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Celtics not Magic’s biggest problem

03.25.09 at 12:34 am ET
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Boston Celtics (54-18) @ Orlando Magic (52-18)
8:00PM EST, ESPN

The Orlando Magic established themselves as a contender early on this season, positioning Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics as a possible Eastern Conference Semifinals ‘€“ or even Finals — match up. But before the Magic can think about playing the role of spoiler, they have their own issues to take care of first ‘€“ the Detroit Pistons.

‘€œWe can’t focus in on how they’ve played us in the past,’€ said Magic center Dwight Howard. ‘€œThis is going to be a different year for us in the postseason if we continue to do the things that we do on a night in, night out basis.’€

Over the past two seasons the Magic have made early exits from the playoffs at the hands of the Pistons. In 2007 they were swept 4-0 in the first round. Last season, in spite of earning their best record in over 10 years, they fell 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With less than a month left in the regular season and Eastern Conference rankings changing every night, the Magic could very well face the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.

‘€œI think mentally we’ve got to get over that hill, I guess, that they present to us,’€ said Howard. ‘€œThey’re a very physical team, they get away with it. They know how to score. They play great defense. And we know how to beat those guys, but it’s just going to take us to come out and do it. We know the way to beat them is to run, not let the defense set up, and then play help defense, and then rebound the basketball. So they’re a team that we can beat. We just have to be mentally on our game.’€

This season was the perfect opportunity for the Magic to reverse their luck. They have been soaring behind Howard, beating the Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons, on the other hand, have plummeted since the Allen Iverson trade. But the Magic went 0-3 against the Pistons this season. The third loss came just a day after defeating the Celtics in Boston this month.

‘€œAny team is liable to get beat any night. But you’ve got to be able to beat both teams,’€ said Howard. ‘€œBoston is the world champion so they’re a tough team. And you’ve got Detroit, who’s been beating us like they’ve got our number. I think it’s just a mental block. It’s the same thing that happened to us with the (Atlanta) Hawks. They would always beat us until we got over that — ok, we can beat this team — then that’s when we started beating them. But we have to do that against a good team in Detroit.’€

The Magic did not capitalize on the Pistons’ struggles. They are not focused on exploiting the Celtics’ either. While they could view Kevin Garnett’s restricted playing time and the recent depletion of the Celtics bench as a window of opportunity to steal the second seed, the Magic are paying more attention to their own team.

‘€œWe’ve just got to continue to do things to win games,’€ Howard said. ‘€œWe can’t really focus in on how Cleveland or Boston’s playing. They’re still good teams without those key guys, so we’ve just got to come out every night and continue to get better. Hopefully we’re hot during the playoffs, and the team’s that hot during the playoffs is going to win.’€

Read More: Boston Celtics, Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic,

Now Appearing on Celtics Now

03.24.09 at 5:18 pm ET
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Do not adjust your HD. That is your humble narrator who will be on the new episode of Celtics Now with Michael Holley on Comcast SportsNet, which airs tomorrow night at 6 p.m. on CSN.

I appeared on a panel with Dana Barros and Pete McKenzie from 100.7 to discuss Kevin Garnett’s return, whether Paul Pierce is playing too many minutes and who scares us among the teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

More show times:

Wednesday

6/11:30 p.m

Thursday

2:30/6/7:30 p.m.

Friday

6 p.m.

It gets better every time. Promise.

Read More: Celtics Now, Dana Barros, Pete McKenzie,

Trags Take… Nova and Duke

03.24.09 at 12:13 pm ET
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East Regional Semifinal-No.3 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke, approx. 9:57 p.m. Thursday, Ch. 4

Memo to Villanova coach Jay Wright: If you’re leading by two late on Thursday night with say, 18 seconds left, your players better know exactly where Duke’s Gerald Henderson is on the parquet floor. If you don’t, this can happen. Just ask Henderson’s dad.

Everyone in Boston remembers that moment in 1984 when the Celtics were trailing 113-111, and down 1-0 to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the game in overtime and then won the title in seven.

As Harvey Araton of the New York Times points out, the ghost of the old man’s steal will be out in the building next to the parking lot where the old one used to stand, the old Boston Garden. James Worthy can’t help but think what would’ve been if his lazy pass didn’t find its way into Henderson’s hands that fateful night.

Fast forward an unbelievable 25 years to this weekend’s East Regionals in Boston. One team has three national championships and one of the most successful coaches in the history of college sports on the sidelines.

The other team has a long and rich basketball tradition, including a 1985 NCAA title, with the best dressed coach in the history of college sports on its sidelines.

