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So Fresh and so clean: Celtics-Jazz Preview

The Celtics come right out of the All-Star break into a four-game road trip that kicks off against Utah–the C’s third straight game visiting a team with at least a .667 winning percentage on their home floor.

They won the first two, at New Orleans and at Dallas, and continuing to win during this difficult stretch would go a long way to helping the C’s make a real run at the top seed in the East. Two weeks ago, we gave the slight edge in that race to Cleveland because the C’s had a larger number of tough road games on the remaining schedule. After the Utah game (and Monday’s game at Denver), the tough road game gap is closed.

The Utah health report (full of cross outs and scribbles) reads like this: Boozer’s out, Kirilenko’s in and Okur is recovering from the flu. Still, the Jazz are hot, winners of five of six, including one over the Lakers before the All-Star break and a 117-99 win over Memphis on Tuesday — Kirilenko’s first game back after missing 11 games with an ankle injury. He was good, too, with 14 points in 18 minutes and some Kirilenko stuff on the defensive side of the ball.

On the meta-level, here are some things about Utah: They are among the most aggressive teams in getting shots at or near the rim. According to 82games, 39 percent of Utah’s shots come from in-close–the third-highest percentage in the league. They also pound the offensive glass (fourth-best in ORB percentage), so the C’s better live up to their number-two ranking in defensive rebounding tonight.

Some potential bad omens: Utah gets to the line a ton (second-best FTA/FGA ratio) and forces a lot of turnovers–skills that are made to take advantage of a foul-prone, high-turnover team like the C’s.

On the individual match-up level, it’ll be interesting to see what Rajon Rondo can do (if anything) to contain Deron Williams, who had a streak of five straight 30-plus games “snapped” Tuesday (he finished with 20 and 15 dimes). Rondo was huge (25-9-8, and that’s boards-assists, which I guess you really should write out with Rondo) in the teams’ first meeting this season, a 100-91 Boston win that pushed the C’s record to 23-2.

Williams was quiet, scoring 15 points before fouling out, but Deron was shaking off the rust then. He’s in a groove now. We’ll also get to see the full range of KG’s defense in this one. He’ll spend some time banging with Millsap (a favorite of mine) and chasing Memo around the three-point arc. Millsap scored a beastly 32 in the first game. I suspect we’ll also see Kirilenko guard Pierce, which should be very interesting.

With Scal and Tony Allen out, we’ll probably see a lot of Gabe Pruitt and House in the back court.

The team split last year, with Utah handing the C’s their worst loss of the season, 110-92, in the second game of their season series — in Boston. Ray Allen left that game in the first quarter with a bruised heel (he didn’t return). Deron Williams went off for 32 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, when Utah outscored Boston 31-18 to seal the win. The Jazz were at full strength in that game, with Boozer, Williams and Kirilenko all healthy.

AK-47 missed the teams’ first meeting of 07-08 in Utah, a game the C’s won 104-98 despite allowing Utah to shoot 55 percent from the floor. That was largely thanks to Pierce, who scored 24 in the second half, and Ray Allen, who hit a tie-breaking three with about 1:30 left to go.

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