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Did you miss the Celtics? They’re back

04.03.09 at 11:17 pm ET
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The last month or so has felt like a long, slow slog toward … what, exactly? The playoffs are not yet quite in sight, but the conference race is all but decided except for what may be a trivial distinction between second and third place. The games, and the injuries (especially the injuries) have piled up on each other, and just getting from one to the next has felt like a trial. Overtime with Miami, double overtime with Charlotte, each win seemingly needing maximum effort and too many minutes.

For a time Friday night didn’t really seem like it would be any different. The Hawks certainly weren’t going to make things easy on the Celtics because they never do, but then early in the second half Paul Pierce swung the ball to a wide-open Ray Allen who knocked down a 3-pointer like it was a lay-up. It was the old Celtics, if by old we mean 2008.

In the end, a nice tidy 12-point win secure (click here for a recap), the stat sheet looked like this:

Five players in double figures, nobody with more than 14 shots, assists on 26 of 40 made baskets, 53.5 percent shooting and 35.6 percent defensively. Vintage Celtics.

If you had to pick a player of the game it might have been Rajon Rondo who had 20 points and six assists. “He was fantastic tonight,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “He was fantastic.” You might go with Pierce who had 21 points and six rebounds. “Paul was very aggressive tonight,” Doc Rivers said. “They trap and I thought Paul was unselfish.” The combination of aggressive and unselfish defines Pierce at his absolute best.

You might tab Big Baby Davis who had 19 points. “When Big Baby is knocking down that mid-range jump shot, it’s kind of hard because you over-commit,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said. “It’s kind of like picking your poison.” Somebody asked Baby about that and he said, “They don’t believe in me yet,” meaning the other team, but they’re starting to.

You might have picked Kendrick Perkins who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots. “If he doesn’t make the All-Defensive team it’s a conspiracy,” Pierce said.

You could have picked just about anybody, which is the whole point of the Celtics. “The extra passes,” Rivers said. “Twenty six assists. That’s a good sign for us.”

This is the way they need to play; with or without Kevin Garnett, and we haven’t even really noted the defensive effort that kept the Hawks in check inside and out, and if not for the 31 free throws (sound like last April’s playoff series?) this would have been a 20-point game instead of a dozen.

As it was in November and December when the Celtics were steamrolling through the rest of the league, it started with Rondo. Like most NBA teams, the Hawks didn’t really have anyone who could stay in front of him and as he drove the lane time and again the shots just opened up. Can’t key on Pierce because then Allen is open. Can’t try to take away the perimeter because Big Baby  and Perkins were doing work inside.

“Rondo’s speed was an absolute factor in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “You know, we’ve got to keep him doing that every night. It’s amazing how now they’re feeding off his speed. They know if they run to the right spot on the floor, he pushes the ball up the floor.”

And when the bench came in — essentially consisting of Stephon Marbury, Eddie House and Mikki Moore — there was no drop in energy, flow or ball movement. Forget Marbury’s 1-for-7 shooting line; he played fast and when the game gets fast House gets free looks and House doesn’t miss a lot of free looks.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether the Celtics can win another championship without a healthy Garnett, and as any rational observer will tell you, the answer to that question is almost certainly no. They can’t. But it’s also true that the Celtics won’t approach those lofty heights again without playing the kind of basketball they played against the Hawks Friday night. It’s defense, of course, but it’s also aggressive, unselfish basketball.

“It’s time for us to start building some momentum right now,” Pierce said. “It’s our fourth game in a row that we’ve won. We want to be playing well going into the playoffs.”

Hawks explain Celtics keys to postseason success

04.03.09 at 11:07 pm ET
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Before the Boston Celtics won their 17th world championship and proved ‘€œanything is possible,’€ the Atlanta Hawks proved something of their own ‘€“ beating the Celtics was possible, too.

Despite looking unstoppable heading into the playoffs last season, the Celtics needed seven games to fend off the eighth-seeded Hawks. This season they are even more vulnerable, with injuries hampering their lineup. If the Celtics came dangerously close to elimination with a healthy squad, what do they have to do this season to avoid another first round scare?

‘€œThey just have to come out to try to keep focused throughout the whole series,’€ said Al Horford prior to the Celtics-Hawks game (RECAP HERE). ‘€œI think that after them beating us the first two games here (Boston), they thought that they could just go into Atlanta and take care of it. But they didn’t realize what was ahead of them. I think they know this by now. They know they have to come in and they have to bring their A-game on the road too.’€

The Celtics inability to win on the road nearly cost them their title. They folded in Atlanta — ‘€œ[They played] totally different. Totally different,’€ said Horford — and it wasn’t until Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons that they finally won away from the Garden.

‘€œThey are a lot more energetic, I would say, [at home]. They get up and down a lot more and play with a lot more confidence at home, so it makes them a much better team,’€ said Joe Johnson. ‘€œI don’t think they run as much [on the road]. I just think that as soon as you go on the road, the atmosphere is not the same. You’re just not used to a lot of things. But at home, that’s where you’re more comfortable so you tend to play more relaxed and have a lot more confidence.’€

Even if the Celtics overcome their woes on the road, there is still a bigger concern ‘€“ the nagging knee injury of Kevin Garnett. He averaged nearly 21 points (more than twenty percent of the Celtics total offense) and nine rebounds per game in the first round against Atlanta. But the Hawks have lost twice to Celtics this season without Garnett and think they can compensate for his absence.