And so you have Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils (30-6) against Jay Wright’s No. 3 Villanova Wildcats (28-7) going up against each other in the late, late nightcap on Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden. And for the record, Coach K is 833-273 all time and 760-214 in 29 seasons with the Blue Devils. Jay Wright is 176-89 at Villanova in eight seasons and has guided the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in four of the past five seasons.

Villanova is trying to get back to the Elite 8 for the second time in four seasons and back to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 1985.

Whenever one speaks of Duke and Regional Finals the discussion starts with the most dramatic shot ever made in Regional Finals history. The date was March 28, 1992 and the scene was Philadelphia’s Spectrum, which just hosted its final basketball game ever two weeks ago. Duke was trailing Kentucky in the East Regional Final, 103-102, with 2.1 seconds remaining.

I know, enough of the trips down memory lane.

The Road to Boston:

Villanova: Beat No. 14 American, 80-67. Beat No. 6 UCLA, 89-69.

Duke: Beat No. 15 Binghamton, 86-62. Beat No. 7 Texas, 74-69.

Players to watch:

Villanova: Dante Cunningham, Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds. At 6-8, 230 pounds, Cunningham has been the stabilizing force for the Wildcats down low. Averages 16.8 points a game. Undersized as a center, his athleticism works wonders. He has an underrated jump shot which makes him very dangerous. Swingman Corey Stokes averages just 9.7 points a game but delivers at 42.8 percent rate from three-point range. Corey Fisher has emerged as a court leader in this tournament, taking some big weight off the shoulders of Scottie Reynolds. Together, Fisher and Reynolds form one of the quickest and pressure-oriented backcourt tandems left in the tournament.

Duke: Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler. Henderson is the key to this young, some would say over-achieving bunch of Blue Devils. He quarterbacks the offense, scores at 16.8 points per game clip and obviously has the pedigree of a winner under pressure with his dad. He can rebound for a 6-4 guard, grabbing nearly five a game. Took over for Greg Paulus as starting point guard. Scheyer can shoot the three from the other side of midcourt. Exaggerating, but only a little. Singler, at 6-8, 235 pounds, draws the assignment of containing Cunningham. He leads the team in rebounding but that could be a challenge against this Villanova group.

Trags Final Take: Villanova learned a lesson against American in the first round. Don’t get into three-point shooting contests with teams that live on the perimeter. They were down 14 early in the second half before that hit home. Have a similiar lapse of memory here, and it’s nighty-nite. But Villanova knows that Cunningham is having a great tournament and spark plug Scottie Reynolds has yet to really get involved with his trademark dribble penetration. Gerald Henderson, Sr. got it done on the parquet in 1984 but Villanova and their three-guard set finds a way to contain his son.

Villanova 78, Duke 71

Read More: Boston, Duke, East Regionals, Gerald Henderson

Trags Take… X-Men and Panthers

03.24.09 at 9:37 am ET
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East Regional Semifinal- No. 4 Xavier vs. No. 1 Pittsburgh, 7:27 p.m. Thursday, Ch. 4.

On Thursday night, the first of three East Regional games will be played at TD Banknorth Garden and the matchup between Xavier and Pittsburgh figures to be compelling on many different levels.

Here’s how.

The first game has the top seed Pittsburgh Panthers (30-4) taking on No. 4 Xavier (27-7). The Musketeers are coached by Sean Miller, the same Sean Miller who played for Pittsburgh in the mid-to-late 80s and fed Jerome “Send It In” Lane on the most devastating college dunk of all time.

Miller said on Monday that facing his old school isn’t a big deal.

‘€œPitt holds a special place for me just from the standpoint that I had a great experience there as a student-athlete. I was treated like you wanted to be treated,’€ Miller said. ‘€œThe friendships that I have today with so many of close friends stem from my experiences there. And it really stops there as well.”

Naturally.

He is also the same Sean Miller who appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when he was five and showed off his dribbling skills before a nationwide audience.

Now Miller is all grown up and so are his Muskies. They were down seven and playing right into Wisconsin’s hands on Sunday when the team went on a 10-0 run and the Badgers were not heard from again. Xavier advanced with a 60-49 win in Boise.

As for Pittsburgh, they nearly became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 before waking up against East Tennessee State. They were tied with Oklahoma State, 49-49, at halftime, before pulling away for the win in Dayton. An interesting note, Xavier A.D. Mike Bobinski didn’t travel with his team to the land of big potatoes. Instead he stayed behind in nearby Dayton to watch the Panthers and another No. 1 seed, the Louisville Cardinals.

The Road to Boston:

Xavier: Beat No. 13 Portland State, 77-59. Beat No. 12 Wisconsin, 60-49.

