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NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview

April 28th, 2012 by

Between Avery Bradley's defense and the Hawks' issues at center, the Celtics should advance to the second round of the playoffs. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The grueling, taxing, utterly bizarre NBA regular season finally comes to an end. Despite an intensely demanding schedule, the exact same eight Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last season did so again with only the slightest rearrangements this season.

The Western Conference enjoyed a bit of change, with the Blake Griffin-led Clippers finally maturing into the playoff-caliber team we all knew they’d eventually become, and the Jazz making the playoffs as well. The Trail Blazers and Hornets missed the playoffs, having long since faded into mediocrity.

So who wins it all? Here’s my first-round preview.

Celtics vs. Hawks

What’s the purpose of a seeding system that doesn’t award home-court to the higher seed? Celtics fans will ask that throughout the series, as the fourth-seed Celtics will start their playoffs on the road against the fifth-seed Hawks. Shouldn’t matter, however, as the Celtics’ league-leading defense should carry them past a depleted Hawks team.

Atlanta will likely be without both Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia, their top two centers. That should take some pressure of Kevin Garnett and Boston’s anemic rebounding game. The Celtics may not get Ray Allen back from injury, but that should just pave the way for Avery Bradley to do what he does on defense, as the offense attacks the Hawks inside. Pick: Celtics in 6.

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Pierce and Bradley Carry Celtics Past Magic, Clinch Fifth Straight Atlantic Title

April 19th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Paul Pierce drives to the basket during Wednesday's Celtics-Magic game at the TD Garden. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Paul Pierce might be nearing the finish line of a career that will end in the Hall of Fame and a spot in the TD Garden rafters. But if these are Pierce’s last games, The Truth wants to go out in style.

Pierce scored a game-high 29 points and recorded a career-best 14 assists, carrying the Boston Celtics to a 102-98 victory over the Orlando Magic and their fifth consecutive Atlantic Division title Wednesday night at the TD Garden. Avery Bradley backed up Pierce with 23 points, tying his career-high.

With home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs locked up, the short-handed Celtics can now focus on rest and recovery. Ray Allen hasn’t played in over a week, and Rajon Rondo sat Wednesday with a lower back injury.

Pierce Holds Back Magic in Fourth

Up 79-70 heading into the fourth quarter, Boston built their lead as high as 13, but a combination of outside shooting by Jameer Nelson (21 points, 3-for-6 from downtown) and dominating play inside (54 points in the paint, 17 offensive rebounds without Dwight Howard) kept Orlando in the game. Orlando cut Boston’s lead to 92-90 with three minutes left before Pierce drew a foul and sank one of two.

A Glen Davis (27 points) steal and sprint to the basket – how many times has that ever been written? – made it 98-96 Celtics, setting up the play of the game. Pierce – who split ball-handling duties with Bradley Wednesday – brought the ball to the three-point line, nearly slipping and losing control of the ball.

With the shot-clock winding down, Pierce regained control and penetrated to just outside the foul line, hitting a 17-foot step-back jumper with 7.6 seconds left in the game. He also sank two free throws in the final seconds to maintain the two-possession lead.

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Garnett Leads Celtics Over Warriors in Defenseless Third Game of Road Trip

March 15th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kevin Garnett shoots over David Lee during Wednesday's Celtics-Warriors game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sometimes in basketball you can win shooting worse than your opponent. You can get beat in the paint, you can turn the ball over too much. You can even do all three and still win.

Because sometimes, all you need is Kevin Garnett.

Garnett scored 24 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including a jumper with the shot-clock expiring and 5.7 seconds left in the game. The Boston Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors, 105-103. The Celtics have now won two in a row on their eight-game road trip.

Garnett’s Jumper Highlights Lights-Out Fourth

Garnett scored 12 of his 24 in the fourth quarter. No Warrior could contain him in the post or on jump-shots: Even when power forward David Lee knocked Garnett to the court early in the fourth, Garnett still sank his shot. The resulting free throw put the Celtics up 89-81 with just over 10 minutes left.

