Celtics-Magic: Time to gauge progress
BOSTON -- The first 3-pointer the Orlando Magic hoist in Monday's game against the Boston Celtics will be their league-leading 1,000th of the season. The Celtics, by comparison, have hoisted a little more than half that number (550) over their first 39 games. Yes, these are two teams with different offensive strategies, but both are finding ways to win games as the jockeying for position begins atop the Eastern Conference.
Here's a 3-pointer of our own, as we wait for the latest battle between last year's East finalists.
Not just another game
Aside from an opening-night showdown with the Miami Heat, the Celtics haven't had too many measuring-stick games against top foes this season at the Garden (at least not in the Eastern Conference, though a visit from the West-leading Spurs earlier this month certainly ranked up there). Less than a month after a hype-filled Christmas Day showdown, the Celtics and Magic should get a better chance to gauge how they stack up Monday night.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he understands the significance, especially with another nationally-televised broadcast, but did downplay the matchup in the big picture.
"It's just a regular-season game," Rivers said. "There's history between us and all that stuff, so you always want to win. The game doesn't have real meaning, but guys get fired up, at least I hope ours do. I know the other teams do for sure.
"I like games like this; they're good for us. I don't think it shows us anything. We'll be playing hurt, if Kevin [Garnett] plays and [Kendrick Perkins is] not back. That's why you can't overdo regular-season games because they don't have much meaning beyond that."
The Celtics certainly have some motivation after a woeful performance in Orlando's sparkling new arena last month. Boston shot a season-low 34.6 percent while connecting on a season-worst 28 field goals, as the Magic used a late run to emerge with an 86-78 triumph.
Rivers didn't particularly like the execution but was proud of the way his team competed.
"We played horrible down the stretch," Rivers admitted. "Listen, that game down there, I don't think either team was proud of the way they played. I think both teams were proud of the way they competed; it just wasn't played very well.
"Honestly, we got great possessions down the stretch. We showed [the players on film Sunday]. If we replayed that game and got the exact same shots, I guarantee our guys would take them. We missed great shots, but I think we were more upset that we gave up 29 points in [the fourth quarter of] a game [when] no one was scoring."
Orlando closed out the game on a 15-1 run to rally from a 12-point, second-half deficit. The Celtics, who played without point guard Rajon Rondo that day, expect a better effort at both ends of the floor.
Shaq vs. Dwight, Part II
The Celtics limited Dwight Howard to 1-of-4 shooting and six points over 33 minutes in the first meeting, but any hype surrounding Orlando's current franchise big man and a former one in Shaquille O'Neal fizzled when O'Neal fouled in a mere 13 minutes of action.
"It's just two good guys going out there hard," O'Neal said of his battle with Howard. "I just wish we had the opportunity to play."
Asked about the upcoming rematch after his own turn-back-the-clock performance (23 points, five rebounds and five blocks over 35 minutes) Friday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, O'Neal downplayed the matchup.
"I don't need any motivation besides 1825," the 38-year-old O'Neal said, referring to his common reference of bringing Boston its 18th world title, along with the second for the Big Three and Rivers and the fifth of O'Neal's career.
"I'm done with individual matchups. I'm too old for that."
The real question might be whether O'Neal is simply able to suit up for Monday's game. He slipped on some ice after arriving at the Celtics' practice facility Sunday morning and was forced to sit out the practice session with what the team called a right adductor strain. He's day-to-day and a game-time decision.
While the Celtics are hoping to get Garnett back on the floor for the first time in 10 games, they also could use a healthy Shaq. Reserve center Jermaine O'Neal is still pondering his options, including surgery, for a sore left knee, while rookie center Semih Erden has been battling a sore groin. (He did play Friday night against Charlotte, but early foul trouble limited him to little more than eight minutes.)
What KG's return would mean
Rivers said he thought "Kevin will go [Monday]" but that he was holding off any official decision until the team evaluated how Garnett bounced back from a short but spirited on-court practice session Sunday.
If Garnett can suit up -- and assuming Shaq's winter tumble doesn't force him to miss time -- the Celtics will get a solid boost from simply being able to move Glen Davis back to a reserve role.
Davis registered 16 points, eight rebounds and two steals over 39 minutes in the Christmas Day showdown.
"If we put Glen back on the bench, it helps him and it helps our bench," Rivers said. "It just makes them better. Each time we get a player back, it makes the bench better."
And for a bench that's dealt with constant change because of Boston's injuries, the lack of Davis as a familiar presence with the second unit has certainly hurt the Celtics' production. Averaging 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season, Davis is in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year and, combined with elevated play from Marquis Daniels, should allow Boston's bench to provide a more consistent punch.
That will be key after a three-man Magic bench combined for 26 points last meeting, including 11 points from thorn-in-the-side J.J. Redick, who hit a big late-game jumper to seal Orlando's triumph.
Garnett provided Boston's biggest offensive spark in the first meeting, connecting on 10 of 14 shots for 22 points, with five rebounds, four steals and a block over 34 minutes. He injured his calf two games later in Detroit, and the Celtics are eager to get him back on the floor, mainly because of what he offers at the defensive end.
"It's like losing your best defensive player, your best talker, your quarterback," Rivers said Sunday before deadpanning that "outside of that, it's not that big of a deal."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.