The natural inclination when analyzing the Boston Celtics' next opponent is to look for intriguing positional matchups. When the Utah Jazz visit the TD Garden on Wednesday night, it's impossible to ignore the potential point guard battle between Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams, two of the elite young floor generals in the NBA.
But in Boston's first eight games of the season, it seems like the point guard position has been spotlighted each time. Rondo vs. Chris Paul. Rondo vs. Steve Nash. Rondo vs. Derrick Rose. The challenges have never quite let up for Boston's 23-year-old point guard.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers says that's an indication of how special that position has become in the NBA. While noting the small forward position has historically been the position of strength, it's clear the point guard is evolving.
"The point guard spot is so strong now, it's become a tough spot, kind of like how the center spot used to be years ago with Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]," Rivers said. "The 3 spot has been tough throughout basketball; that spot has never let up."
Indeed, from John Havlicek to Larry Bird to Paul Pierce, you can trace that position's strength in Boston alone. It's also home to the best player in the NBA now in LeBron James. But Rivers, a point guard during his playing days, has seen the position make strides in recent years and it's now home to some of the most well-rounded players in the game.
The Jazz's Williams is averaging 21.4 points, 10.7 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game. The third overall pick in the 2005 draft, he can both score and distribute, and is already considered among the top guards in the league. The Celtics could catch a break as Williams is nursing a bruised right calf suffered in Monday's 95-93 win over the New York Knicks. He did not participate in Tuesday's practice and will be a game-time decision Wednesday.
To Rivers, Williams is an indication of how the point guard spot has evolved with an emphasis on both scoring and distributing the ball.
"It's a very positive trend," Rivers said. "You can have a scoring point that knows how to play the point. There was a stretch where there were scoring points that didn't know how to play point guard ... I thought everyone's offense struggled for a while."
Rivers noted that Williams makes the Jazz a tough team to defend.
"Deron Williams jumps out at you for sure," Rivers said. "They're a tough team to defend, because they do what we do -- put their 5 [center Mehmet Okur] behind the 3-point line. Then they have a power guard in Deron, which makes it even tougher, because he has the ability to go the post, or take you off the dribble, and physically take you down to the post. Then they pop Okur behind the 3-point line. It's a [problem]. They present a lot of problems."
Talent hasn't always translated into wins for the Jazz, one of the league's most puzzling squads. Utah is off to a 3-4 start this season, after posting a 48-34 mark last season and sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West. The Jazz were summarily bounced in the opening round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Jazz have four potential All-Stars -- the NBA All-Star ballot released Tuesday confirms as much -- in Williams, Okur (15.3 points,
7.7 rebounds per game), Carlos Boozer (16.7 points, 11.6 rebounds per game), and Andrei Kirilenko (13.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game). Ronnie Brewer is the other starter in double figures, while reserve Paul Millsap has plenty of scoring potential, as he demonstrated by erupting for 32 points in a loss in Boston last season.
But how inconsistent are the Jazz? Putting back-to-back wins together has been nearly impossible as Utah hasn't won consecutive games since March 28-30 of last season (a stretch of 16 games). Some of that trouble lies on defense, where the Jazz are giving up 102.4 points per game this season, while opponents are shooting 41.7 percent from behind the 3-point line (fourth worst in the league).
Coming off a win over New York, those back-to-back stats are not exactly in Utah's favor. But the Jazz have won four of the past six meetings against Boston, including two of the past three at the Garden.
Said Celtics captain Paul Pierce: "Utah always plays us tough in this building; I don't remember the last time we beat them twice in once year."
You'd have to go back to the 2005-06 season for the last series sweep by the Celtics. Boston did win last year's meeting here, 100-91, when Rondo went off for 25 points to pace all five Celtics starters in double figures.
Pierce knows Boston can't rely on stats or trends to assure a win.
"We expect those guys to come in here and give us a battle," Pierce said. "We know it won't be easy. Despite their record, they still have three All-Stars on the court. We've got to be ready. I'm glad we have a few days where we can rest up and go over things so we'll be ready."
A weary Celtics team limped to the end of a stretch that saw them play eight games in 12 days to start the 2009-10 season. After taking Sunday off, the team held its first back-to-back practices of the season to start this week and is hoping fresh legs will return Wednesday as the Celtics begin a stretch of three games in four days.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.