Pittsburgh: Beat No. 16 East Tennessee State, 72-67. Beat No. 8 Oklahoma State, 84-76.

Players to watch:

Xavier: B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson. Raymond led all Muskies with 15 points on Sunday and is the stabilizing force in a backcourt that is vulnerable to pressure. Anderson is arguably Xavier’s most versatile player, at 6-6, 220 pounds, big enough to play in the front court but quick enough to handle the ball on the perimeter. If he’s shooting well, look out. He was scoreless in Xavier’s loss to Temple in the A-10 semifinals.

Pittsburgh: DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Blair had 10 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday. He had 27 points and 16 rebounds against ETSU in the first round. He is 6-7 and listed at 245. He been playing even bigger. Young is a pure scorer and showed that with 32 against the Cowboys on Sunday. He leads the Panthers with 18.9 points per game. And Fields is the floor general, dishing out 7.6 assists a game while scoring at a 10.6 PPG clip.

Trags Take: Not going the Steelers Karma route here. Told you here at the beginning of the tournament that Xavier was one of the five teams I liked in this field. Not going to change now. Pittsburgh’s luck runs out against one of the most athletic and versatile teams remaining in the tournament. Xavier finds a way to defend Young and contain Fields.

Xavier 70, Pittsburgh 64

Read More: Boston, East Regional, NCAA, Pittsburgh

Sounds of the game… Celtics 90, Clippers 77

03.23.09 at 11:29 pm ET
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It’s the most basic lesson Celtics head coach Doc Rivers preaches, with some serious nudging from assistant Tom Thibodeau.

Think defense first and everything else will follow.

Rivers didn’t think his team was in that mindset in the first half on Monday night against the lowly Clippers, especially when the Clip Joint went on a 19-5 run early in the second quarter to wipe out a 13-point lead and take a lead against the sluggish Celts.

‘€œWe didn’€™t get any stops and we didn’€™t score the basketball,” Eddie House said. “They went on a 19-5 run I think from the start of the 2nd to 4 minutes left so that’€™s a recipe for disaster if you don’€™t get stops and don’€™t score. Second half we concentrated on getting stops and our offense slowed up our defense.’€

Thanks to Kevin Garnett, the Celtics picked up their defensive intensity. And as our colleague Paul Flannery writes, the offense did, indeed, follow.

But with Orlando lurking in the land of Magic on Wednesday and second-place in the East on the line, Rivers knows his team, especially the second unit, can’t afford to come into a game like they did Monday night.

“Honestly, I thought in the first half they came out thinking all about offense and it was a one pass, shot unit,” Rivers said. “In the second half they thought about defense and they got stops.  And then we moved the ball and got open shots.  And it’€™s amazing when you play the right way together how things work out.  And then when you have the right mindset when you walk on the floor.  Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Camby, Celtics, Garnett, NBA

Walker happy to take a seat

03.23.09 at 11:23 pm ET
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The return of Kevin Garnett means less playing time for Bill Walker. That’s bad for the Boston Celtics rookie, right? Think again.

‘€œI’m actually happy Ticket’s back,” he said before Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers (RECAP HERE). “He gives our team that swagger again. We’re more aggressive on defense. You can just tell it’s a different team when he’s on the court.’€

After bouncing between the bench and the NBA Development League, Walker received a rare window of opportunity for meaningful minutes on the Celtics. He had played a total of just 54 minutes all season before Garnett strained his knee on February 19. With the Celtics bench already hampered by injuries, Walker averaged 8.5 minutes per game in Garnett’s absence.

‘€œI learned that it’s more physical than it looks on TV out there,’€ he said. ‘€œYou’ve got to learn to rest your body and take care of your little aches because those games come back so quick. You’ve got to take care of the little things.’€

While Walker’s numbers did not skyrocket ‘€“ his game-high was only eight points ‘€“ his perspective on the game did.

‘€œYou can always get better, especially on defense,’€ he said. ‘€œThere are so many things that go with our defense that I don’t know everything. So watching tape and watching myself like, ‘Oh I’m a second late’ or, ‘I’m a step late.”€

Walker is constantly learning, whether it is on the court or on the bench, so he does not mind taking it all in from the sidelines. He pay close attention to the players around him — ‘€œWhat do they do that’s effective?’€ he asks himself ‘€“ and tries to incorporate their strengths into his own game. He doesn’t have to look much further than his own team to pick up some pointers.

