League Pass
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Celtics: Rajon Rondo (out, knee), Leandro Barbosa (out, knee), Jared Sullinger (out, back) and Paul Pierce (probable, neck)
Nuggets: Andre Iguodala (probable, neck) and Danilo Gallinari (probable, illness)
Key storyline: Can the Celtics overcome mounting injuries to clinch playoff berth?
The Celtics survived the initial setback of losing three important assets. Rondo was obviously the biggest loss, but Barbosa and Sullinger were both providing solid minutes off the bench as well. Now they must maintain their position for 30 more games.
As it stands now, Boston sits in seventh place in the East and is five-and-a-half games clear in the playoff race. That lead increases by two more games if you're talking about the Toronto Raptors, who are finding their stride with Rudy Gay in the mix.
If the Celtics had a healthy roster, there would be little doubt about their ability to lock down a spot in the postseason. But it's far less of a certainty without Rondo running the offense, despite the team's strong play without him so far.
Everybody knows what Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett bring to the table on a nightly basis. The onus is on players like Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass to pick up the slack. They've proven themselves capable of doing it on a small scale, but doing it over the long term is a different animal.
The odds are in Boston's favor. Even if the the Celtics suffer a slight slowdown during the homestretch as the losses of Rondo and Co. start to have a more noticeable impact, they should have a big enough cushion to make the playoffs.
There will probably be some tense moments, though.
Key matchup: Paul Pierce vs. Danilo Gallinari
As usual, Pierce leads the Celtics in scoring at 19 points per game while also chipping in six rebounds and four assists. He's been one of the most reliable players in the NBA over the past decade, and his presence has helped Boston remain on track.
It's fair to wonder how he'll handle the pressure of having to carry the team on his back the rest of the way. Not in a mental sense, but in a physical sense. Especially in games like the one on Tuesday night, where Gallinari will be pushing him to play defense all night.
Gallinari plays the same type of game as Pierce, albeit not on the same level. The dueling small forwards will be going at each other all game, and those type of matchups are going to take their toll on the 35-year-old Celtics star down the stretch.
X-factor: Ty Lawson
Lawson is often as frustrating as he is talented because of his streaky play. But when he's playing at his best, like he has been in February, he helps the Nuggets morph into a Western Conference contender. The point guard is averaging 22 points and nine assists this month.
If he maintains that form coming out of the break, he gives the Nuggets a clear advantage over the Celtics at the point. He must take advantage of the fact he'll be going up against Bradley instead of the more dynamic Rondo.
That said, there's also a chance he plays like he did in December, when he averaged just 14 points and six assists. If that happens, Denver's point guard advantage basically disappears. Either way, Lawson will have a major impact on the outcome.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Avery Bradley
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Brandon Bass
C: Kevin Garnett
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Andre Iguodala
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Kosta Koufos
If the Celtics can win this game, or any like it down the stretch where they face a superior opponent on the road, it's a bonus. Their focus will be taking care of business at home and winning on the road against inferior competition to earn a postseason spot.
Given the injury situation, the edge goes to Denver. That's mostly because of the team's depth, which includes Kenneth Faried, who's fresh off an MVP performance in the Rising Stars Game in which he dropped 40 points.
Expect Lawson to continue his hot run of play, with the rest of the Nuggets feeding off that. The Celtics should be able to keep it close as long as the break didn't kill their momentum, but it's certainly Denver's game to lose from the outset.
Nuggets 102, Celtics 97