The Celtics are in a difficult position right now, with a very good Phoenix Suns team that's already beaten Boston once this season on tap tonight. The C's would love to right the ship against Phoenix, but they need to be extremely careful with the Suns because they're perfectly capable of trapping an opponent into its style of play - even a team like the Celtics which prides itself on its defensive mindset. If the Celtics aren't cautious and play the sloppy basketball they displayed on Monday against the Warriors, they could find the game escaping their grasp early on.
With that in mind, here are five points of emphasis for the Celtics tonight:
1) Defense - No surprises here. The Suns lead the league in scoring at 109.8 points per game and have scored over 110 points in their last four contests (2-2). If there's ever a game that calls for the Celtics to revert back to their defensive principles, this is it. With players like Channing Frye and Amare Stoudemire capable of spacing the floor, the Suns' offense is extremely versatile. They can easily employ the seven seconds or less offense, or slow things down and execute a frustrating pick-and-roll offense that Steve Nash is very adept at utilizing.
2) Patience on Offense - Speaking of defense, the Suns don't play any. They're ranked 29th in the NBA in points allowed per game at a 106.0 mark. The scoring opportunities will be plentiful, particularly in the open court - which is exactly where the Celtics do not want to play tonight. If Boston adapts to Phoenix's run and gun style it's going to be a long evening. The Celtics should utilize their fast break opportunities when they arise, but they shouldn't necessarily look to push the tempo every time they have the ball. When the Celtics and Suns squared off in Boston, the C's dropped 60 of their 103 points in that game in the paint, so they should be able to dismantle Phoenix's half court defense even with Paul Pierce out of the lineup. Steve Nash will have a difficult time guarding Rajon Rondo, meaning Rajon should be able to penetrate fairly easily, which will open up drive-and-kick opportunities as well as drive-and-dish situations.
3) Steve Nash - The Suns go as Nash goes and the two-time MVP hasn't shown many signs that he'll be slowing down any time soon. Nash's season averages of 18.6 points and 11.3 assists are impressive and Rondo had a difficult time containing him in Boston (16 points, 12 assists). However, the Suns are just 7-5 when Nash scores less than 15 points and they're 6-7 when Nash records less than 10 assists.
4) Transition Defense - Phoenix is hands down one of the league's best fast breaking teams with a guy like Nash distributing and athletic guys like Jason Richardson (Celtic-killer alert) and Amare Stoudemire serving as his athletic targets. Once the Suns get running, much like Usain Bolt, they're difficult to catch up to. Over the last four games Phoenix has averaged 20.7 fast break points per game. Slowing the Suns is also pivotal to Boston's defensive game plan as defending teams in the open court forces mismatches and makes rotations practically irrelevant more often than not.
5) Turnovers - The Celtics handed the ball over 26 times against the Warriors on Monday, resulting in 31 Golden State points. The Celtics simply cannot afford to give Phoenix's already potent offense extra possessions tonight. Giving Phoenix more chances to defeat you is a sure recipe for disaster. Many of the turnovers against Golden State resulted in fast break opportunities for the Warriors and if a similar scenario unfolds tonight, the Suns will be scoring at will and the C's could see themselves taken out of this one early on. The Suns are forcing only 13.65 turnovers per game, which isn't an overwhelming number, but the Celtics have given the ball away more than 20 times in two of their last three games.