Celtics-Rockets Preview

The Associated Press

The Boston Celtics have made significant strides defensively. They'll need that improvement to continue as they begin a stretch of three straight games on the road - the first two coming against a pair of the NBA's top offensive teams.

The Celtics go for their third consecutive win and fourth in five games when they face the Houston Rockets on Friday night.

Boston (12-9) will take on a Rockets squad that's averaging 104.2 points before squaring off with a San Antonio club that's scoring 105.5 the next night. The Celtics, though, appear better equipped to handle those challenges than they were a few weeks ago.

Boston allowed an average of 100.1 points through the first 14 games, giving up 100-plus seven times in regulation. It then gave up 88.7 over the next six contests without allowing 100 points before a 117-115 double-overtime victory over Dallas on Wednesday.

The Mavericks shot 51.1 percent, but the Celtics managed to force 28 turnovers - their most since forcing 29 against Atlanta on Feb. 6, 2004.

Boston scored 34 points off Dallas' giveaways.

"We've been trapping," coach Doc Rivers said. "I've been talking about it a lot and over the past seven games it's been paying dividends for us. It's been terrific."

Paul Pierce's shooting has been inconsistent, as he's hitting 41.7 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3-point range for his lowest marks since 2002-03. However, he scored a season-high 34 points versus Dallas - 12 in the overtimes.

Rajon Rondo, averaging a league-high 12.9 assists, had 15 to go along with 16 points and nine rebounds in a career-high 52 minutes, 30 seconds Wednesday.

"We ask him to do a lot," Pierce said. "We ask him to push it up, score and rebound. We ask him to do a lot because he can do it."

While the Rockets (10-11) score a lot of points, they also give up more than anyone else at 104.8 per game. Houston had lost three in a row, allowing 121.3 points in that stretch, before limiting Washington to 39.4 percent shooting in a 99-93 on Wednesday.

It was the first time in nine games that the Rockets gave up fewer than 101 points.

James Harden returned after missing one game with a sprained ankle and scored 31, with 17 coming in the first quarter as Houston jumped out to a 27-17 lead.

Harden leads the team with 25.0 points per game, while all the other starters are averaging at least 10.6.

"(Harden) came out on fire, and we rode his scoring for a while," point guard Jeremy Lin said. "It's not just me and him - there's five of us out there. We're just trying to figure it all out and find a happy medium where we kind of maximize everybody."

Pierce scored 30 as the Celtics beat the Rockets 97-92 in overtime at Boston on March 6, ending a three-game skid in the series.

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