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Celtics pregame: Stevens on facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, ‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him’

03.29.17 at 7:27 pm ET
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Mar 28, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts to a foul call in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. The Bucks defeated the Hornets 118-108. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Russell Westbrook and James Harden as one of only three players in the league averaging at least 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists this season (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today)

The Celtics will undoubtedly have their hands full on Wednesday as they gear up to face one of the hottest teams in the league.

Fresh off their 118-108 win at Charlotte, the Bucks will look to make it two in a row against the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t say enough about Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who is probably the biggest reason why Milwaukee has gone from a lottery team to the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.

“He does some things,” Stevens said. “That’s the best way to say it. He keeps adding to it. Him in transition is like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him.”

The Greek Freak enters Wednesday’s game averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the only other players averaging 23-plus points, 8-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists.

“As he’s become more skilled,” Stevens said. “He continues to put you in a worst bind. He’s tough; he’s good.” 

Milwaukee’s supporting cast has also been a key to their success. The return of Khris Middleton (left hamstring) has definitely helped throughout their recent stretch, rookie Malcom Brogdon (10.2 points) has emerged as a reliable outside threat and Greg Monroe is embracing his newfound 6th man role — averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench.

Middleton has been on fire this month, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, including 40.9 percent from behind the arc.

“Middleton spaces the floor, he can run off screens and score,” Stevens said. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. He’s gotten better, I think, as time’s gone on in pick-and-roll and with the ball. And then he’s a knockdown shooter.”

The Bucks (38-36) have won 12 of their last 15 games. In what could be a possible first-round matchup for the Celtics, Boston will get another crack at beating Milwaukee in their final game of the regular season on April 12.

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Celtics are top seed in Eastern Conference, but does it really mean anything?

03.28.17 at 9:18 am ET
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Jaylen Brown's play of late has helped the Celtics gain the Eastern Conference's top spot. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

Jaylen Brown’s play of late has helped the Celtics gain the Eastern Conference’s top spot. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

For Celtics fans, this feels good.

It’s almost April, and their team own the top seed in the Eastern Conference, overtaking the Cavaliers thanks to Cleveland’s blowout loss to San Antonio Monday night. It’s only 1/2 game lead, but considering how long the Celts have been chasing LeBron James and Co., it seems like something.

And if it makes you feel any better, the Web site fivethiryeight.com suggests the Celtics have a 67 percent chance at earning the conference’s No. 1 seed, compared to Cleveland’s 31 percent. It also puts the Celtics at seven percent to win the NBA title, only behind Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.

But other than staking claim to the top of the standings for the time being, should we really care about the standings flip-flop?

The Cavaliers are banged up, with James serving as their latest casualty thanks to an elbow in the neck. Iman Shumpert didn’t play Monday, and Kyle Korver will miss two more games with a sore foot. With nine games to play, you might very well see Cavs coach Tyronn Lue scaling back minutes in his teams last nine games (one of which is against the Celtics, on April 5), prioritizing a semi-healthy playoff run.

After the Cavaliers’ loss, James was quoted as saying, “It matters more that we’re playing better basketball than where we’re at. If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That’s what it comes down to.”

And, as painful as it is to admit, he’s right.

The Celtics are the team playing well and feeling good about themselves. Not only have they taken the top seed, but Brad Stevens team has won four in a row and eight of its last 10. It’s been a month where the C’s only loss to an Eastern Conference team came in a slip-up against the lowly Sixers, with the other three defeats coming at the hands of Western Conference foes.

The next three games for the Celtics come against two teams with sub-.500 records (Orlando, New York), and one vs. a club (Milwaukee) just one game over .500. Those contests lead into the showdown with the Cavaliers at TD Garden.

After the Cleveland tilt, the Celtics play four more, traveling to Atlanta and Charlotte before closing out the regular season at home with games against Brooklyn and Milwaukee. (The Nets, by the way, are five games ahead in their race for worst record in the NBA, which is obviously good news for the owner of their first-round pick, the Celtics.)

Right now, if the Celtics were to claim the No. 1 seed their opponent would be Miami, who is just 1/2 game up on Chicago for the final playoff spot in the East. As for who the No. 2 seed might play, the group of Atlanta, Milwaukee and Indiana are all tied.

Does it matter if Celtics get the top seed in the Eastern Conference?

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Front court steps up big in win over Heat, Celtics now tied with Cavs for No. 1

03.26.17 at 8:59 pm ET
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Mar 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) grabs a rebound on Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) grabs a rebound during the second half of the Boston Celtics 112-108 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jae Crowder scored a season-high 25 points in Celtics win over the Heat (Winslow Townson/USA Today)

It’s not something you see on a consistent level but when the Celtics front court put together the kind of production we saw against the Heat — on both ends of the floor — Boston is very difficult to beat. 

