|Down the stretch: How the Hawks and Celtics schedules play out||04.15.12 at 10:07 am ET|
It’s looking more and more likely that the Celtics will play Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
With the C’s closing in on the Atlantic Division title, they are guaranteed to be no lower than the fourth seed. The Hawks, meanwhile, have a one-game lead on Orlando for fifth and the Magic will be without center Dwight Howard for the next 10-14 days with a herniated disk in his back.
Entering play on Sunday, the Celtics (35-25) are a game back of Atlanta (35-24) in the loss column, thanks to their brutal loss to Toronto on Friday night. If the Hawks finish with a better record, they would get homecourt advantage in the first round. If the two teams are tied, the Celtics would own the tiebeaker by virtue of their winning the Atlantic Division.
With that in mind, here’s how their respective schedules play out:
Sunday: At Charlotte
Tuesday: At New York
Friday: At Atlanta
Tue. April 24: Miami
Thur. April 26: Milwaukee
Monday: At Toronto
Sunday: New York
Tue. April 24: Clippers
Thur. April 26 Dallas
Two things stand out. One, the Hawks play six of their seven games at home where they are 19-8. Second, this Friday’s game in Atlanta is shaping up to be extremely important. The Celtics have won both meetings this season but only by a total of five points.
|Fast Break: Celtics survive Hawks in overtime||04.11.12 at 10:48 pm ET|
This was a perfect set-up for the Hawks. The Celtics were playing their fourth game in five nights, while Atlanta had been off since Saturday. If ever there was a night for the Celtics to act their age, this was it.
At times they did. They committed 23 turnovers, many of them unforced, and trailed by eight points at the half. But the Celtics fought back. Coach Doc Rivers keeps talking about how much he loves his team’s resolve and it was on display throughout the game.
Kevin Garnett scored 22 points and had 12 rebounds before fouling out and Rajon Rondo recorded his sixth triple double of the season with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 20 assists as the Celtics survived in overtime, 88-86.
The victory has all kinds of playoff implications as the Celtics moved into a tie with the Hawks at 34-24. But beyond that, it was further validation that they still have more fight left in them.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Mickael Pietrus returned: You can’t overestimate the importance of Pietrus on the Celtics down the stretch and in the playoffs. His versatility, especially defensively, will be a key factor as matchups dominate postseason play. On a deeper level, Pietrus’ return was a welcome sight for a team that has endured its share of catastrophic injuries.
“I was laid out for two weeks,” Pietrus said before the game. “I couldn’t do much. I was trying to rest my brain. I could not watch TV. I could not do anything basically. It’s not like an injury that you hurt your knee, you hurt your ankle, it’s your brain. You’ve got to get your brain right. To be honest with you, I was thinking about my kids. I was thinking about my life. That could have been a different story for me. Today, I’m young, I still got my smile. I enjoy life. When I fell I was thinking more about my kids.”
Oh, and he scored eight points to go with six rebounds in 28 minutes and nailed a 3-pointer that gave them the lead early in the fourth quarter.
Rondo the magnificent: A lot of attention has been paid to the point guard’s streak of double-digit assist games, which reached 19 against the Hawks. But not enough attention is being paid to the floor games that Rondo is having. He’s got everyone on a string and is making the right decisions more often than not. Yes, he had another triple double — his sixth of the season — but there was so much more to Rondo’s game than just his bizarre numbers: 10 points on 3-for-16 shooting, 10 rebounds and 20 assists.
Brandon Bass had another productive night: Don’t sleep on Bass who once again did his thing with 21 points, 10 rebounds and a huge basket down the stretch. He’s been finishing better at the rim and is attacking the offensive glass again. Bass also guarded Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia, which allowed Garnett to take Josh Smith.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Second quarter breakdown: After a rousing 12 minutes in which the Celtics shot 64 percent (13-for-19), they followed it up by missing 14 of 19 shots in the second (26.3 percent). They also had six turnovers and the bench was outscored 13-3. Rivers ran through nine different players in the first half, but he received little support from the bench.
The calls did not go their way: The Celtics had four straight controversial calls go against them in overtime. They won anyway. That’s the mark of a veteran team.
