9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Spurs -8, Over/Under: 202
Billed as contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy heading into the 2016-2017 campaign, the San Antonio Spurs host the Boston Celtics, with only one of these teams living up to expectations (at this point). As their opponent tonight continues to take care of business as usual, the Celtics (13-11, 3rd in Atlantic Division) have been wildly inconsistent thus far, as injuries have kept this talented group from developing the proper chemistry to become the force in the Eastern Conference that so many predicted them to be. After three years of compiling assets while Head Coach Brad Stevens carefully cultivated their large group of youngsters, Boston appeared on the cusp of reaching another level this season, particularly after going 48-34 last season, which was coincidentally their best finish in six years. A second consecutive ousting in the First Round of the Playoffs left the fans in Beantown yearning for more, so Danny Ainge and the rest of the Front Office went to work during the Offseason, and netted one of it’s biggest prizes, four-time All Star Al Horford to the tune of $113 million over the course of four years. One of the more versatile Bigs in the league, Horford averaged 17.1 points on 50.5% shooting from the field, along with 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.7 blocks with Atlanta a year ago, and seemed like a perfect fit for a stingy defensive-oriented team in dire need of some offensive production in the painted area. Though his numbers are virtually identical to their predecessors (17.3 PTS, 48.3% FG, 7.0 REB, 5.6 AST, 2.6 BLK ), his impact on his new team has been difficult to figure out given that he’s missed ten of the Celtics’ twenty-four games. Curiously, Stevens’ charges have slid considerably on the defensive end of the court, where they were so good during the previous term; in 2015-2016 Boston ranked Seventh Overall in Field Goal Percentage Allowed (44.1%), Eighth Overall in Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (48.7%), and Second Overall in Turnovers Forced (21.0), but has since seen those key statistics fall to 44.1% (7th Overall), 49.4% (9th Overall), and 14.1 (17th Overall). Waitaminute, those numbers don’t look so different, do they? Well, that last one sure does, which is overall indicative as to how these guys are defending. In other words, they’re just not getting after opponents like they have in the past, which is understandable when you consider that many of the players are still learning how to gel with Horford on the court, particularly since they’ve also been without the likes of Swingman Jae Crowder (13.2 PTS, 49.1% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.0 STL), who’s missed eight games already, while All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (26.0 PTS, 42.4% FG, 2.6 REB, 6.2 AST) has sat out the last two contests with a strained Groin. In regards to the latter, his presence has been sorely missed, but more so on the offensive end; in the three games before his injury, the Celtics had been averaging 110.3 points per game, but in the pair of tilts since (both losses) they’ve managed to produce just 95.0 points per game. Case in point, during Sunday’s 99-96 defeat at Oklahoma City, the visiting side shot just 44.4% from the field, while rarely getting to the Charity Stripe, netting five of a scant few eight Free-Throws. In case you were wondering, the hosts attempted a whopping twenty-seven freebies, proving to be the far more aggressive team. In fact, Russell Westbrook alone nearly made more Free-Throws (seven) than Boston attempted as a team (eight). Of the nine players to log playing time, only Kelly Olynyk attempted more than one Free-Throw, which is a telltale sign of Thomas’ absence. The diminutive dynamo averages a healthy 8.8 Free-Throws per game, and is the only Celtic to attempt more than a pair a night, which is a huge loss in a game that was decided by a mere three points. With Thomas once again expected to miss tonight’s tie, Stevens and his Staff will have to get creative offensively against San Antonio, who perennially rank among the league’s best defensive groups.
Meanwhile, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in San Antonio (19-5, 1st in Southwest Division). For the first time in nineteen years, Tim Duncan is not a member of the Spurs’ active roster, but you would be hard-pressed to even know he was gone by watching Gregg Popovich’s charges this season, who find themselves in the same position they were at this time a year ago: Second Place in the Western Conference. Now, whether or not they can dethrone the Warriors come May is a different story altogether, but for the time being, this team continues to mercilessly march through their schedule, rectifying the occasional slip-up with a cold-blooded beatdown. That was exactly the case in last Saturday’s 130-101 drubbing of the Brooklyn Nets on the road. After winning thirteen of their previous fourteen outings, San Antonio concluded a three-game road trip with a narrow 95-91 loss at Chicago, in which their offense bogged down considerably towards the end of the game. We have no idea what Popovich said to them on the trip home, or what kind of food was served the following day, but whatever it was, these guys may want get some more of. Simply put, against the beleaguered Nets they were on fire; the hosts exploded for a season-high 130 points on a blistering 53.2% shooting from the field, including 14-of-26 from beyond the arc (53.8%), with six different players ending the night in double-figures. This one was over early folks, as the Spurs outscored the visiting side 41-26 in the First Quarter, and if it wasn’t obvious at that point, it would be soon, as they entered the Second Half on a role as well, besting the Nets 36-18 in the third frame. Popovich emptied the Bench before long, as thirteen different Spurs got on the court, led by Kawhi Leonard (24.7 PTS, 46.8% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 2.0 STL) who made the most of his twenty-seven minutes of action, scoring thirty points on an efficient 10-of-18 shooting (55.6%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), along with six rebounds, three assists, and a steal and block apiece. Furthermore, their ball movement was sensational, as they compiled a staggering thirty-eight assists, helping on all but twelve of their fifty Field Goals. Then again, as impressive as that figure may be, it’s not at all surprising for a team averaging a solid 23.3 assists (9th Overall), with seven different players dropping at least a pair of dimes a night. That number would no doubt be even higher if San Antonio moved at a quicker pace, but this remains one of the slower teams in the league, which is a no-brainer given their most apparent strength: their size. So how do you replace a Hall of Fame Big Man, you ask? By acquiring another one; in one of the shrewdest moves of the Offseason, San Antonio signed six-time All-Star Pau Gasol (11.6 PTS, 49.1% FG, 7.4 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.1 BLK), who at 36-years of age, appears to have plenty left in the tank. One of the most skilled Bigs in the league for years, the Spaniard has been a perfect complement to LaMarcus Aldridge (16.5 PTS, 47.0% FG, 6.6 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 BLK), their OTHER All-Star Big Man, granting Popovich the luxury of a Twin Tower setup that harkens back to the days of Duncan and David Robinson. Needless to say, their combined length alone has made it very difficult for opponents to get a clean look in the Paint, as the Spurs have allowed 97.8 points (3rd Overall) on 44.8% shooting (16th Overall), including 33.9% from beyond three arc (6th Overall), while racking up 5.8 blocks (8th Overall), and posting a Defensive Rebounding Percentage of 78.3% (5th Overall). Furthermore, they do a tremendous job of not fouling, which is a lost art these days, yielding just 20.8 Free-Throw attempts a night, fifth-fewest in the league, or on 19.7% of their Field Goal Attempts (11th Overall). So given that stat line, it’s probably a safe bet that the Celtics won’t shoot more than a dozen Free-Throws tonight…
Predicted Outcome: Spurs 108, Celtics 96