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The puzzle changes shape

03.18.09 at 11:15 pm ET
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There are two ways to look at Doc Rivers‘ statement before the Celtics took the court against the Heat. “We’re not going to catch Cleveland,” Rivers told the press without being asked about whether they could catch the Cavaliers. “We have a chance to hold on to that second spot.” (Click here for a recap of the Miami game.)

The first is this. The coach is absolutely right. There are 13 games left in the regular season and the Celtics are down five in the loss column. It’s math.

Now that kind of unprompted candor, even from one of the more honest and realistic coaches in the NBA, is not generally expected. Someone who has been around competitive sports for as long as Rivers knows there’s always a chance, and to concede anything less is to admit to defeat on a certain level.

But admitting defeat is not in this team’s nature (and they have the championship banner to prove it) so clearly this was a different sort of message. After the game, which was as good a win as his team has had in almost two weeks, Rivers talked about a jigsaw puzzle. “It’s corny,” he said. “But we were talking about it today that the only way you can put a puzzle together is with the box. You have to have the picture. So we just don’t have all our pieces together right now. They’re kind of scattered but we’re going to have a chance to put them back together and we know that. And we know the picture and that’s what we want.”

The puzzle pieces are scattered throughout Eddie Lacerte’s training room. They have hyper-extended elbows, sprained ankles and strained knees. But the picture is clearer now after suffering losses to Milwaukee and Chicago and it involves getting the home-court advantage against Orlando in the second round. That’s the puzzle they will try to solve over the next 13 games: Get healthy and stay ahead of the Magic.

That’s a different picture than what was in place a few weeks ago when there was a realistic chance at catching the Cavaliers, but that was then and this is now. There were a lot of words spoken in the aftermath of their gritty win over the Heat without two of their stars and with only three able-bodied big men, but none of them were “Cleveland.”

“One, for us to get on the same page and two, to solidify that second spot,” was how Stephon Marbury put it. “Once everyone gets healthy I think this team will be totally different.”

“Either way, I still feel good about us winning a championship,” Kendrick Perkins said. “I don’t care if we play home or away.”

Say this for the Celtics, when the coach talks about something like this it’s not an accident and it’s not a sub-conscious slip of the tongue. The players were briefed about this subtle change in expectations and they are on board.

“That’s the one great thing about this team,” Paul Pierce said. “We’ve never been down. We never look at one another, point the finger at one another, and we understand that we just have to keep working. The situation is what it is and we have to go out there and put our hard hats on and our work boots on and continue to work, regardless of who’s out there.”

To that end, they milked 41 minutes out of Big Baby Davis, who has been out the last four games with an ankle injury. They had three (relatively) healthy big men and when Davis and Mikki Moore fouled out, they turned to rookie Bill Walker in the final minute of an overtime game.

It was, as they say, a good win. A win that clinched them the Atlantic Division, not that any of them cared because that’s not part of the puzzle they’re trying to solve.

“(The division) doesn’t really mean anything to the Boston Celtics,” Pierce said. “They don’t put that banner up. Maybe in other arenas they put that banner up, but here, it doesn’t really mean a thing.”

Getting healthy matters. Staying ahead of Orlando matters. That was the message the coach delivered Wednesday night and it was heard, and well-received by his team.

Read More: Celtics, Orlando, Paul Pierce,

Competition among friends

03.18.09 at 10:47 pm ET
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Bill Walker and Michael Beasley were more than roommates at Kansas State. They were each other’s toughest competition.

‘€œOh man, we competed at everything,’€ Walker recalled earlier this season. ‘€œOn the basketball side, out of basketball, video games, we competed in every thing. Everything was a competition.’€

On Wednesday night the rookies faced off as Walker and the Boston Celtics took on Beasley and the Miami Heat. (RECAP HERE) Just like their friendship, the game was a back and forth battle. But it still doesn’t compare to their one-on-one games back in college.

‘€œThat’s probably the most intense basketball I’ve played in my life,’€ Beasley said. ‘€œWhen he won, I didn’t want to leave. And I when I won, he’s not leaving. So sometimes you could win three or four straight and he just won’t quit, or vice versa. I remember there were times we were in the gym until four or five o’clock in the morning just playing one-on-one.’€

Walker dubbed Beasley, ‘€œThe Beast from the East,’€ and the two saw everything has a chance to win. Little things walking to the car became a race. Game days were another opportunity to one up each other.

‘€œHonestly, we prepared for a game by bringing our Xbox into the locker room and then playing games until pregame stuff,’€ Beasley said. ‘€œWe’d always play as ourselves and be Kansas State versus Kansas State.’€

Their must-win mentalities pushed one another to become better than they were before.

‘€œIt teaches you a lot about yourself,’€ said Walker. ‘€œEspecially when you go up against somebody that’€™s just as competitive as you are and he’€™s skilled in the same manner you are, that really challenges you.’€

Read More: Bill Walker, Boston Celtics, Michael Beasley,

Not over yet

03.18.09 at 9:38 pm ET
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The stage was set for Paul Pierce to be the hero. But after running down the clock, his last second shot circled off the rim. It’s overtime for the Celtics and Heat, tied at 100 apiece.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Paul Pierce,

Heated words

03.18.09 at 9:10 pm ET
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When Paul Pierce saw Rajon Rondo lying on the ground after a foul by James Jones, he had words for the Heat. The Heat spat back, and Pierce and Luther Head were called for double technical fouls with 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

Of comebacks and fouls

03.18.09 at 8:39 pm ET
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The Celtics have two key objectives in the third quarter. Get the lead back and don’t foul. It’s tough to play that way, obviously, but that’s the situation they are in right now. Big Baby, Kendrick Perkins and Mikki Moore have exactly seven fouls to play with for the next 24 minutes and the way this game is going that’s not going to be enough.

Give the Heat credit for attacking this obvious weakness. Michael Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal did work in the second quarter against the depleted bigs and Udonis Haslem has picked up on their lead.

A happy KG?

03.18.09 at 8:21 pm ET
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There was a Kevin Garnett sighting before the game in the locker room and the injured big man seemed–dare we say it–happy? Wearing workout clothes, KG bounced around the locker room giving Gabe Pruitt a playful hello and making small talk with a few others. (Not media types, of course.)

One way or another Garnett is getting close to a return but Doc Rivers played it cautious when asked about his prospects. Garnett will apparently accompany the team on their upcoming road trip to San Antonio and Memphis, but as he has yet to get back on the court his return is still up in the air. “We’ll see,” Rivers said. “But I wouldn’t count on this weekend.”

One thing is certain. The Celtics are not going to rush his comeback.

A foul first half

03.18.09 at 8:14 pm ET
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The Celtics were already shorthanded before the whistles started blowing. But their bench became depleted when their big man could not stay out of foul trouble in the first half. The Celtics are in tough shape at the end of the second quarter:

Mikki Moore: 4 fouls in 8 minutes

Glen Davis: 4 fouls in 14 minutes

Kendrick Perkins: 3 fouls in 17 minutes

Read More: Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Mikki Moore,
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