Stability is the reason the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns have remained perennial playoff contenders.
It’s also a painful reminder that all good things come to an end.
The Suns, with dinosaurs in Steve Nash (37 years old) and Grant Hill (39), are off to a rough 5-9 start and, as we’ve been anticipating since the preseason, won’t smell the playoffs. Though the 5-8 Celtics are in a much earlier stage of ending their era of Paul Pierce (34), Kevin Garnett (35) and Ray Allen (36), the chatter around the NBA community revolves around the chances of any “core-shaking” moves, as CelticsHub.com calls it.
All in all, tonight’s battle in Boston will feature five elderly potential Hall of Famers who are refusing to give in to their age. Allen leads the Celtics with 15.6 points per game, and Garnett paces them in rebounds at 7.5 per night.
The Suns also have veterans affirming their grip on the team. Nash is coming off a 26-point, 11-assist night in a win at New York. Hill had one of his best games this season as well, scoring 14 in 38 aggressive minutes where he launched 15 shots and limited Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony to 12 points.
But with all the notoriety on the veterans, the X-factors in this game could be two players in their 20s.
Suns center Marcin Gortat has been on a tear with six double-doubles in a row, and aside from Nash has been one of the few consistent pieces for Phoenix.
Of course, Boston’s best player has been point guard Rajon Rondo, whose 15 points, 9.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game have become the fuel for the Celtics’ engine. Phoenix might catch a huge break, however. The Suns have struggled to contain elite point guards this season, and Rondo is doubtful for the Phoenix game with a right wrist injury, according to ESPN Boston.
“It’s still sore; I took like 10 Advil, so I’m OK,” Rondo told the media. “I don’t know [about Friday’s game]. Hopefully I get a good night’s rest. I’ll be in treatment pretty much all day today. Other than that. We’ll see tomorrow.”
With veteran point guard Keyon Dooling also sitting out, it’s likely second-year pro Avery Bradley will take most of Rondo’s minutes should he miss the game. Rookie E’Twaun Moore could also see playing time.
In the end, this one will come down to defense and rebounding, both of which have been troublesome for the Celtics this season.
Such is life with an older Garnett and a creaky-kneed Jermaine O’Neal manning the middle. Even with a physical power forward in Brandon Bass seeing 30-plus minutes, the Suns could win the inside battle should Gortat continue on his current effectiveness.
And if Rondo is out, the advantage at the most vital position for either squad swings completely from Boston’s favor to Phoenix’s.
Phoenix’s keys to the game
1. Speed it up.
While the Suns aren’t especially fast, the Celtics don’t want a high-octane affair, especially with the potential inexperience at the point guard position. Phoenix could pressure Boston’s centers to run up and down the floor, and if head coach Alvin Gentry stays with his lineup of Markieff Morris and Ronnie Price starting for Channing Frye and Jared Dudley, there’s certainly more speed to help increase the tempo.
2. Give Hill the green light.
I said it before the season and I’ll say it again: Grant Hill should shoot more. It does little good if he’s working hard to defend a player like Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, and he’s not making them do the same to him. Hill is one of the few Suns who can create his own shots — even though he rarely does. Of course, if he’s still beat down from injuries this point is moot, but the Knicks game might have been a sign that Hill is capable of playing heavier minutes.
3. Run Boston off the three-point line.
With Celtics like Allen and Pierce having solid true shooting percentages — Allen’s stands at a scary 67.3 — Phoenix should take its chances by forcing two-point shots on the move, or even shots over Gortat and Robin Lopez in the paint. The Celtics aren’t all that athletic, and I’d trust contested shots over the Suns’ size than letting them launch set three-pointers.