‘€œOffensively you can take from just about anybody out there. (Rajon) Rondo, how he gets to the basket. Paul (Pierce), his footwork. Ray (Allen’s) shooting. Ticket’s post work. There’s a lot of stuff to watch out there,’€ Walker said. ‘€œI watch Ray on defense. Ray’s got some great defense. People don’t really realize it but Ray’s always in the right position. Hands are where they’re supposed to be. He’s just a smart player.’€

The Celtics basketball IQ has already rubbed off on Walker. He’ll take the opportunity to watch the Big Three play any day.

‘€œI think it’s very, very valuable because everybody is not playing on a team with three sure-fire Hall of Famers,’€ he said. ‘€œIt’s not like these guys are stuck up. They teach me things every day.’€

Read More: Bill Walker, Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett,

That loving feeling

03.23.09 at 11:12 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo made eye contact with Kevin Garnett. Kevin Garnett gave it back. The alley-oop was coming. And it was good. When Garnett came back down to terra firma he had a huge grin on his face. It’s been a long time. A real long time, and it was the emphatic exclamation on Garnett’s long-awaited return to the Garden floor.

February 8 was the date of Garnett’s last game in home whites and he made the most of his allotted 18 minutes against the Clippers. (Click here for a recap). In all he was a perfect 5-for-5 with 12 points and two rebounds, but his game meant a lot more than a dozen points and a couple of boards.

“The reason I don’t sit on the bench is I might jump out there in street clothes and start hooping,” Garnett said. “One of the hard things for me is sitting down. It was very difficult to sit out, but when I’m out there I try bring as much havoc as I can.”

The alley-oop may have sealed it, but the full KG Experience was on display in the minutes leading up to the dunk. In a sleepy atmosphere against a team with nothing to lose, the Celtics had put themselves in a precarious position. Trailing 55-54, Garnett went into the post against Zach Randolph and demanded the ball as if Randolph was Anderson Varejao and this was Game 7 against the Cavs. He did his patented drop-step in the lane and popped home a short jumper.

Then came the alley-oop. Then another defensive stop and another basket. This was the tidal wave of a run that the Celtics used to put together so effortlessly. Doc Rivers had to call a timeout to stop things and get Garnett out of the game as his minutes were all used up, but a funny thing happened after that. The Celtics kept rolling and soon the rout was on.

“Everything we do offensively and defensively,” Paul Pierce said. “You can see the last couple of games. We’re passing the ball, we’re defending at a high level. The communication’s there. We have such great chemistry with out starting five. With him out there, we’re like one.”

Garnett’s impact, especially on the defensive end, has been well-documented. The same is true for the intangible and tangible benefit of having him on the floor calling out screens, holding everyone accountable, being half-insane. This is all true, but the hidden value of Kevin Garnett on a basketball floor is what happens when he is simply on the court.

“Teams respect him even if he doesn’t shoot the ball,” Ray Allen said. “Rondo has bigger gaps (to drive). His man doesn’t help as much. Glen (Davis) has been knocking down that shot. He’s been playing well. As a young player in this league you have to do that over and over again to get teams to give you that respect. Kevin obviously has that respect and when he’s out there people automatically from the word go are going to play him. You can see the effect with myself and Paul.”

The key to the Celtics offense is not Pierce’s individual brilliance, Allen’s shooting or Rondo’s ability to break down defenses. The key is the spacing, ball movement and, most importantly, the trust to pass and be in the right spots.

“He’s unselfish to a fault, as well all know, at times,” Rivers said. “You sometimes wants him to shoot the ball but he’s always looking to pass. It’s amazing how hard guys cut when he gets the ball in the post because they might get the ball back.”

The Celtics are being careful with Garnett. They waited almost a month before bringing him back and they are not going to blow him out for a game in March against the Clippers. They won’t even do it Wednesday when they go to Orlando for a game that may well determine how many rounds of homecourt advantage they wind up with in the playoffs. They won’t do it because he is way too important to mess around with at the end of the regular season.

At the end of their time with the press following the game, Garnett and Pierce engaged in a little back-and-forth as they tend to do from time to time. It’s been a long time since the mood was that playful in these things as Pierce has had to carry the burden on the floor and off it as well.

“You watched me when you were at Kansas,” Garnett teased Pierce. “Paul Pierce wanted to come out of high school. Don’t let him fool you.”

“The only reason I didn’t,” Pierce countered. “Was because I didn’t know you could do that.”

It was a small thing and not really all that important in the grand scheme of things, but it was like the old days again.

********

File this one away for future reference. Doc likes the combination of Stephon Marbury, Eddie House and Ray Allen, which he used to open the fourth quarter. It goes against his better instincts to have a lineup that small play together, but Rivers said the numbers show that it is an effective combination.

Here’s another reason why he likes the trio. It’s an effective way to give Paul Pierce a breather. Perhaps Allen can be the long sought-after backup three man.

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