Rookie guard Klay Thompson‘s third three-pointer (part of a career-best 26-point night) helped cut the lead to three, but Garnett then scored the next two Celtics buckets on two passes – one alley-oop – from Rajon Rondo, who finished with a “serviceable” 14 assists.

Still, Warrior reserve Brandon Rush‘s free throw tied the game 95-95 with just over four minutes left. Rondo broke the tie with an offensive rebound and basket, then found Brandon Bass (22 points, nine rebounds) twice for slam dunks (plus two free throws) and a 103-97 lead.

A fired-up Nate Robinson (20 points, 11 assists) helped tie the game 103-103 with 30 seconds left, setting up Garnett’s eventual game-winner. Paul Pierce used up most of the shot-clock, penetrating inside and drawing in several defenders before kicking it out to Garnett.

Garnett had just over a second to beat the buzzed, and he swished his shot from 20 feet away. He didn’t miss a single second-half shot.

The Warriors got off one more shot, but Robinson missed from deep, and Garnett grabbed both it and the game-ending inbound pass.

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Celtics Starters Dominate Bucks, Win Second Straight

March 1st, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rajon Rondo shoots the ball against Milwaukee Buck Ersan Ilyasova during Wednesday's game at the TD Garden. Rondo finished with his 16th career triple-double. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics have heard the same criticisms over and over this season: Their starters are too old. They can’t put up big scores. They can’t rebound.

Wednesday night at the TD Garden, at least for a night, they silenced their critics.

Every Celtic starter scored in double digits, and the Celtics grabbed a season-high 18 offensive rebounds, beating the Milwaukee Bucks, 102-96. The Celtics scored 100+ points for just the third time in February. They’re now 8-1 historically on Feb. 29, having not lost on Leap Day since 1984.

Dominant Third Carries Celtics

The Celtics came out of halftime down 54-50. The deficit could easily have been worse, but Rajon Rondo hit a layup with eight seconds left in the second quarter and, following a lost ball by Bucks small forward Carlos Delfino, found Keyon Dooling behind the arch for three more points with 0.8 seconds left.

The Bucks maintained their lead through the first three minutes of the third, with point guard Shaun Livingston hitting a jumper to go up 60-55.

The Celtics, led primarily by their starting five, responded with a 22-7 run for the remaining 8+ minutes of the third. Kevin Garnett began the run with two baskets inside the paint to cut the Bucks’ lead to one, and Brandon Bass – who struggled badly in the first half but scored nine of 16 total points in the third – hit a 15-footer to give the Celtics their first lead since the first quarter.

Strong Celtics defense held the Bucks scoreless for nearly four minutes following Livingston’s basket, and the Celtics’ offense missed just two shots during that stretch (one of which led to an offensive rebound). They built their lead to 71-64 on baskets by Rondo (who posted his third triple-double of the season with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists), Ray Allen (15 points, including 29-foot three-point bank-shot with the shot-clock expiring), Paul Pierce (10 points) and Chris Wilcox.

The Celtics took a 77-67 lead into the fourth, building their lead as high 15 points at times. Their best play was a give-and-go between Dooling and Garnett that ended in a Dooling dunk and an 84-71 lead.

The Bucks used a 13-0 run – highlighted by point guard Brandon Jennings‘ only two baskets of the game, both threes – to cut Boston’s lead to 98-96 with under 20 seconds left in the game, but Garnett hit four free throws to put the game away. Garnett finished with a season-high 25 points on 50 percent shooting and 10 rebounds, plus two steals and two blocks. He’s averaged 22 points and 10.3 rebounds over his last three games.

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Stop Raggin’ on Rondo!

February 26th, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

Of COURSE Rajon Rondo's pissed: the Celtics' 2011-12 season is a lost cause, and everyone's blaming him instead of his too-old teammates. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The NBA suspended Rajon Rondo for two games on Monday. The suspension came after Rondo tossed a ball at an official, receiving a double-technical and ejection in Sunday’s loss to the Pistons.

The Celtics lost both games Rondo missed, and the local media – in particular sports radio – has ranted almost unceasingly about the point guard: He has no discipline. He can’t be coached. He’s a bum. Trade him.

