at AT&T Center, 8 p.m. | TNT, WEEI (850 AM)
PAYNE'S THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Ray Allen's Shots: Ray Allen's averaged just nine field goal attempts per game over his last three games, including a mere eight in the Celtics' 107-100 loss to the Pacers on Monday. Allen's averaging 12.5 field goal attempts per game this season, and has said in recent weeks that getting a consistent string of shots throughout the game is key to garnering a rhythm, which becomes vital when he becomes relied upon to make shots down the stretch in games. Allen took four shots in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss, but made only one of them -- perhaps affected by having taken only four shots over the course of the first three frames.
Jermaine O'Neal's Return: O'Neal has been out of action since Jan. 12 following left knee surgery, but his return comes at a key point in time as the Celtics are lacking other big men in Troy Murphy and Shaquille O'Neal due to injuries. Celtics coach Doc Rivers should have O'Neal on some type of minute restriction, but O'Neal looks to be in phenomenal shape and could have an immediate impact.
Who's on the Other Side?: It's still unclear as to which Spurs will trot out onto the court tonight (though Rivers is expecting the full squad). Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Antonio McDyess have all been battling various ailments lately. Duncan has missed the Spurs' last four games (all losses) following a left ankle sprain suffered on March 21 against the Golden State Warriors. If all of San Antonio's stars play, strap in for a slew of exciting matchups, including Rajon Rondo vs. Parker, Paul Pierce and/or Ray Allen vs. Ginobili, Kevin Garnett vs. Duncan, and even Glen Davis vs. DeJuan Blair. If the Spurs' stars remain benched, the Celtics' road to victory might be a bit easier tonight, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, seeing as every game counts right now for Boston in terms of playoff seeding, and tonight also marks the first game of another back-to-back on the road (the Celtics play the Hawks in Atlanta tomorrow).
GAME PREVIEW (via Stats Inc.)
A once comfortable lead atop the Western Conference has shrunk dramatically in the past 10 days for the injury-riddled San Antonio Spurs. The Boston Celtics' lead in the East is long gone and they're not playing as if they can get it back. One of these stumbling title contenders will get a much-needed boost Thursday night, when the Spurs looks to avoid their worst losing streak in nearly 14 years and a fifth straight home loss to the Celtics.
San Antonio (57-17) still leads the West but is struggling to hold off the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas. The Spurs had a seven-game lead over Los Angeles on March 21, but that margin has been cut in half because they've lost a season-high four in a row.
Tim Duncan has missed all four of the losses with a sprained ankle and the Spurs' injury woes worsened earlier this week. They were without Tony Parker (left knee contusion), Manu Ginobili (bruised thigh) and Antonio McDyess (back) in a 100-92 loss to Portland on Monday.
"It's life. You have to deal with it and figure out how to get better," said George Hill, who had a team-high 27 points. "No one's hanging their head or thinking we're not as good as we've been all year."
The Spurs are at risk of losing five consecutive games for the first time since dropping their final six of the 1996-97 season.
Read the full preview HERE.