After upsetting the Nets in their home opener, the Celtics got a little dose of reality on Saturday, when they traveled out to Houston and got absolutely shellacked by the Rockets. Houston got out to a 37-22 first quarter lead and never looked back from there, taking advantage of their edge in size and athleticism at almost every position on the floor. The difference between the two conferences in the NBA has never been bigger, so if Boston can come out of any road trip through the West at .500, they would consider that a huge accomplishment.
While the Celtics have talent, they almost certainly don't have enough of it to compete with the best teams in the West on a nightly basis. In their second year after dealing away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they are bringing along a lot of young players who still have to figure out who they are in the NBA. Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Smart and James Young - Boston's success this season will be measured in how much these guys develop, not in whether or not the team as a whole can compete for a playoff spot.
With the exception of Rajon Rondo, none of their other veterans move the needle all that much. In all likelihood, guys like Marcus Thornton, Evan Turner, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green could be had for a song, if a contender was willing to give up a future asset to acquire them. For those guys, this season is all about maintaining their statistics - a veteran on a good team can be excused for playing a role, a veteran on a bad team who puts bad numbers is quickly going to find themselves out of the league.
It's a tough mix for Brad Stevens, the second-year coach who is still trying to establish himself in the NBA and develop an identity for his team. The good news for him is that he's signed to a very long contract, so he doesn't have to worry too much about playing for the present instead of developing for the future. Stevens and his guys know they are in for a lot of long nights when they cross the Mississippi this season - the key is to put them away early and not let them hang around, which is what Houston did on Saturday.
PG - Rajon Rondo - After dealing with an ACL injury for most of the last two seasons, Rondo is back in the saddle in Boston, dominating the ball and having most of the offense run through him. He is one of the most unique players in the NBA - a 6'1 guard who can take over a game with his passing, rebounding and defense but struggles with his outside shot. If Boston has any chance of winning the game tonight, Rondo will have to come up huge. This will be a good test for the Mavs perimeter defense.
SG - Avery Bradley - Bradley has long arms, he's incredibly fast and he prides himself on his defense - in a lot of ways, he's a smaller version of Tony Allen. Like Allen, he would probably come off the bench if he was on a good team, as NBA teams tend to need offense from their starting back-court. If he isn't knocking down 3's, you don't really need to guard him. In all likelihood, the Celtics will sic him on Monta Ellis, which should be a fun match-up of strength on strength on end and and weakness on weakness on the other.
SF - Jeff Green - The Celtics scoring leader almost by default. He is averaging 17.5 points a game this season, but doing so on 37.5% shooting, which tells you he would be much better off in a smaller role. Nevertheless, if Green's outside jumper is falling, he can take over a game, as he's an athletic 6'9 combo forward who can be a tough match-up when he has to be guarded 25+ feet from the basket. This is going to be a broken record this season, but Chandler Parsons gets paid $15 million dollars to dominate guys like Green.
PF - Jared Sullinger - While the third-year big man came into the league as a post scorer, he has been diligently working on re-inventing himself into more of a stretch 4. He is 1-6 from 3 on the season so far, but expect him to continue bombing away from deep, a prime example of how the Celtics are focusing more on player development than wins and losses. Where he can really hurt a team is on the block, as his huge 6'9 260 frame allows him to pin guys on his back and win a lot of battles for rebounds.
C - Kelly Olynyk - Like his front-court partner, Olynyk is an offensive-minded big man still trying to establish an identity for himself in the NBA. As a 7'0 jump-shooter, he has received a lot of comparisons to Dirk, which I won't dignify beyond noting that if your C is being compared to Dirk, you probably aren't a very good defensive team. Many people around the team believe that Tyler Zeller will eventually supplant him, if only because it's very hard to be competitive on a nightly basis if you can't protect the rim.
PG/SG - Marcus Smart: One of the cooler off-the-court story-lines from tonight's game is the former Flower Mound Marcus and Oklahoma State star making his only visit to the Metroplex this season. As a rookie in his first week in the NBA, Smart's head is probably going a hundred miles an hour, but he's a very talented young player whose size and physicality at 6'4 220 could allow him to make an immediate impact in the NBA. The key with Smart is keeping him on the perimeter and making him beat you with the jumper.
PF - Brandon Bass: The former Maverick great has established himself as a solid third big man in the NBA. You know the drill with Bass - he's an excellent mid-range shooter who can finish at the rim and fight on the glass, but he gives up a ton of size on defense. From a physical standpoint, he's pretty much the polar opposite of Brandan Wright, so it will be interesting to see how those two match-up when the second units are in the game.
C - Tyler Zeller - After two years of riding the bench in Cleveland, the third year 7'0 is getting his first chance to play regular minutes in the NBA in Boston. Zeller isn't particularly athletic, but he moves better than you would expect and he's a skilled player who can score with his back to the basket and play out of the high post. He provides more defense than either of their starters, so he will probably be in the game if it's close in the fourth.
SF - Evan Turner - It's been a long fall for the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, who went from featured player in Philadelphia to 6th man in Indiana and fighting for a spot in the rotation in Boston. Turner can still take over a game with the ball in his hands, but he's such an inefficient player few teams are going to let him do that and he doesn't do much when he's playing off the ball. If his jumper is falling, he's more than capable of a big game. The good news is that it probably isn't.
SG - Marcus Thornton - Thornton comes into a game to chew bubblegum and get buckets and he runs out of gum pretty quickly. He's a streaky scorer who fires up shots really quickly - he averaged only 6 points a game in the playoffs for the Nets last season, but he had 17 in their Game 7 win over Toronto. The Mavs definitely need to be aware of him on both sides of the ball, as they should be marking him on offense and attacking him on defense.
Keys to the Game:
1) Pick-and-roll: The Celtics big men can't move their feet on the perimeter and they can't protect the rim. That's a very bad recipe against a Mavs team built around spreading the floor, using Dirk as a screener and throwing lobs to Chandler and Wright. When Zeller isn't in the game, it should be a free lane to the front of the rim. Boston has two excellent perimeter defenders in Rondo and Bradley, so you don't want to get caught up in attacking off isolations - moving the ball and attacking their team defense is the key.
2) Contain Rondo: He's really the only guy on the Celtics who scares you. What makes him dangerous is that he's going, he can get everyone else on the team going. If he creates a bunch of open jumpers from Green, Sullinger and Olynyk, those guys gain confidence and Boston becomes a much more difficult team to defend. The scouting report on Rondo is the same as it always was - stay in front of him, concede the jumper, make him a scorer. This is a game where you could see a lot of Devin Harris.
3) Put them away early: Even the worst teams in the NBA have plenty of players who can beat you on a given night. The key is to do what Houston did to Boston on Saturday - attack early, get the home crowd into the game and don't give them a chance to stay in the game. If they can hang around in the fourth quarter, Rondo can control tempo in the final minutes and steal the game. Given the state of the Western Conference this season, it's paramount for the Mavs to take care of business at home against a team like the Celtics.
Details: The game is at 7:30 Central on Fox Sports Southwest.