Anchored by Jae Crowder, the Celtics front line was sensational against the Heat and made all the difference in the second half, where the C’s grabbed their first double-digit lead and eventually their 48th win of the season. After beating the Heat 112-108, the Celtics now hold the most wins in the Eastern Conference and are tied with the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Crowder got it going early, knocking in mid-range jump shots and easy layups in transition. He also forced turnovers on the other end (two steals, two blocks) and his intensity was contagious. Crowder finished with 25 points on 8-of-13 attempts, including 3-of-5 from deep to go with his 6 rebounds.

With 3:53 left in the game, Crowder drained a 3-pointer to recapture the Celtics lead (102-101) and ignited the loudest roar of the night at TD Garden. From there, Thomas took care of the rest — scoring six of the following eight points for the Celtics (108-105) and before the Heat attempted to make a final push Boston’s defense made a crucial stop that led to a loose ball foul on Goran Dragic.

Marcus Smart split the pair but on the rebound of the second attempt, Heat center Hassan Whiteside appeared to have grabbed the ball early before letting it bounce off the rim. After officials’ review, Whiteside was whistled for goaltending and the Celtics were awarded two points and a two-possession game.  

Thomas scored a game-high 30 points but Crowder’s play, along with the rest of the starting front line, certainly stood out the most on Sunday. It complimented Thomas’ scoring and exemplified how tough the Celtics are when Crowder, Horford and Johnson are on point. 

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Devin Booker’s historic 70 points still not enough for Suns to top Celtics

03.24.17 at 11:51 pm ET
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(Josue Pavon/Weei.com)

Not even 70 points from Suns guard Devin Booker could bring his team close to grabbing a lead — Phoenix never had a chance at winning the game — but the incredible individual performance by Phoenix’s young star is one the Celtics franchise has never seen before.

From tip-off until the final buzzer, the Celtics dominated the lowly Suns while giving them little to no hope of closing their deficit and turned in what should have been their most lopsided victory of the season.

Boston still managed to hold onto a double-digit win — 130-120 — and improved to 47-26 on the season, still one game behind the Cavaliers for first place in the conference but Boston’s poor defense at the end of the fourth quarter propelled Booker to reach historic heights. 

Booker’s career-high 70 points marks the highest scoring performance in Suns franchise history and is the most any player has ever scored against the Celtics.

However, poor defense down the stretch led the Celtics to commit silly fouls as each player took turns in trying to slow down Booker but instead were biting on his up-fakes and sending him the free-throw line. One play that stood out happened when the Celtics led by 13 points (128-115) with 42 seconds left. Isaiah Thomas jumped all over Booker when he fell for yet another pump fake and sent him to the line so that he could inch closer to 70.

Although Booker was phenomenal, hitting 21-of-40 from the floor, 24-of-26 from the charity stripe, he couldn’t have reached this milestone without help from the Celtics. He topped off the C’s with 28 fourth-quarter points, 18 in the final four minutes, including 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.

In the game’s opening seven minutes, the Celtics leaped out a 20-point lead (25-5) and spent most of the first half protecting it. Gerald Green caught fire from deep — knocking down 4-of-4 from behind the arc, including a four-point play as the Celtics took a 66-43 advantage into halftime. 

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Impressive win over Pacers proves Celtics have a shot at grabbing No. 1 seed in the east

03.22.17 at 10:10 pm ET
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Mar 22, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (7) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis (11) in the second half at TD Garden. Celtics defeated the Pacers 109-100. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday’s win over the Pacers was a group effort as all nine Celtics players contributed to the 109-100 victory (David Butler II/USA Today)

Don’t look now but the Celtics are now in stride to top the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

With 10 games left in the regular season, the C’s are trailing the champs by one game and are showing no signs of slowing down. In Wednesday night’s 109-100 win over the Pacers, all nine Celtics players played a role in taking care of home court for the second straight night. 

Isaiah Thomas (25 points, 5 assists), Avery Bradley (18 points, 8 rebounds) and Al Horford (15 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) all turned in typical stat lines but guys like Jae Crowder (15 points, game-high plus-16), Kelly Olynyk (11 points, 8 rebounds, plus-12) and Tyler Zeller (6 points, plus-8) came up big in the second half. They helped push the Celtics to a whopping 39-point third quarter that pushed Boston’s lead to 17 — their largest of the night.

Paul George (37 points) and Jeff Teague combined for 42 points to lead the Pacers but the Celtics’ intensity in the second half disallowed their opponent to regain their first-quarter lead. 

For a complete recap of Wednesday’s win, click here.

The Celtics offense tightened up in the second half, efficiently taking care of possessions and flawlessly rotating the ball for easy layups and open shots. It seemed like every player did their part in either rebounding, finding an open guy or making a defensive stop. 

