Game Preview: Rockets at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – One thing the arrival of James Harden has done in Houston is legitimize the Rockets (21-15) organization. This team, which the Boston Celtics (18-17) host at 7:30 p.m. tonight in TD Garden, is no joke.

Houston currently sits in the sixth spot in the Western Conference but it has been on a tear since December 12. The Rockets have lost only three games since that date while racking up a 12-3 overall record.

“I think the energy that James Harden has brought to the team and city has really enthused them,” Paul Pierce said on Thursday. “A lot of people think they’re overachieving, but they’re right there with some of the better teams in the Western Conference.

“You probably have a franchise player in Harden, you have a more than capable point guard in Jeremy Lin, and (Omer) Asik is proving to be one of the better centers in the league. So you put those three, a combination of those three out there, along with (Chandler) Parsons and (Carlos) Delfino – good role players – they’re going to be a team that can be reckoned with in all of the NBA.”

Pierce seems convinced, and for good reason. The Celtics know all about how well this Rockets team can play, as it took Boston down by a score of 101-89 back on December 14 in Houston. Harden, the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA with 26.5 points per game, led that contest with 21 points.

Boston did a pretty good job of containing Harden, who shot just 6-of-17 from the field, but it allowed other Rockets to have above-average games. Parsons neared a triple-double with 15 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, and Greg Smith was a terror in the paint with his 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting.

Don’t expect similar performances from the Rockets tonight. They are playing well, but the Celtics are, too.

Boston has seemingly turned its season around with four consecutive wins. Defense, the team’s M.O. over the course of the past five seasons, has been the name of the Celtics’ game. All four of Boston’s opponents during this winning streak have shot less than 42 percent.

The C’s will need to bring a strong defensive effort with them tonight if they hope to continue their winning streak. Houston is an offensive powerhouse and has scored at least 104 points in four of its last five games.

Continued Bench Support

Any team is at its best when both the starters and the bench are playing well. Boston has seen its starters dominate at times this season, but Wednesday’s win over the Suns was the first occasion in which the C’s saw their reserves dominate as a group.

James Harden

The Celtics will need to limit the impact of Houston's front man James Harden on Friday night.
Scott Halleran/NBAE/Getty Images

Four of the five Celtics reserves who played more than a minute Wednesday night finished with a plus/minus rating of at least plus-12. As a group, the bench outscored the starters 47-40.

Two guys to keep an eye on tonight are Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green. Sullinger is coming off of a career-best performance of 12 points and 16 rebounds. He’ll be an important player down low against the likes of Asik and Smith. Green is coming off of an aggressive 14-point game in which he scored the majority of his points off of dunks and free throws, so the C’s would love to see that continue as well.

Keep Harden off the Line

Avery Bradley has a tough cover tonight. He will be undersized against one of the league’s premier scorers, and that scorer grabs a lot of his points at the free-throw line.

Harden attempts the most free throws per game of any player in the NBA. His 10.1 attempts per game are substantially higher than any other perimeter player and just slightly above Dwight Howard’s rate of 10.0 per game. Harden’s free throw rate is an indication of two things: First, he gets a lot of calls; Second, he loves to take the ball off of the dribble.

Bradley is known for his pressure defense but that could come back to haunt him tonight against an aggressive scorer like Harden.

Get Rondo on Track

One of the most shocking facts surrounding Boston’s winning streak is that Rajon Rondo hasn’t been putting up superstar numbers during the wins. He has played in three of the four victories and averaged only 13.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG and 8.3 APG during those games.

Those statistics are not nearly up to par with the numbers Rondo had been putting up earlier in the season. Boston obviously does not care what Rondo’s numbers are as long as the team is winning, but it’s usually playing its best basketball when Rondo is breaking defenses down and racking up a high number of points and assists.