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Preview: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Game #59

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The Celtics return home for a Leap Day rematch vs the Houston Rockets.

New Orleans Pelicans v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Celtics return from their Western road trip to face yet another Western Conference team at home. The Houston Rockets make their only trip to Boston to face the Celtics for the 2nd and final time this regular season. The Celtics faced the Rockets the first time in Houston right after they traded Capela and the Rockets beat them 116-105.

This is the first game of a 2 game road trip for Houston. They will go on to New York before returning home to face the Clippers. The Celtics are home for a game vs Brooklyn on Tuesday before going back on the road on Wednesday to play the Cavs. The Rockets have won their last 4 games against the Celtics and they have swept 3 of the last 6 season series vs the Celtics.

Feb. 29 comes around only once every four years, but it’s been 36 years since the Celtics have lost on Leap Day. Their 102-98 loss to the Knicks on Feb. 29, 1984 snapped a five-game win streak on Leap Day for the Celtics that dated back to the beginning of the NBA. After not playing on Feb. 29 for 20 years, Boston started a new streak in 2004 and has won four Feb. 29 games in a row. The Celtic’s active Leap Day win streak is the longest in the NBA and it’s one short of the record, which is shared by the Celtics and 76ers. The Celtics won five straight from 1976 to 1992. The Rockets, on the other hand, have lost two consecutive Feb. 29 games.

The Celtics remain 3rd in the East, 4.5 games ahead of the Heat. Old friend Terry Rozier and the Hornets beat the Raptors on Friday to move the Celtics to just half a game out of 2nd place. The Celtics are opening up a gap over the Heat and with a win here, they can move into 2nd place. They are 23-5 at home and 8-2 in their last 10 games. They have won their last 2 games and 3 of their last 4 on their Western road trip. They are 16-8 vs Western Conference teams.

The Rockets are in 4th place in the West, 1 game behind the Los Angeles Clippers and 2 games ahead of the Thunder. The standings are still crowded in the middle of the Western Conference and the Rockets need to keep winning to keep pace. They are 17-12 on the road and 8-2 in their last 10 games. They have won their last 5 games since the trade deadline. They are 14-4 vs Eastern Conference teams.

The Celtics got good news on Friday as Robert Williams had been cleared to play and is expected to finally return for them in this game. He will be on a minutes restriction at first but it will be good to see him back on the court. Kemba Walker is out for this game and will miss his 5th straight game, but it’s possible he may return for Tuesday’s game against the Nets.

For the Rockets, Eric Gordon is questionable and will be a game time decision. He didn’t suit up for Wednesday’s game against the Grizzlies after leaving Monday’s game vs the Knicks with knee soreness. Chris Clemons and Isaiah Hartenstein are both on assignment with the Rockets’ G-League team.

Probable Celtics Starters

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

Injuries/NWT
Kemba Walker (knee) out
Robert Williams III probable

Two Way Players
Tremont Waters
Tacko Fall

Head Coach
Brad Stevens

Probable Rockets Starters

Rockets Reserves
Bruno Caboclo
Tyson Chandler
DeMarre Carroll
Ben McLemore
Austin Rivers
Thabo Sefolosha
Jeff Green

Injuries
Eric Gordon (knee) questionable
Chris Clemons (g-league) out
Isaiah Hartenstein (g-league) out

2 Way Players
Michael Frazier
William Howard

Head Coach
Mike D’Antoni

Key Matchups

Jaylen Brown vs James Harden
Harden is a very tough matchup as evidenced by the fact that he is leading the league with 35.2 points per game along with 6.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He is shooting 44.3% from the field and 36.3% from beyond the arc. The Celtics can only hope to slow him down and keep the rest of the team from having big games.

Marcus Smart vs Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is averaging 27.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He is shooting 47% from the field and 24.9% from beyond the arc. The Celtics need to keep him out of the paint and make him beat them from outside, where he has struggled somewhat this season.

Honorable Mention
Gordon Hayward vs Robert Covington
Covington was traded to the Rockets in the Capela trade. He has played very well for the Rockets so far. He is averaging 12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. He is shooting 42.9% from the field and 34.3% from beyond the arc. He has been able to give them some rim protection in spite of playing without a traditional center.

Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is always a key to every game, but especially this one. The Rockets are 2nd in the league in scoring at 118.9 points per game. The Celtics are 8th, averaging 113.4 points per game. The Rockets are 15th with a defensive rating of 109.6 while the Celtics are 3rd with a defensive rating of 105.9. The Celtics absolutely need to play hard nose gritty team defense if they want to win this game. They also need to defend without fouling since the Rockets shot 42 free throws to just 25 for the Celtics in their first meeting.

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. The Celtics average 45.2 rebounds per game while the Celtics average 45.9 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. Even though the Rockets play small ball, they have very good rebounding guards and so the Celtics need to work hard to beat them to the rebounds.

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. Brad Stevens described the Rockets as a bunch of linebackers. The Celtics have to be aggressive and they have to play like the team that wants it more for 48 minutes. The Rockets are 2nd in pace at 103.9 while the Celtics are 17th at 100.00. 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.

Bench Play - The Rockets’ starters, especially Harden and Westbrook have been playing well but so has their bench. Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers have both been shooting over 60% from the field and 50% from three over their last 5 games. Jeff Green has been with the Rockets for 4 games and in those 4 games he is shooting 70% from the field and 61.5% from beyond the arc. The Celtics reserves have to play well on both ends of the court for the Celtics to win.

X-Factors
Home Game - The Celtics are playing at home once again and should get a boost from the home crowd that will hopefully be loud and rowdy and cheering them on. The first game home after a road trip is always a tough game and so the Celtics need to stay focused and play well to keep the crowd into the game and loud enough to rattle the Rockets.

Familiarity - When these two teams met last, the Rockets had just traded Capela and the Celtics were the first team to face them after the trade. No one knew what to expect from their small ball starting lineup. The Celtics have had time to watch film and to prepare for them and so should be a little better prepared to counter their game plan.

Officiating - The officiating is always an x-factor. James Harden always seems to get more than his share of free throws. The Rockets, as a team, lead the league with 26.1 free throws per game. The last time these two teams played, the Rockets shot 42 free throws to just 25 for the Celtics. The Celtics can’t let star calls and bad calls take away their focus. They have to play through whatever calls go against them and not get frustrated. Hopefully the refs will call the game evenly and it won’t be an issue but you never know.