Preview: Boston Celtics vs San Antonio Spurs

The Boston Celtics will get their healthy lineup the first real test of the season against the San Antonio Spurs

The Boston Celtics have been at their best with three straight victories since Al Horford and Jae Crowder have returned to the lineup. The Celtics have looked a lot better, but they will be facing one of their biggest tests on friday afternoon against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs will be fighting for the top seed in the Western Conference, and they have managed to pick up right where they left off despite Tim Duncan‘s retirement. The Celtics will be challenged on both ends, and their main priority will be accounting for an seemingly unstoppable Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics will try to see if Crowder can slow him down, and they will need to make sure he does not destroy things on the defensive end.

Crowder will spend as much time as possible on Leonard, but he has shown the ability to score through anybody. Leonard has become one of the most deadly shooters anywhere on the court, and he has more than enough strength and finishing ability to be effective at the rim.

Crowder could be left on an island, but he will need help if they want to slow down Leonard. The Celtics have seen enough versatility from both Horford and even Marcus Smart to change up some of the looks thrown at Leonard, which can hopefully keep him off balance and out of rhythm.

The problem with Horford is moving him over to help with Leonard leaves LaMarcus Alridge to run wild. The Celtics have made it abundantly clear that Horford is their only cable interior defender. If he is not able to focus on Aldridge then the Spurs will continue to exploit a mis match with him. Aldridge’s ability to consistently hit an outside shot will make it too difficult for Tyler Zeller or Kelly Olynyk to stay with him, and Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko have size disadvantages that can be exploited in the paint.

One player the Celtics can focus on is Tony Parker. While his role has diminished this season, he remains one of the most important facilitators on the team. The Celtics will need to disrupt some of the best ball movement in the league, and their best hope of slowing them down will be in the back court. They should be able to limit Danny Green‘s space from beyond the arc, and Avery Bradley will need to keep Parker off his game.

Nov 30, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) drives to the hoop against Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (left) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics still have to account for some of the most difficult individual match ups in the league, but their defense needs to be able to help the offense in transition, and have some sort of disruptive effect on the Spurs’ ball movement.

The Celtics have been an improved offensive team, but they will not have a chance against the Spurs without being great on both ends. The Spurs have been one of the stingiest teams in the league, and the Celtics will need Isaiah Thomas to be much better than his last two games to have a chance.

The Celtics will have to accept Leonard’s ability to shut down whoever he is covering, but both Thomas and Horford will have a matchup they can attack. Horford should be able to draw defenders out of the paint, and he needs to be at his most aggressive. Horford has been the most reliable finisher on the team since returning, and getting him going needs to be the top priority. The Celtics will need a lot of play making out of Horford if they are going to be able to keep pace with the Spurs.

Getting Hoford going will make things much easier on Thomas. Thomas will be under less pressure to make every play himself. He needs to be able to defer to Horford, but he will also never hesitate to be aggressive when there are opportunities. Thomas’ shooting has been a bit of a struggle at times this season, and he will need to be shooting well in order to get enough points against the Spurs.

The Spurs have a rebounding differential that is dead even. There is a good chance that will improve after the Celtics game, but it cannot be a deciding factor. Rebounding has not been the greatest strength of the Spurs, but weaker teams have been able to exploit them in the past. If the Celtics are forced to make up for problems on the boards, then they will not have enough to beat the Spurs.

The Celtics will struggle too much with the things the Spurs are great at that they can never afford to give up the weaker areas. The Celtics have to find a way to set the pace and force the Spurs to adjust to their small ball lineup. If the Celtics can get comfortable in that rhythm, they could throw the Spurs off enough to be able to steal a win.

The Celtics will be overmatched on both ends of the court, but these games are their best opportunity to prove that they can play with the best in the league. They failed against the Warriors but that is not a tai assessment because of the injuries. This is their biggest test since Horford has returned, and they need to prove that they can be competitive in these elite matchups.

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