- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Can Rajon Rondo and the Celtics get back on track Saturday in Indianapolis?The Boston Celtics (30-24, 11-15 away) will look to snap a two-game losing streak Saturday night when they visit the Indiana Pacers (34-21, 18-7 home) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7 p.m., CSN). It's a battle of two of the (currently) top four seeds in the Eastern Conference and if Boston wants to make a charge at that No. 3 spot, it needs a win Saturday (the Pacers currently own a 3½-game edge with 12 games to go). To preview the matchup, we play a game of 2-on-2 with colleague Greg Payne:
1. What will you be focused on when the C's visit the Pacers?
Payne: I'm interested in seeing if the Celtics can do a better job of controlling the pace and tempo of the game. Particularly on Wednesday against the Spurs, the C's seemed borderline out of control on far too many possessions in the first half. I'm all for Boston scoring in transition, but not when there aren't legitimate openings for scoring opportunities. There were too many times against the Spurs when the Celtics should have slowed things up and set up a half-court play, but instead one player would try and break ahead of the defense and force a bad shot. The good news for tonight is the C's and Pacers play at a very similar pace, according to HoopData, but there's no question Indiana is, overall, a more athletic team than Boston, so once again it won't be in the Celtics' favor to try to run the Pacers out of the building tonight. The C's need to take advantage of fast break opportunities when they present themselves, but not force them when they aren't there.
Forsberg: The Celtics are catching Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back (a big win over West juggernaut Oklahoma City), but the Pacers have won four straight and are playing some quality basketball at the moment, particularly at the offensive end. Can the Celtics contain Danny Granger (26.3 points per game during this winning streak) and how do they fare with big man Roy Hibbert given their size depletion since the last time the two teams met? More than anything though, it will be interesting to see how the Celtics respond after Doc Rivers' criticism following the loss in Chicago. It would be very surprising if Boston didn't come out firing on all cylinders, using their coach's "lack of toughness" critique as motivation to fuel them in a key Eastern Conference clash. Rivers likely identified this weekend as a key stretch for his team's seeding potential and is trying to light the fire after letting two winnable games slip away.
2. Kevin Garnett played big minutes in Chicago and looks to be struggling a bit with his shot the last two games. How does Doc Rivers find rest for his veterans given the schedule challenges?
Payne: I think this is where we really see what the Celtics value more: Health or playoff positioning. All along the C's have maintained that they'd rather have a healthy roster and a worse playoff spot as opposed to a better seed and a team running on empty. There really aren't many games left where Rivers can look at the schedule and say, 'We should win even if I don't play KG tonight,' so if he is serious about wanting a healthy group, he may need to hold out guys like Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, from some of the games against the Eastern Conference playoff teams. He can also be strategic, though. For example, after next week's back-to-back against Atlanta and Miami, he can hold guys out for Friday's game against the Raptors (the start of the dreaded back-to-back-to-back), have them play Saturday in New Jersey, but then pull them again for Sunday's game against Charlotte, so that they get that day and the following Monday to rest before their next game (Tuesday, April 17th) against the Knicks. If he can pull the strings in such a manner, he might be able to get his guys some rest the remainder of the way without potentially sacrificing too many games.
Forsberg: Rivers is in a tough spot. All these games against potential playoff foes mean something, so how do you pick your spots? If Sunday's game against Philadelphia is more important for the Atlantic Division title, do you limit Garnett to 30 minutes in Indiana, even though he's coming off a day's rest? Rivers said he didn't like the idea of flat-out holding a guy out because, even if he gives Garnett a night off, he'll go run 5 miles, lift weights, and still get shots up. So it essentially comes down to having to lean on guys like Ryan Hollins and Greg Stiemsma for longer stretches, while essentially handcuffing Garnett to the bench. It'll come down to the eye test. If Garnett continues to labor and looks off like he did at times in Chicago, then Rivers is going to have to look at the big picture and limit his minutes, even if it means adding a layer of difficulty to key games like this.