Boston Celtics - Sacramento Kings: A Standoff In Mexico

Boston Celtics - Sacramento Kings: A Standoff In Mexico

Thursday night, the revitalized Sacramento Kings-guard Rajon Rondo faces his old team the Boston Celtics in the Mexican capital, Mexico City.

Torkil Bang

It might not be a Mexican standoff, but it is a standoff in Mexico. Pretty far from home for both teams.

This is the third time a regular season game is planned to take place in the Mexico City Arena, but the first game in 2013 had to be canceled due to a faulty generator that filled the arena with smoke. So when the Houston Rockets faced the Minnesota Timberwolves in the arena last year on November 3rd, it was the first actual regular season game played in Mexico.

Basketball is huge in Mexico, and a sell-out of the 22,300 seats in the arena is definitely possible. The NBA has more than two million followers in the greater Mexico City area, and Boston is in the top five of fan groups in Mexico. So while on paper it is a home game for Sacramento, it actually might be more like an away game.

A winnable game for both teams

It's still early in the season but it feels like an important game for both teams, since it should be winnable for either side. 

The Kings have had quite a bumpy road with DeMarcus Cousins sitting out in eight games so far this season, and the team only winning one of those games. With him on the floor, they're 6-5 for the season and should be in contention for a playoff spot, but they don't want to play catch-up all season long and can't afford to slide too far behind.

The Celtics have higher ambitions than just competing for a playoff spot, but they have hit a few bumps themselves, and while their 10-8 record with +4.6 net rating looks impressive, their record also counts a couple of big, unexplainable losses. They are still looking for answers, though they might have moved closer to the ideal lineup in the past two weeks. They have been leaning more on small ball with Isaiah Thomas in the starting lineup, where he has replaced the knee-injured Marcus Smart.

Rondo looks better than last season

For one player in particular this is an emotional game. Rajon Rondo, who spent his first eight and a half seasons with the Boston Celtics before he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks almost a year ago, recently explained that meeting the Mavericks wasn't emotional, even though his stint there was a huge disappointment for both parties.

”It’s not Boston. It’s not a big deal,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

He probably played his best game while in a Dallas uniform, when he had his homecoming game in the TD Garden, a few weeks after he had left the team. So expect Boston to bring the best out of him again.

And this season, Rondo's best looks a lot closer to his best before his ACL injury in 2013. He is again leading the league in assists, while he has collected a league-leading four triple-doubles. And according to reports from Sacramento, he has already built trust with head coach George Karl – something that he never reached with Rick Carlisle in Dallas – and with All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins. Furthermore, Rondo is playing with close friend Rudy Gay, who recruited him hard this summer when he was a free agent.

Two very different point guards

Rondo will most likely match up with Isaiah Thomas, who via Phoenix has made the opposite move from Sacramento to Boston. Thomas had just been traded to the Celtics but wasn't yet available the last time the two teams met, right after the trade deadline last season.

These two players are close to as different as point guards can be, with Rondo as the controlling pass first player who uses his tremendous court vision to open up the game from just about anywhere on the floor. Meanwhile, Thomas will often look to score first both as a shooter and as a slasher. And whereas Rondo for several years now has avoided contact on drives and going to the free throw line partly because of his poor free throw shooting, Thomas excels in that area. It's practically his bread and butter.

Defensively they are also very different, with Isaiah Thomas primarily using speed to stay in front of his man while Rondo is more of a gambler who uses his long arms to wreck havoc. When he is locked in Rondo is an elite man-on-man defender, but that takes a toll, especially if he has to play long minutes as he did earlier in the season while his backup Darren Collison was injured.

Who can handle Cousins?

The other key matchup is Cousins versus any Celtics big man. Cousins is a force on both ends of the floor and probably still underrated on defense. Jared Sullinger might be the best option to keep Cousins on his toes on both ends, but he will need help in that regard. And Amir Johnson will most likely get that task from the beginning of the game.

A potential mismatch could be Rudy Gay against Jae Crowder. Gay has only had one big game so far this season, but it might be time for the next one. And when he gets going, he can score with the best of them. Crowder is quite the opposite as a player. He earns his minutes on the defensive end and you can count on a full effort from him every night. He rarely scores in high numbers, but most nights he will get his.

Given Crowder's consistent effort and Gay's inconsistency, the matchup can go both ways.

This should be a tight game

From a psychological viewpoint, it is important for the Celtics not to judge the Kings by their record and in any way underestimate them. This Sacramento team may have been thrown together like a band of misfit toys, but there is a lot of talent on the team, with a broad and experienced bench with players such as Collison,  Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos and Omri Casspi. The Celtics might still have a slight edge there, though, as they have in most games. 

An X-factor will be how the coaches make use of their roster. Both have the options to go anywhere between very small with essentially three guards and two forwards, to a ”full sized” front court. However, Brad Stevens for several weeks has kept his lone true center, Tyler Zeller, mostly out of the rotation.

This could become quite a battle, and it would be a surprise if it doesn't go down to the wire. As it should, being a standoff in Mexico.