No one, I notice, seems interested in why Rondo’s acting out. Everyone just sees a problem, and they want it excised immediately.

While no fanbase likes to lose, Boston sports fans (and media) hate to get beaten. We hate admitting that another team either played better than ours on a given night or simply is better.

And when faced with the reality that better teams exist, our reaction is always to redirect our frustration. Usually we focus on the behaviors of a particular player, making those behaviors reflect an attitude not conducive to winning.

Our self-esteem is salvaged: Since this fatal character flaw didn’t manifest until the final game, it wasn’t our fault for not recognizing it. And it wasn’t our fault the team lost.

We saw this entire thought process in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLVI – a game the Patriots lost because the Giants just played better that night. Instead of admitting that, fans cried foul over Rob Gronkowski’s partying and Gisele Bundchen’s complaining. Both were minor incidents blown completely out of proportion by a fanbase eager to blame anything but their own team’s deficiencies.

We’re see this same process with Rondo two weeks later. Once again, we’re choosing to blame a situation on a player for unrelated behavior.

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Nowitzki, Mavericks Crush Shorthanded Celtics

February 21st, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dirk Nowitzki takes a shot against Chris Wilcox during Monday's Celtics-Mavericks game in Dallas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Hmm… let’s see. The Celtics struggled badly with rebounds Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks. They also couldn’t move the ball offensively, find open shots or accomplish anything in the paint.

The Celtics played the Mavericks without Kevin Garnett (family matter), Brandon Bass (knee) and Rajon Rondo (two-game suspension). They lost to the Mavericks, 89-73.

For some reason, I can’t help but think the two previous paragraphs are related.

Nowitzki’s Double-Double Highlights Celtics Struggles

Without Garnett or Bass, the Celtics had few options for defending Dirk Nowitzki. Whoever Boston sent at Nowitzki, he made that defender look silly.

It didn’t matter if Nowitzki was in the low post, high post, top of the key, whatever. Nowitzki scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the first half, including a run of 10 consecutive points in the second quarter. A particularly abusive move on Jermaine O’Neal highlighted that run.

Along with all those points came 16 rebounds and two blocks. The Mavericks out-rebounded the Celtics eight, grabbing 13 offensive rebounds to the Celtics’ five. They also out-scored the Celtics 32-18 in the paint, getting a solid nine points from reserve power forward Brandan Wright.

Wright scored an alley-oop bucket from reserve guard Jason Terry (16 points on 6-of-11 shooting) in the second, then added an emphatic dunk in the fourth. He also grabbed two offensive rebounds in the same possession, eventually kicking it out to Terry for a three-pointer that put the Mavericks up 40-26 in the second.

The Celtics showed moments of offensive consistency that led to moves in the paint, in particular a fast-break dunk by Ray Allen followed by a dribble-penetration from Paul Pierce that made it 44-34 late in the second. But overall the Celtics never looked in rhythm, throwing up crazy shots in the lanes or running anemically into defenders for easy blocks.

Pierce (20 points), Allen (15) and Avery Bradley (12) did their best, but with Bradley running the offense the Celtics lose most of the fluidity Rondo typically brings. And with so few second-chance scoring opportunities, the Celtics’ stiff, disjointed offense just meant more minutes on defense.

The Celtics didn’t lead at any point during Monday’s game. Their five-point deficit after one quarter became 10 after two and 17 after three.

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Celtics Twice Nearly Claimed Knicks’ Jeremy Lin Off Waivers

February 17th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Had either of the Celtics' two waiver claims on the Knicks' Jeremy Lin gone through this offseason, he and Kevin Garnett would have been teammates instead of opponents. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Apparently, some dude on the Knicks is having a decent season. Jerry something-or-other. Played for Yale, I think.

Were he a Celtic, I might show more enthusiasm for point guard Jeremy Lin and the seven consecutive wins his team has rattled off since his move into the starting spot. And it appears I nearly got my wish… twice.

Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald reported Thursday that the Celtics twice submitted waiver claims for Lin when the Golden State Warriors cut him prior to the start of this season. The Houston Rockets claimed Lin ahead of the Celtics, cut him, and then the Knicks took him, again ahead of the Celtics. The rest is media-magnified history.

But oh, what might have been.

Lin Would Have Thrived in Boston

Though overall a feel-good story, Lin’s sudden success still bears a small shadow: the return of Carmelo Anthony. When Anthony returns, Lin will have to give back many of the 17-plus shots per night he’s averaged over the last seven games. The arrogant, needy Anthony will demand the ball whenever he’s on the court, and the humble Lin will probably give it away willingly.

If this works, the story dies. But if it fails, and Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has to take the ball away from Anthony, a schism could form in the locker room that derails a Knicks season that finally looks back on track.

Unlike the Knicks, the Celtics don’t play selfishly. Rajon Rondo usually passes to the open shooter, whoever that may be. While that doesn’t always work – there’s really no reason to ever pass to Jermaine O’Neal or Marquis Daniels – it creates a system that rewards humility and team effort over individual skill-sets.

Lin would have succeeded in such a system. He’s said that despite scoring 20 points or more in six of the last seven games, he still sees himself as a distributor. No one distributes like Rondo does, and Lin would have learned infinitely more about passing from Rondo than garbage Knicks guards like Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas.

Lin also would have provided a scoring threat off the bench, something the Celtics have especially lacked since the loss of Brandon Bass. Lin would have covered some of the scoring lost with Bass’ knee injury, and once healthy, Bass, Lin and Chris Wilcox would have found openings in just about any defense. Just as the Celtics’ starters dominate when they play complimentary basketball, so too would the second unit.

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Gordon’s Four Treys Lead Pistons Past Celtics

February 16th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ben Gordon shoots the ball against Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus during Wednesday's Celtics-Pistons game at the TD Garden in Boston. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Even the best teams can’t play their starters for 48 minutes, and neither the Boston Celtics nor the Detroit Pistons are among the best teams. Both teams needed contributions from their benches Wednesday night at TD Garden, and the Pistons’ reserves won.

Reserve guard Ben Gordon hit four fourth-quarter three-pointers, part of a 22-point night that helped the Pistons to a 98-88 victory over the Celtics.

Gordon Unguardable in Fourth

The Celtics entered the fourth quarter down just 73-72. With 1:30 elapsed, Gordon found himself with the shot-clock winding down and no one else open. Gordon took the 25-foot three-pointer from the top of the key and drained it. He hit a second two possessions later, extending the Pistons’ lead to 82-76.

Despite both Gordon’s success Wednesday and his reputation as a sharp-shooter from his days with the Bulls, the Celtics – in particular guard Avery Bradley – continued to play off him near the arch. In the zone and without much pressure, Gordon happily continued shooting from deep, knocking down two more for an insurmountable double-digit lead late in the game.

The other Pistons combined to match Gordon with four fourth-quarter baskets. Between far superior free-throw shooting – 24-of-29 overall, vs. 19-of-32 for the Celtics – and a suddenly effective defense, the Pistons never trailed in the fourth quarter and never looked out of control.

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DigBoston: Celtics-Lakers Bonus Story Live

February 11th, 2012 by

Pau Gasol did some very mean things to the Celtics Thursday night. Find out more at DigBoston.com.

I know what you’re all thinking: “Boy, I sure do love Matt’s DigBoston columns! If only he wrote more than one a week!”

Well, you’re in luck! I couldn’t let a reminder that the Patriots had lost another Super Bowl sit on DigBoston.com for an entire week, so I went out to Bukowski Tavern last night and watched the Celtics play the Lakers. The result was the first ever “52 Games Overtime” column.

Check it out!

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DigBoston: Celtics-Magic Story Live

January 31st, 2012 by

How big was Paul Pierce in Thursday's Celtics-Magic game? Read the new "52 Games" at DigBoston.com to find out. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

I didn’t plan on witnessing history when I went to the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse in Brookline for Thursday’s Celtics-Magic game, but that’s kinda what happened. It made for a far better “52 Games” column than I expected.

Check it out!

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