at New Orleans Arena, 8 p.m. | CSN, WEEI (850 AM)
PAYNE'S THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Rondo vs. Paul: Rajon Rondo's recent struggles have been well-documented, but Saturday's head-to-head matchup with fellow All-Star Chris Paul might be just what he needs to get himself back on track. While Rondo hasn't matched up well with some of the game's better point guards in recent weeks like Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets, Darren Collison of the Indiana Pacers, and, most recently, Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets, Rondo and Paul appear to have a crusty relationship, stemming from a confrontational matchup in Boston back in November of 2009 in which the pair exchanged words after the final buzzer sounded. Will whatever tension exists between the two be enough to motivate Rondo to once again play at an All-Star level?
Gut Check: Assessing things like the Celtics' intensity and body language will actually be important Saturday, considering how poorly they played against the Rockets on Friday night. While Saturday's contest is not a "must-win" game by any means, it would be encouraging to see the Celtics come out firing on all cylinders as they look to move past one of their worst performances of the season. The good news: All of the starters played less than 30 minutes on Friday, meaning they'll hopefully be somewhat fresh for Saturday's bout. The bad news: Saturday's game serves as the second night of a back-to-back and the C's currently hold a 2-8 record on the second night of back-to-backs on the road this season. Overall, the Celtics have lost their last six games under such circumstances.
Get Ray Shots: Ray Allen took a season-low six field goal attempts against the Rockets on Friday night, in a game in which the Celtics could have obviously used a hot shooting night from him. Expect to see the Celtics feed the ball to Allen early, as he runs Marco Belinelli off his usual string of baseline screens. A hot start from Allen could also help Rondo get into a rhythm, as he'll most likely be the one passing Allen the ball as he comes off the various picks for jump shots near both elbows.
GAME PREVIEW (via Stats Inc.)
Home-court advantage in the first round is likely out the window for New Orleans (40-30), but finishing as high as fifth in the West -- which would allow it to avoid the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks in the first round -- is a distinct possibility.
The Hornets are currently percentage points behind Portland for sixth place, and 1 1/2 games behind fifth-place Denver. Most importantly, Chris Paul doesn't seem to be showing any lingering effects from his recent concussion. The points guard has averaged 28.7 points, 11.3 assists and five steals in three games since his return, and scored a game-high 26 in Wednesday's 100-95 victory over Phoenix.
"I just try to be aggressive," Paul said. "I've learned, watching all the games, that if I'm aggressive early, it makes the defense collapse on me and it makes my teammates open even more."
Paul had a similarly balanced game Dec. 31 at Boston. He had 20 points, 11 assists, six steals and five boards as New Orleans edged a Celtics team missing Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo 83-81.
The Hornets won't have the luxury of avoiding Garnett or Rondo this time around, but Paul is at least catching Rondo in the midst of a horrendous slump. The two-time All-Star has totaled eight points in his last four games while shooting 4 for 29 (13.8 percent) from the field.
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