‘€œKeep (Glen) Big Baby Davis confident in his play and keep having Mikki Moore come off the bench and play well like he’s doing,’€ suggested Josh Smith. ‘€œI don’t think they have anything to worry about.’€

In less than two weeks the Celtics will be drawing up their gameplan for the start of the postseason. While they have three first round losses to the Hawks to reflect on, they may have already learned all the lessons they need.

‘€œJust win, that’s what it comes down to,’€ said Hawks head coach Mike Woodson. ‘€œI think the fact that they might not have homecourt advantage all the way through, when you win a title that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t because these guys, they’ve been through the wars. They went seven with us, they went seven with Cleveland, Detroit gave them a good run. There’s nothing they haven’t seen so I don’t think it really matters.

‘€œThey’re going to be there when it counts. I promise you that.’€

Read More: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics,

The Answer is done, what was the question?

04.03.09 at 8:00 pm ET
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The Pistons announced today that Allen Iverson would miss the rest of the season because of his ailing back. Left unsaid was that Iverson complained about his role coming off the bench.

This is what Iverson told reporters after playing 18 minutes in a dispiriting loss to the Cavs the other night:

“How many minutes did I play? It seemed way, way, way less than that. Eighteen minutes? Come on, man. I can play 18 minutes with my eyes closed and with a 100-pound truck on my back. It’s a bad feeling, man. I’m wondering what they rushed me back for? For that?

“It’s a bad time for me mentally.”

As a connoisseur of Iverson rants that one rates far below practice, we talkin’ bout practice, but ultimately sealed his legacy in Detroit. Iverson will be a free agent at the end of the year and while it’s hard to see him having a future in Detroit, it’s been something of an open question around the league if this is the last we will see of Iverson. As in ever.

The theory goes like this: As teams look to shed salary in uncertain economic times, it’s doubtful anyone will pay an inefficient shooting guard like Iverson the kind of money he has made in the past, and conversely, would Iverson even want to play for the veteran minimum?

Regardless, the Iverson move has some ramifications for the Celtics. The C’s entered play tonight as the No. 2 seed in the East and the Pistons entered at No.7, although obviously both spots could change in the final weeks. This was Doc Rivers‘ reaction to the news:

“I’ll leave that up to them,” he said. “We’ll try to keep our room clean. They’re different (as a team) because Iverson has the ball more, and without him, the ball moves more. But he scares you too.”

Credit Rivers with the correct diplomatic response, but the Pistons were 24-30 with Iverson in the lineup and 8-9 without him. It’s not like they morphed into the ’86 Celtics, in other words, but the Detroit of Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace is one that the current C’s certainly respect.

Tony Allen returns

04.03.09 at 7:59 pm ET
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With three minutes to go in the first quarter, Tony Allen took the court for the first time since February 8. Allen had been rehabbing from torn ligaments in his thumb that he suffered in practice. He was cleared to play on Wednesday night against the Charlotte Bobcats. He made it as far as the scorer’s table but never got into the game.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Tony Allen,

More boos for Bibby

04.03.09 at 7:51 pm ET
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Nope, Celtics fans still have not forgotten about Mike Bibby’s anti-Boston comments during last season’s playoffs. I’m waiting for the boos to die down, but six minutes into the game they are going strong. The only difference, everyone forgot their Bibby face:

Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Mike Bibby,

More Twitter analysis

04.03.09 at 3:46 pm ET
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There is no ignoring the speculation and discussions surrounding Twitter. This week we posed the question of the Celtics, To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Today Athlete Interactive, an online sports marketing company, analyzed the implications of professional athletes using the social networking site:

“It’€™s not difficult to imagine any number of scenarios where an athlete’€™s instant access to the world backfires because of bad judgment or a simple mistweet: an athlete tweets a prediction that fails to come to pass; an athlete tweets during a game that he later is responsible for losing; an athlete tweets something he fails to recognize as offensive, and in seconds, irrevocably undoes years of work.”

Athlete Interactive represents Paul Pierce and Tyson Chandler, both who actively Tweet. Click here for the full article.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Paul Pierce, Twitter,

UConn can and will… Trags Take

04.03.09 at 3:03 pm ET
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National semifinal-Michigan State (30-6) vs. Connecticut (31-4), 6:07 p.m. ET, CBS-TV.

For a team that is a No. 2 seed playing on its virtual home court, the Michigan State Spartans sure seem like a considerable underdog against Connecticut in Saturday’s first national semifinal at Ford Field in Detroit. There’s good reason.

Michigan State fans, coaches and players need to travel just 85 miles to get to its destination on Saturday evening. And when they get there, there will be a tremendously gifted and motivated team that awaits them.

Back on Feb. 1, when they lost at home to eventual NIT champ Penn State, it seemed a lot longer than 85 miles to Destination Detroit. But this team is coached by Tom Izzo and he never lets his team lose focus or confidence. And he didn’t this time either. They regrouped and, except for a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals, the Spartans have been on a mission, winning 10 of their last 11 and playing their best basketball in the NCAAs, reaching the Final Four for the fifth time in 11 seasons.

Their opponent, the Connecticut Huskies haven’t been short on storylines. But certainly, thanks to some ace journalism from Yahoo!, it’s been the wrong kind. Coach Jim Calhoun is once again the lightning rod of a program that is back to the Final Four for the third time since 1999. The last two trips have resulted in titles.

The tournament for UConn began with their coach in a Philadelphia hospital and continued the next weekend with allegations of serious recruiting violations. But the Huskies aren’t playing like there’s another shoe to drop. They’ve taken care of business, playing like a family that has come together in the worst of times. Throw in the best talent this side of Chapel Hill and you have a practically unbeatable combination. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Connecticut, March Madness, Michigan State,
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