Ray Allen missed another game because of his ankle: While the Celtics were thrilled to get Pietrus back, there has to be come concern over Allen’s absence. Rivers said he expects Allen will be able to travel to Toronto on Friday when the Celtics begin a stretch of three road games in three days.
|Kevin Garnett’s unusual shot patterns||04.11.12 at 3:27 pm ET|
Everyone knows that Kevin Garnett is one of the best long-range shooting big men in the league. He’s made 48 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet this season, which is pretty much what he’s done every season since he’s been in Boston. Garnett ranks third in field goal percentage from that distance among power forwards (where he’s still listed on HoopData) behind only Dirk Nowitzki and teammate Brandon Bass.
Garnett’s not a power forward anymore, technically. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it perfectly when his team was in town last week. “You can pigeonhole him if you want to,” Popovich said. “He’s Kevin. He does what he does.”
With the emergence of Greg Stiemsma as a legitimate backup center, Garnett has been playing more four recently, but for all intents of purposes he’s a center now. Yet he hasn’t changed his game that much. He still guards fours and fives depending on the matchup and he’s still taking those jumpers.
What has changed is the opponents’ having to match up with two jump shooting bigs in Garnett and Bass. That draws the defense away from the basket and creates openings for Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce to work a pick and pops with Garnett and Bass, or allow Avery Bradley room to cut to the basket. Garnett, who is the second-best passer on the team after Rondo, has hooked up with Bradley on a number of occasions.
On his CourtVision blog, Kirk Goldsberry took the time to chart where Garnett actually shoots from and the data offers and interesting look into Garnett’s shot selection. For example, he’s more effective when shooting long range jumpers from the left side toward the basket, but he’s better everywhere else on the right side: deep corners, midrange and on the block. Against the Heat on Tuesday, he took seven shots shots from the right side, four from the left and three at the rim, while making 11-of-14.
Doc Rivers said after the game that his team was doing a good job of keeping things simple, but within that tight structure Garnett is free to move around from side to side and keep things fresh.
The Celtics have had trouble scoring points this season — they shot all the way to 26th in points per possession after dropping 115 on the Heat — but they have been in a decent rhythm lately. In six of their last nine games, they’ve scored at an above-average rate (at least for them ) and have recorded three of their most efficient games in that stretch against Minnesota, Philadelphia and Miami on Tuesday.
Garnett’s role in the offense is a piece of a larger whole, but it’s taken on an increased importance down the stretch. He’s averaging better than 15 shots per game over the last 10 and making better than 50 percent of them while taking on a larger work load. As the playoffs draw close, Garnett is adjusting quite well to his position change, and his increased role in the offense.
|Should the Heat be worried about the Celtics?||04.10.12 at 2:14 pm ET|
As things sit currently in the jumbled Eastern Conference, the Celtics are holding the fourth seed, which would put them in the Bulls’ bracket. They have a three-game lead on Philadelphia and New York with 10 games to play and while nothing is assured for the Celtics, it’s looking like a safe bet that they will walk away with the Atlantic Division title for the fifth straight season, thus landing the fourth seed, as opposed to the seventh.
(Note: Winning the division does not guarantee homecourt advantage in the first round. The Celtics would still have to finish with a better record than the fifth seed and they enter play on Tuesday a game and a half behind Atlanta and Orlando.)
There’s a chance that Miami, which is just one game back in the loss column, could overtake Chicago for the top spot in the conference and set up a rematch of last season’s semifinal series that the Heat won rather convincingly, 4-1. The Celtics felt then — and feel now — that if not for a couple of bad breaks like Paul Pierce‘s dubious ejection in Game 1 and Rajon Rondo‘s elbow injury in Game 3, they could have made it a much tougher series. Still, four games to one speaks for itself.
And yet, there’s a feeling that the Heat should be afraid of the Celtics in the playoffs for the simple reason of matchups. Miami has no real answer for Rondo, who was brilliant in Boston’s 91-72 victory a week and a half ago when he went for 16 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists and was a plus-28.
Additionally, Pierce is one of the few small forwards in the league who can hope to guard LeBron James for 40 minutes and match his production, if not come out ahead. Pierce went for 23-7-3 in their last meeting, while LeBron posted a 24-4-0. It was James’ first assist-free game since 2009.
