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Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo drives against the Houston Rockets.The Boston Celtics (18-17, 11-6 home) host the Houston Rockets (21-15, 7-9 away) on Friday night at TD Garden. Here's what to watch for:
* RESPECTING THE ROCKETS: The Celtics endured a 101-89 loss in Houston last month and captain Paul Pierce heaped praise all over the Rockets in advance of the rematch. "A lot of people underrate them," said Pierce. "I’ve looked up over the past two weeks and seen them put up over 120 points, I don’t know how many times. I think the energy that James Harden has brought to the team and the city, has really improved them. A lot of people think they are overachieving, but they are right there with some of the better teams in the Western Conference. You finally have a franchise player in Harden, you have a more-than-capable point guard in Jeremy Lin. And [Omer] Asik has proven to be one of the better centers in the league. You put those three out there, along with [Chandler] Parsons and [Carlos] Delfino, good role players, and they are going to be a team to be reckoned with throughout the NBA."
* SYNERGY SNAPSHOT: The Rockets lead the NBA in points per game (106) but they remain an extremely efficient offense even while playing at a breakneck pace (97 possessions per 48 minutes). Offensively, they rank sixth in the league at 0.959 points per play. Their success in the half-court game is predicated on the pick-and-roll (with either Harden or Lin handling the ball) as the team ranks first in the league at 0.911 points per play. Defensively, Houston ranks 20th overall at 0.932 points per play. Omer Asik hasn't been able to carry this defense alone and teams have feasted on weaker links like Parsons (0.944 ppp, 22nd percentile) and Harden (0.912 ppp, 30th).
* DON'T FORGET SMITH: Greg Smith, one of the league's most efficient scorers despite inconsistent minutes, scored 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting in the first meeting with Boston, which focused much of its energy on limiting Harden and Lin. Smith also finished with six rebounds and three blocks that night. For the season, Smith is averaging 1.234 points per play, second only to Tyson Chandler in points per play. Smith thrives as a cutter (1.489 ppp) and shoots 78.4 percent in those situations (29-of-37 overall) this season.
* MORE PRAISE FOR HARDEN: Harden is averaging 26.5 points and 5.3 assists over 38.3 minutes per game since joining Houston. Clearly defense will be key for the Celtics on this night. That starts with the former Sixth Man of the Year, who is thriving as the focal point of the Rockets' offense since being acquired from Oklahoma City before the start of the season. Pierce admitted he's been somewhat surprised at Harden's emergence. "You're kinda surprised because, you knew he had talent, but you didn’t know his full potential because he had been put in a secondary role there in Oklahoma," said Pierce. "Now that he’s front and center, it’s coming out, full throttle. The reason you're surprised is because you had an idea, but you weren’t 100 percent sure because of the role he played in Oklahoma. He’s really thrived in and blossomed into a young star in this league. He’ll probably be an All-Star this year." That would be appropriate, given that the 62nd annual game is in Houston in late February.