- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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AP Photo/Winslow Townson
Can Rajon Rondo keep his double-digit assist streak alive north of the border against the Raptors?After seven straight games against playoff-level opponents, things ease up (slightly) for the Boston Celtics (34-24, 13-15 away) as they visit the Toronto Raptors (20-39, 11-19 home) on Friday night at the Air Canada Centre (7 p.m., CSN). While the Raptors have struggled, this actually marks the start of a grueling stretch for Boston, kicking off its only back-to-back-to-back of the season. 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 Celtics visit the Raptors?
Payne: A fast start tonight will be crucial, because the Celtics can do themselves a host of favors by beating up on the Raptors early and cruising to an easier win tonight. Given the back-to-back-to-back beginning tonight, Boston should be looking to garner as much rest as possible for its veterans, and tonight's a perfect opportunity for just that. The C's have already beaten up on the Raptors twice this season -- two of the seemingly rare times they've out-rebounded an opponent -- so there's no question the potential is there for an easier victory. Getting guys rest at the start of this grueling three-game stretch could go a long way towards making the following two games much easier to bear.
Forsberg: Being the first game against a non-playoff team this month, it will be interesting to see Boston's intensity level out of the gates. They haven't had to worry about playing down to an opponent in a while. But the Raptors are woeful on the offensive side of the ball and so long as the Celtics brought their defense's passport, there's a chance here to start this trip on the right foot. That said, for all their overall struggles this season, first-year head coach Dwane Casey seems to have Toronto going in the right direction on the defensive end. The Raptors are middle-of-the-pack overall (allowing 0.925 points per play, 18th in the league, according to Synergy Sports data), but Toronto actually ranks second in the league in defending spot-up shooting (which accounts for a whopping 19.5 percent of opponents' total plays and foes are averaging a mere 0.871 points per play). The Celtics need to exploit other areas, like Toronto's inability to defend ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll.
2. The dreaded back-to-back-to-back has arrived. The Celtics will play five games over the next six nights in five different cities. How exactly does Doc Rivers provide rest to his players during this stretch?
Payne: I think Rivers definitely has to rest his guys for at least one of these games. Most likely it'll be on Sunday, but it wouldn't shock me if he held guys out of Saturday's game against the Nets, that way they aren't playing another back-to-back on the heels of Tuesday and Wednesday's exhausting efforts. The schedule is interesting, though, because if Rivers plays guys tonight and tomorrow and holds them out on Sunday, he'll be giving them two consecutive days off before Tuesday's tilt against the Knicks. But, if he holds guys out on Saturday only, he'll be creating more of a normalized schedule for them with standard rest in between games. I'm sure Doc will consult with his players and determine from there what the best course of action is.
Forsberg: So long as the Celtics take care of business Friday night, I think it makes an awful lot of sense to consider holding out the veterans on Saturday in New Jersey. By doing that, you eliminate much of what's daunting about the back-to-back-to-back as key players could rest Saturday and be fresh for Sunday's visit to Charlotte. Why not roll the dice with a junior varsity lineup against New Jersey? Younger guys -- like rookies JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore -- could get a rare opportunity for extended court time and you don't run the risk of over-exerting the likes of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The urge is going to be to go hard each game because of the tightness of the standings with eight games to go, but Rivers remains adamant that health is more importnat than seeding, so he needs to show it this weekend.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com
2dESPN Stats and Information Group
4dESPN Stats & Information