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Game 52: Celtics vs. Lakers

at TD Garden, 8 p.m. | TNT, WEEI (850 AM)

PAYNE'S THREE THINGS TO WATCH

  • Battle on the boards: Exactly how important is rebounding when these two clubs meet? Dating back to last year's NBA finals, the last eight times these two teams have played one another, the team that has won the rebounding battle, has won the game. As Glen Davis said after practice on Wednesday: "You rebound, you win. And winning is important." The Celtics, though, will be without what coach Doc Rivers likes to call "21 feet" of big men tonight as three 7-footers -- Shaquille O'Neal (inflamed Achilles), Semih Erden (right adductor strain), and Jermaine O'Neal (left knee surgery) -- will not play.

  • Pierce vs. Artest: When these two clubs played in Los Angeles a little over two weeks ago, Paul Pierce poured in a team-high 32 points, with 16 of those coming in the first half -- mainly against Ron Artest. Artest was promptly benched for the majority of the second half due to his inability to defend Pierce, which forced Lakers coach Phil Jackson to stick Kobe Bryant on Pierce instead. That switch, though, moved Bryant off of Rajon Rondo, and Rondo erupted for 15 of his game-high 16 assists in the second half. Artest, who's done a credible job of defending Pierce in the past, needs to play well enough to remain on the floor in order for the Lakers to run their desired defensive schemes.

  • Ray and the record: The stars are aligning for Ray Allen, who needs just two 3-point field goals to pass Reggie Miller and become the NBA's all-time leader in 3-pointers made. Not only could the record come at home in a game against the Celtics' fiercest rival, but Miller, coincidentally, will be on hand tonight, serving as the color commentator for TNT's nationally televised broadcast of the game.

GAME PREVIEW (via Stats Inc.)

Boston got the best of the Lakers in Los Angeles in their NBA finals rematch last month. However, based on their recent regular-season play at TD Garden, the Lakers have a good chance to split the season series.

The Lakers hope to avenge that defeat with a third straight regular-season road victory over the banged-up Celtics on Thursday night.

Behind 32 points from Paul Pierce, Boston shot a road season-high 60.3 percent in a 109-96 win over the Lakers on Jan. 30. It was the Celtics' first trip to Staples Center since their 83-79 loss there in Game 7 of the NBA finals June 17.

Though the Celtics claim last season's near-miss wasn't a motivational factor for their latest matchup, Pierce couldn't help but look ahead to what might lie down the road for both clubs.

"If we had home court last year, who knows maybe what happens in Game 7?" Pierce said. "We're not looking ahead, but maybe if it comes down to another Game 7, maybe we'll have it at home."

That remains a possibility, as Boston (38-13) leads the Eastern Conference by one-half game over Miami while Los Angeles (36-16) is third in the West.

The Celtics are 23-4 at home but have dropped two of three overall and been plagued by injuries of late. Boston dressed only 10 players while shooting 40.8 percent in Monday's 94-89 loss at Charlotte.

Though Pierce is expected to play despite missing practice Wednesday while home sick, Shaquille O'Neal will miss a fourth straight game with a sore Achilles' tendon and backup center Semih Erden his second due a strained leg muscle. The Celtics continue to play without veterans Jermaine O'Neal (knee) and Delonte West (wrist).

Those injuries won't give the Lakers reason to relax with Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins still in the paint. Garnett had 18 points with 13 rebounds at Los Angeles last month.

"We're going to have to be really physical, really solid, really aggressive in order to be successful in Boston," Pau Gasol told the Lakers' official website.

The Lakers also must worry about Ray Allen, who needs to make two 3-pointers to break Reggie Miller's NBA career record of 2,560. Allen is grateful he has a chance to reach that milestone in front of the home crowd.

"It just seems right, just being in this building, because so many people have followed me and have so much fan support," Allen told the Celtics' official website. "It's like, what place to be better than in the Garden? So I'm glad that I'm able to be here and have the opportunity."

Allen, who scored 25 points at Charlotte, has totaled 45 in his last two regular-season games against the Lakers -- both in Los Angeles. However, he's averaged 8.3 on 11-of-44 shooting the last four home games versus Los Angeles, including playoffs.

Though the Lakers went 1-2 at TD Garden in the finals, they have won four of five regular-season meetings in Boston, including the last two by one point each.

Kobe Bryant, who matched a season high with 41 points against the Celtics on Jan. 30, has averaged 29.7 his last 15 regular-season and playoff games in Boston.

Bryant's 19 points led six Lakers in double figures as they improved to 2-0 on their seven-game road trip with a 93-84 win over Memphis on Monday.

Read the full preview HERE.