The team’s second unit made their presence felt in the first half. The Pacers’ back court duo of Monta Ellis and Aaron Brooks found their outside touch but so did Marcus Smart — who drained two back-to-back 3-pointers in the second quarter — and Jaylen Brown took advantage of his size over 6-foot-3 Ellis. 

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Silver lining of early season injuries sheds light on Brad Stevens’ approach to resting players late in season

03.22.17 at 7:18 pm ET
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Mar 20, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) controls the ball while Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) defends during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

A healthy Avery Bradley has been getting back to form since his return from a sore Achilles. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

If there’s one dividend from the early season injury bug that the Celtics are cashing in on now it’s rest.

Specifically, it’s the rest players like Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Al Horford and Jae Crowder were able to gain as the rest of the league was going through the grind. 

Every year, there’s intense debate as to what to do at the league level to discourage teams from resting their players at the end of the season as playoff-bound teams prep their star players for the postseason.

This was brought to a head on March 11 in San Antonio when, on a nationally televised game, the Warriors sat Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Kevin Durant was already sitting with his left knee injury. The Spurs rested Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge. 

What’s Stevens’ take?

“I understand the discussion and certainly we’re all sensitive to the fact that somebody is going to watch a game in TD Garden for the first time tonight,” Stevens said before Wednesday’s game against Indiana. “That’s why I don’t know if this is fortunate or unfortunate, probably more unfortunate because you never want to have injuries, but we had a lot of injuries so we got rest because we had to get rest. 

“I do think in the last week of the season it is a little bit different. But I also understand as each team goes about it to try and best set themselves up for the postseason, the idea and opportunities to get rest. I’m hopeful, like everybody else, that the extra week in the season can appropriately handle some of those things but there are some really tough stretches in this and it is difficult. You just have to try to manage those as well as you can. 

“If some team chooses to rest their players then I understand it has to be a discussion but I understand why they do it.”

To mitigate some of the schedule grind to make it easier on players, the NBA shortened the preseason, adding a week to the schedule to spread out more games. Still, teams like the Celtics still faced a huge challenge.

“We knew going into the year, and I think this is probably what a lot of teams do, they look at the schedule,” Stevens said. “We knew December was going to be a monster and on Dec. 30 we were going to play six games in nine days and then we knew early February the West Coast trip coming back, All-Star break, Toronto, Detroit, back, West Coast trip again, you knew that was going to be really tough. You just kind of know that in advance and try to plan for it the best way you can. But again, some of our decisions were alleviated by the fact that we didn’t have guys available because of injuries. Again, I understand why teams do it but I understand the dilemma.”

Jae Crowder entered Wednesday’s game shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc. He has taken 605 shots, 340 from long range. That figures to 56 percent of his overall shots from long range. 

“If they’re all open, whatever, right? And even if they’re lightly challenged, he’s a really good 3-point shooter,” Stevens said. “You look across the league at guys that do what he does, that’s pretty typical. I think that’s something that’s a great testament to him, that he can continue to be as consistent as he’s being, shooting that percentage and shooting as high of a percentage with that volume.” 

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Celtics get tough with Wizards to strengthen grip on second seed in Eastern Conference

03.20.17 at 10:25 pm ET
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Mar 20, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) passes the ball past Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics forced 18 Wizards turnovers (Bob DeChiara/USA Today)

For a team that entered Monday night’s game as the fifth-worst rebounding team in the league, the Celtics rarely ever out-rebound their opponent. But when it came to facing the Wizards at home with playoff implications on the line, the C’s looked like a team that just simply wanted it more.

The Celtics not only out-rebounded their opponent, 54-39 but were very physical with the Wizards on defense and made it tough for them to find their offensive rhythm while the C’s cruised to 110-102 victory. For the first time in two years, the Celtics pulled down 20 offensive rebounds. The last time the C’s grabbed 20 or more boards in a winning effort was against the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs. 

With the win, the Celtics (45-26) now hold a 2.5 game advantage over the Wizards for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. 

Sure, the return of Isaiah Thomas (25 points, 2 steals) certainly helped but it wasn’t just the Celtics leading scorer who made a huge impact for the Celtics. Avery Bradley had such an incredible first quarter that Brad Stevens kept him in for its entirety. He scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists in the first 12 minutes and finished with 20 points, 9 rebounds and four assists. 

Bradley Beal’s 19 points led the Wizards, John Wall finished with 16 and 8 assists but did most of his damage from the free-throw line — where he netted 8-of-9. 

For a complete recap of Monday’s win, click here.

Up front, Al Horford set the tone by creating stops while also making an effort in boxing guys out in the paint and guys like Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk followed suit. Led by Horford’s 16 points, 9 rebounds, the three big men finished with a combined 23 rebounds and four blocks.

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