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Preview: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Game #53

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The Celtics look for their 8th straight win as they visit James Harden and the Houston Rockets.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Celtics continue their road trip with a stop in Houston to take on the Rockets. This is the first of 2 meetings between these two teams this season. Their final meeting will be in Boston on February 29. This is Houston’s final game before the All Star break. The Celtics play once more before the break on Thursday at home against the Clippers.

The Celtics are 3rd in the East, 2 games behind the 2nd place Toronto Raptors and 2.5 games ahead of the 4th place Miami Heat. The Celtics are 15-10 on the road and 9-1 in their last 10 games. They are 12-6 against Western Conference teams. They are looking to win their 8th straight game.

The Rockets are 5th in the West. They are 2 games behind 4th place Utah and they are 1 game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who the Celtics beat on Sunday. They are 18-8 at home and 6-4 in their last 10 games. They are 12-4 against Eastern Conference teams. They have lost their last 2 games.

The Rockets swept the series last season while averaging 121 points per game and they have won their last 3 against the Celtics at home. In the eight games that they have played with mostly small lineups, the Rockets rank 26th in defensive rebounding percentage, and 27th in second-chance points allowed. However, over that stretch, they rank 1st in forcing turnovers and in points scored off turnovers.

The Rockets had a 4 game win streak snapped by Utah on Sunday. They have won their last 3 games against Boston and have swept 3 of the last 6 season series. This may be the only team in the league where the Celtics may have a height advantage. Since trading Clint Capela, they are starting a lineup where 6’7” Robert Covington is their tallest player. They are banking on being able to out-switch teams and beat them with speed and athleticism.

Both teams are close to being healthy. In spite of injuring both ankles, Jaylen Brown is listed as probable and is expected to play. However, there is a possibility that they will hold him out as a precaution and in that case Marcus Smart will probably get the start. Robert Williams is back to full contact practice but is still out for this game. For the Rockets, Eric Gordon (leg) and Bruno Caboclo (knee) are out.

Probable Celtics Starters

Celtics Reserves
Romeo Langford
Javonte Green
Semi Ojeleye
Brad Wanamaker
Grant Williams
Vincent Poirier
Carsen Edwards
Marcus Smart
Enes Kanter

Injuries/NWT
Robert Williams (hip) out
Jaylen Brown (ankle) probable

Two Way Players
Tremont Waters
Tacko Fall

Head Coach
Brad Stevens

Probable Rockets Starters

Rockets Reserves
Tyson Chandler
Chris Clemons
Isaiah Hartenstein
Ben McLemore
Austin Rivers
Thabo Sefolosha

Injuries
Eric Gordon (leg) out
Bruno Caboclo (knee) out

2 Way Players
Michael Frazier
William Howard

Head Coach
Mike D’Antoni

Key Matchups

Kemba Walker vs Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is averaging 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.6 steals. He is always a threat to post a triple double. He is shooting 46.1% from the field but only 24.0% from beyond the arc. Since the start of December, Russell Westbrook has averaged 30.1 points on 47.8 percent shooting and since the start of January, he has averaged 32.9 points on 52.1 percent shooting. The Celtics need to keep him from getting into the paint and make him shoot from outside.

Jaylen Brown vs James Harden
Harden is one of the toughest players in the league to guard as he is a master at drawing fouls, shooting 12 free throws a game. He is averaging 35.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He is shooting 43.6% from the field and 35.6% from beyond the arc. Marcus Smart has done well in the past to limit Harden and get into his head and we will likely see him guarding Harden at times in this game especially is Brown is out or limited by his ankle injuries. Limiting Harden is very important. The Rockets are 16-2 when he scores 40 or more points. They are 24-6 when he scores 34 or more points and they are 8-12 when he scores fewer then 34 points.

Honorable Mention
Gordon Hayward vs Robert Covington
Covington was traded to the Rockets in the Capela trade. He has played 3 games with the Rockets so far and has hit 4 threes in two of them. He is averaging 12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 steals. He is shooting 43.6% from the field and 34.8% from beyond the arc.

Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is always a key to every game. The Rockets are 2nd in the league in scoring at 118.2 points per game. The Celtics are 12th, averaging 112.7 points per game. The Rockets are 15th with a defensive rating of 110.0 while the Celtics are 3rd with a defensive rating of 105.5. The Celtics absolutely need to play hard nose gritty team defense if they want to win this game.

Rebound - In order to score, the Celtics need the ball and to get the ball, they will need to crash the boards as a team. Both teams average 45.6 rebounds per game. Much of rebounding is effort and when the Celtics put out extra effort on the boards, it usually carries over into the rest of their game.

Energy and Aggressiveness - The Celtics need to play physical ball and be aggressive on both ends of the court. They have to come out and play hard from start to finish with no let up. The Rockets play a physical brand of basketball and the Celtics must match their physicality. They have to be aggressive and they have to play like the team that wants it more for 48 minutes. James Harden and P.J. Tucker rank third and fourth in the NBA in loose balls recovered and so the Celtics must be aggressive in going after loose balls. They can’t let the Rockets get a big lead in this one because they won’t give it back. The Rockets are 2nd in pace at 103.9 while the Celtics are 18th at 99.78. The Celtics need to be aggressive and match the Rockets’ energy.

Move the Ball Carefully - The Celtics are most successful when they keep the ball moving and don’t lapse into hero ball. They need to feed the hot hand and they need to find the open man. They’ve been doing a good job of this for the most part and need to keep it up. They have to be careful with their passes because the Rockets are 6th in the league with 18.2 points off turnovers per game and if the Celtics get sloppy, the Rockets will make them pay.

X-Factors
On the Road - The Celtics are playing the second straight road game against Western Conference teams. They have to focus on the task at hand and not allow the distractions of the road and a hostile crowd to take them out of the game.

Officiating - The officiating is always an x-factor. James Harden always seems to get more than his share of free throws. The Celtics can’t let star calls in his direction take away their focus. They have to play through whatever calls go against them. Hopefully the refs will call the game evenly and it won’t be an issue but you never know.