The real revelation in the April 1 meeting was the play of Avery Bradley, who held Dwyane Wade to 6-for-17 shooting, including a memorable block at the rim. Bradley also scored an efficient 13 points on 10 shots and presented a problem with his cuts to the basket.
|Foul trouble is finding Greg Stiemsma||04.09.12 at 10:38 am ET|
Late in the third quarter of the Celtics‘ 103-79 win over Philadelphia on Sunday night, Greg Stiemsma picked up a foul when he tried to block the shot of Evan Turner. No big deal. Stiemsma fouls a lot. He commits seven fouls per 36 minutes, easily the highest rate on the team.
But the Celtics didn’t think he fouled. Doc Rivers argued the call. Kevin Garnett argued the call from his seat on the bench and Rajon Rondo ran across the court to get his two cents in with referee Tony Brothers. Their protests fell on deaf ears, as it turned out, because Stiemsma picked up two more fouls in the next 58 seconds, giving him three in less than a minute and five for the game.
“I think he’s playing great [defense],” Rivers said. “He’s a rookie, let’s just chalk it up to that. He feels like the picked-on one every night. I try to explain to all those guys, if it can go to three of your guys and you’re a ref, you’re going to say, ‘Should I give it to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen? I’m going to give it to Stiemer.’ That’s how you feel a lot with him. No fun to be in that position, but that’s where he’s at.”
Rivers was being diplomatic, but now that Stiemsma has emerged as the top big man off the bench and a 20-minute a night player, the Celtics need to get the word out that the big rookie can play defense. More importantly, they need to get out the word that Stiemsma can play defense without fouling.
Also diplomatically, Stiemsma said it was on him.
“You’ve got to clean it up, plain and simple,” Stiemsma said. “You got to limit contact and be in the right position. That’s probably the biggest thing. If I’m out of position in any way it’s going to look like a foul, whether it is or not.”
Over the last seven games, Stiemsma has fouled out twice and been called for five fouls in three different games. In all, he’s been tagged for 30 fouls in those seven games, and that includes a game without a personal against the Spurs. He’s also blocked 15 shots in that time span, which is part of the issue.
“The instinct is if I’m going to be late, if I can get there a half-step quicker or maybe just jump a little more straight up,” he said. “Maybe not try to block everything, maybe just alter some stuff, get in the way sometimes. I’m really trying to work on positioning. With a guy like Kevin to show you the way, to really be in the right spot all the time, you couldn’t ask for a better teacher. Be in the right position, then the blocks will come.”
This has been a fairly incredible season for the 26-year-old veteran of Europe and the D-League. He made the team on a non-guaranteed contract and emerged as an unlikely bench savior at a time of great need. He’s gone from a curiosity to a legitimate player, and if the Celtics wind up playing Orlando, Indiana or Chicago in the playoffs, he’ll be an extremely important player. He just needs to be able to stay on the court.
|Fast Break: Celtics deliver the knockout punch||04.08.12 at 8:18 pm ET|
“I can imagine right now that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and these guys are in there right now saying let’s deliver the knockout punch today. This game, I think they feel like, if they beat us they can knock us out.” — Philadelphia coach Doug Collins an hour before tip-off.
The Celtics didn’t win the Atlantic Division on Sunday with a 103-79 blowout win over the 76ers, but they did deliver a decisive blow to their reeling rivals. Whether Philly gets up off the mat is up to them, but with two and a half weeks left in the regular season the Celtics suddenly have a three-game lead in the division and the Sixers are tied for the final playoff spot with the Knicks, just a game ahead of the Bucks.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Ray Allen as the microwave: For most of the season the first four minutes of the second quarter have been a time for Celtics fans to make a sandwich, pay some bills or maybe change the oil in the car. Anything but watch them struggle through ugly, scoreless basketball. That’s changed now that Ray Allen is doing his work off the bench. Allen scored eight points in his first nine minutes of playing time on 3-for-4 shooting and the lineup of Allen and Kevin Garnett along with Avery Bradley, Sasha Pavlovic and Greg Stiemsma outscored Philly 17-4 through the first six minutes of the quarter.
