8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Rockets -8, Over/Under: 217
A potential NBA Finals Preview commands the spotlight this weekend, as the hottest team in the league, the Houston Rockets play host to the Boston Celtics, as the former looks to extend their lengthy wining streak to Fifteen Games from Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. The All-Star Break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Celtics (44-19, 2nd in Eastern Conference) for there may not have been a team in the NBA that needed the respite more than they did, losing four out of five contests before the festivities began. It seemed like ages ago when Brad Stevens’ charges strung together a league-best 16-Game Winning Streak back in November, particularly after their dip in form afterwards, going 13-11 at one point between December and January, which also saw them drop out of the No. One Seed in the Eastern Conference. However, it’s become very clear that there is simply no substitute for rest, which Boston has made the most of, winning all four of their ties after the Break, pulling them within a Half-Game of the Raptors for First Place in the East. When we last saw them, they were busy absolutely routing the Charlotte Hornets in a 134-106 drubbing, in which the hosts scored a season-high 134 Points, while shooting a ridiculous 62.1% from the Field, their best showing in nearly four years. This had to have been a welcome sight for Stevens and his Staff, for the Celtics have struggled throughout the season on the offensive end of the court, averaging 104.1 Points (14th Overall) on 45.0% Shooting (22nd Overall), but nonetheless ran the Hornets out of TD Garden in a beatdown that was never close at any point. The home side were a modicum of efficiency Wednesday Night, draining 12-of-20 Threes (60.0%), while assisting on Thirty-One of their Fifty-Four Field Goals, in comparison to committing just Ten Turnovers. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Kyrie Irving (24.9 PTS, 49.2% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 25.3 PER), who totaled Thirty-Four Points on 13-of-18 Shooting (72.2%), Four Rebounds, Five Assists, and a Steal, before calling it a night along with rest of the Starting Lineup after the conclusion of the Third Quarter. Hopefully, they can manage to keep this scintillating form going; after the All-Star Break, Boston has averaged 118.5 Points on 50.1% Shooting from the Field, including 41.8% from beyond the Arc, while dishing out 26.8 Assists in comparison to 10.0 Turnovers, while even managing to outrebound the opposition by 2.7 Boards per Game. Granted, the schedule (which must always be accounted for at this time year) has been far from daunting, with only the Detroit Pistons offering much of a challenge, with the other three opponents being the lowly New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and the aforementioned Hornets. One thing is clear though: the Rockets represent quite a significant step-up in class, and the Celtics must continue their recent offensive turn if they have any hope of keeping things close Saturday Night. When these teams met back on December 28th in Beantown, the home side fell behind early, though mustered an epic comeback, rallying from Twenty-Six Points late in the Fourth Quarter, as Marcus Smart (10.1 PTS, 36.8% FG, 30.1% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 10.5 PER) drew a crucial Offensive Foul on James Harden with 7.3 Seconds left, allowing Boston one more possession to win the game. Al Horford (12.8 PTS, 49.7% FG, 43.2% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 17.7 PER) would go on to play the role of hero, nailing a short Hook Shot to take a 99-98 lead with 3.7 Seconds to play, with the visitor’s final attempt falling harmlessly to the floor. It was an immensely impressive defensive performance from the Celtics, who relegated their counterparts to a dismal 37.5% Shooting from the Field, including 14-of-43 from Three (32.6%), permitting as many Assists (16) as Turnovers. It was yet another balanced showing for Irving & Co. with five players in double-figures, led by the All-Star Point Guard’s Twenty-Six Points on 9-of-18 Shooting, while the aforementioned Smart filled up the Stat Sheet with Thirteen Points, Six Rebounds, Five Assists, a pair of Steals, and Three Blocks.
Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the league that’s hotter than the Rockets (48-13, 1st in Western Conference), who for the second time this season have now put together a 14-Game Winning Streak in route to claiming the best record in the NBA. Owning a slim, Half-Game Lead over the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, you get the sense that this race is going to come down to the wire. With that said, unlike in years past, it’s become crystal clear that this team is more than capable of seeing things through to the end. There was certainly a great deal of debate in regards to whether or not this grand experiment pairing James Harden (31.3 PTS, 44.9% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 30.5 PER) with Chris Paul (18.8 PTS, 46.3% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 8.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 25.2 PER) (after Houston acquired the latter in a Trade during the Summer) would work, though the two All-Star Guards have proven their detractors oh so very wrong. The duo have complemented each other perfectly, morphing Mike D’Antoni’s charges into arguably the most potent offensive force in the league, and that’s taking into consideration the defending champs. On the season, Houston is averaging 113.8 Points (3rd Overall) on 46.2% Shooting from the Field (14th Overall), including 56.1% from within the Arc (2nd Overall) and 36.2% beyond it (12th Overall), while dishing out 21.7 Assists (25th Overall) in comparison to 14.0 Turnovers (10th Overall). While those numbers may not be indicative of just how well they’re playing at the moment, their biggest turn during this current winning streak that they’ve been on has been on the defensive end of the court. Don’t let the word get out, folks, for a Mike D’Antoni Team is actually excelling defensively; in the month of February, the Rockets have relegated opponents to 98.8 Points on 44.5% Shooting from the Floor, including 30.9% from Three, and 23.3 Assists, while forcing 13.4 Turnovers, and outrebounding them by a margin of 0.5 Boards per Game. Furthermore, February is the only month of the Campaign in which they’ve managed to hold the opposition below 100.0 Points per Game. It’s been remarkable to see this annual offensive juggernaut evolve into something far more balanced and complete, with the addition of Paul serving as the catalyst for said evolution. Yes, they still Take (15.5) and Make (42.5) more Three-Pointers than any other team in the league, but they’ve slowed the Pace down a bit, ranking Eleventh at 98.0 Possessions per 48 Minutes, giving themselves an opportunity to better exploit their opponents in the Half Court, while being afforded with the luxury of greater organization on defense. when we last saw them, Harden & Co. were busy running their streak to Fourteen Games, crushing the Los Angeles Clippers in a 105-92 victory that wasn’t nearly as close as that final score may indicate. Simply put, this was a proverbial Revenge Game from an earlier, bitter defeat that stirred up a ton of controversy between Paul, his new teammates and his former ones, with the former attempting to storm into the latter’s Lockerroom after the contentious affair. This time around, things were far more mellow, and far more one-sided, as the visiting side opened with an onslaught, leading 34-12 after the First Quarter. It was far from a flawless performance for D’Antoni’s troops, who shot just 42.4% from the Field, including 13-of-43 from Three (30.2%), but they nonetheless made it look easy, behind Harden’s Twenty-Five Points on 7-of-14 Shooting (50.0%), while Clint Capela (14.6 PTS, 65.7% FG, 11.1 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 25.5 PER) and Eric Gordon (18.5 PTS, 41.7% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.8 PER) showed out with a combined Forty-Four Points. However, the highlight of the night was by far and away the sequence in which Harden placed Wesley Johnson on skates, causing the beleaguered Swingman to fall, and stopped and waited for what seemed like an eternity before calmly drilling one of his three makes from long-range. They’ll go for fifteen in a row against Boston, who as we mentioned earlier bested them in a 99-98 thriller back in late December. Keep in mind that Paul did not participate in that meeting, still rehabbing from an injured knee, while Harden managed to score Thirty-Four Points in spite of making just Seven of his Twenty-Seven Shots from the Field (25.9%). As he so often does, the front-runner for the MVP Award compensated for his shooting woes by taking residence at the Charity Stripe, where he knocked down all Fifteen of his Free-Throws, accounting for nearly half of his production. With both teams in better form and all in all better health, expect Saturday’s showdown to be even more entertaining than it’s predecessor.