Offensive balance: Garnett, Bradley, Allen, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass all took between nine and 12 shots and all five players scored in double figures. Combined, they shot 33-for-54 and scored 85 points, outscoring the Sixers in their time on the floor.
Second half Rondo: Rajon Rondo did not have a very good first half. He took only two shots and his six assists were offset by five turnovers. It was the passive Rondo, as opposed to the locked-in player we’ve seen over the last month. The third quarter was a totally different story. Just after a pass to no one that seemed to indicate more of the same, Rondo took it upon himself to drain fallaway jumpers with the shot clock running down from opposite sides of the court. He had nine assists and zero turnovers in the quarter and the Celtics scored 34 points on one of the best defenses in the league.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Turnovers: The one thing the Celtics said they couldn’t do against Philadelphia was turn the ball over. So, naturally they turned it over five times in the first quarter. That was the only thing that kept Philly in the game because when they weren’t turning it over, the Celtics were shooting 65 percent (11-for-17) in the first quarter.
Foul trouble for the Stiemer: His third foul came on what appeared to be a clean block in the third quarter. His fourth came a few seconds later and his fifth followed shortly after that. After the block, Garnett jumped off the bench to protest the call. Rondo raced over to referee Tony Brothers to also voice his displeasure. There’s a method here. The Celtics have two and half weeks to convince the refs that Stiemsma can play defense without fouling. They need him on the court in the playoffs.
|Fast Break: Celtics run out of gas in Chicago||04.06.12 at 12:19 am ET|
It’s a make/miss league as Doc Rivers is fond of saying on occasion when analysis breaks down and all you can do is shake your head. The Celtics made the Bulls miss a lot in the first half of their game on Thursday night, but it was a different story in the second.
With the game in the balance, Chicago’s John Lucas III drained a 30-footer with the shot clock running down. Shortly after that, Luol Deng double-clutched a jumper, but it fell anyway. The Celtics had a chance to cut a fourth quarter lead to two points, but Kevin Garnett‘s layup rimmed in and out.
The Celtics competed hard on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their best effort in Chicago since Tom Thibodeau took over as head coach, but it wasn’t enough in a 93-86 loss. They remain a game ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division with a showdown looming on Sunday, but they lost a valuable chance to put some distance on the Sixers and pick up ground on the reeling Magic.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Avery as a starter: Rivers told the TNT broadcast that it was Ray Allen‘s idea to come off the bench and insert Avery Bradley into the starting lineup. This is how you handle a potentially awkward move. With Allen’s blessing, the Celtics can play the best lineup they’ve had all season. The word “classy” will be used a lot — especially in light of the dysfunction in Orlando — but the real word here is “professional,” and both Rivers and Allen have exuded that during this transition.
Allen as a reserve: On a night when Bradley dealt with foul trouble, Allen was able to score 14 points off the bench. It wasn’t vintage Allen, but you can see his timing starting to return.
The defense has been insane: After a first half in which the Bulls scored 38 points and made just 12-of-35 shots, the Celtics played four quarters where they allowed just 66 points to two of the top four teams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency. Then the third quarter happened and the Celtics gave up 29 points. Still, that four-quarter run was the best sustained defensive effort they’ve had this year.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Kevin Garnett is searching for his shot: As consistent as he’s been, Garnett will go through minor shooting slumps like he’s having right now. Over the last three games he’s 17-for-47 and seems to be aiming, or short-rimming his outside jumper. It could be an indication of tired legs or fatigue and that’s to be expected at this point in the season.
Breaking news: The Celtics have rebounding issues: This is why the Bulls matchup is so tough for them: With their big, deep and athletic frontline, the Celtics have a hard time finding bodies to bang down low. They stayed with them on the boards for a half, but surrendered 14 offensive rebounds, and that remains their Achilles heel.
The bench didn’t produce: It’s going to take some time to work Allen into the rotation and find some rhythm, but the sooner the better because the Celtics bench needs a lift. They’ve done admirable work without several key players, but on a night when Garnett was struggling, the bench offered little help. Greg Stiemsma picked up three quick fouls, Ryan Hollins had two points and no rebounds in 12 minutes and Keyon Dooling and Sasha Pavlovic didn’t record any shot attempts.