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Magic drama and the Celtics postseason 04.05.12 at 3:35 pm ET
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Magic coach Stan Van Gundy blew the lid off the simmering tensions in Orlando on Thursday when he told reporters that management had informed him that star center Dwight Howard wanted him fired at the end of the year.

Or as Howard Beck from the New York Times put it:

“A well-placed Orlando Magic source claims Dwight Howard has asked the team to fire Coach Stan Van Gundy. The well-placed source? Stan Van Gundy.”

What followed was a revealing, and then awkward press conference. “It’s 12:02 right now,” Van Gundy said. “If they want to fire me at 12:05 I’ll go home and find something to do. I’ll have a good day.”

Then Howard appeared, apparently unaware of what his coach had just said. Some awkward small talk ensues and it’s clear that Howard still doesn’t know what just happened, setting up the walk-off line as Van Gundy throws Howard to the wolves: “Are you guys done with me? You can talk to him now.”

Various players have already spoken on, and off the record, in support for Van Gundy yielding a giant mess for a team that as of last week seemed fairly secure in the third spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But the Magic have lost four straight and been passed by the Pacers in the standings.

That leaves them in fifth for the moment, opposite of where the Celtics are sitting as the fourth seed. (An important note: Winning the Atlantic Division doesn’t guarantee homecourt advantage in the first round. If the fifth seed has a better record — like the Magic do know — they would get homecourt in the series.)

Regardless, the Celtics playoff positioning is a tenuous thing. They have a game and a half lead on the slumping Sixers for first place in the Atlantic Division, but also are in the middle of facing their toughest stretch of games against quality opponents. They could finish anywhere from third to seventh.

Here’s how the standings look at the moment:

3. Indiana 33-21
4. Boston 30-23
5. Orlando 32-22
6. Atlanta 32-23
7. Philly 29-25

Here’s how they look simply by record with Games Behind noted after record:

Indiana 33-21   —
Orlando 32-22   1
Atlanta 32-23   1.5
Boston 30-23   2
Philly 29-25     3.5

The Celtics play all four of those teams once and the Hawks twice, which will set up a frantic race to the finish.

Read More: Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy,
Fast Break: Celtics can’t finish against Spurs 04.04.12 at 9:44 pm ET
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Maybe they won’t meet in the finals — although with the way this season has gone, who can tell for sure — but the Celtics and Spurs put on an exciting show at the Garden on Wednesday. They played the first half at a breakneck pace, but settled in for an old fashioned defensive slugfest in the second.

The Celtics lost, 87-86, which snapped their five-game winning streak, but they remained one game ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division after the Sixers lost by 21 points at home against the Raptors.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

The new sixth man is Avery Bradley: There will be much made of Doc Rivers‘ decision to keep Ray Allen in the starting lineup and this game will only add fuel to the fire. Allen was understandably rusty in his first game back from his ankle injury, Bradley, however, showed no ill effects coming off the bench, scoring 13 points in the first half on 6-for-11 shooting and holding Manu Ginobli to just two points and two shots.

For all the talk about whether Allen would make a good sixth man, it looks like the job belongs to Bradley. He was on the floor with the other four starters (minus Brandon Bass) is crunch time.

Rajon Rondo outplayed Tony Parker: On a night when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce struggled, it was Rondo who carried the load with 17 points and 11 assists. You can make a very good case that Parker has been the Spurs’ best player this season and Rondo outplayed him.

The defense didn’t always rest: After getting torched for 59 points in the first half, the Celtics’ defense tightened up in the third quarter, allowing just nine points on 4-for-20 shooting. They weren’t much better offensively — scoring just 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting — but their defense allowed them to get back in the game.

WHAT WENT WRONG

So that’s what a good bench looks like: Before the game, Rivers noted that the Celtics were facing the teams with what he believes are the two best reserve units in the league: San Antonio and Chicago. The Spurs opened up a 17-point lead in the second quarter, thanks to 11-for-13 shooting. The kicker was that Ginobli didn’t do much that quarter. It was Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Stephen Jackson who did the damage.

Not one for The Big Three museum: Pierce had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, but his contested mid-range jumper fell short. This was a familiar reprieve in the second half as Pierce had several chances to put the Celtics ahead but couldn’t finish. Garnett shot just 7-for-19 and had a bad turnover late in the game. In his first game back, Allen was just 2-for-6, although he did hit a huge 3-pointer late. Combined, the veteran All-Stars shot less than 40 percent (16-for-41) .

Free throw issues: The Celtics didn’t get to the line very much with just 13 attempts, which was fine because they didn’t shoot them very well, making just six.

Paul Pierce is playing his best basketball of the season 04.02.12 at 3:15 pm ET
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UPDATE: Just after this story was posted, Paul Pierce was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

Now that the Celtics have returned to the public conscious, the first thing everyone wants to know is when did they begin to turn it around? That one’s easy. It was the second half of the Oklahoma City game right before the All-Star break when Doc Rivers made a few decisions and the players made a vow to play better in the second half.

The Celtics have gone 15-5 since the All-Star break and have vaulted into first place in the Atlantic Division and re-emerged as the proverbial team no one wants to face in the playoffs.

There are many reasons for their turnaround, but two have been given the most attention. First, Rivers moved Kevin Garnett to center and inserted Brandon Bass into the starting lineup. Second, he decided to shorten the rotation, which essentially meant not playing rookies.

The first move worked flawlessly, the second move has required some adjusting on the fly. It’s important to remember that Greg Stiemsma wasn’t a part of the first nine-man system that Rivers employed. The role of first big off the bench belonged to Chris Wilcox and Stiemsma’s role only became more prominent after a physical turned up cardiac issues for Wilcox that required surgery. Additionally, Keyon Dooling has risen from the ashes to become an incredibly solid third guard at a time when they are without Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus.

There’s also been the play of Rajon Rondo, who has performed much better this March than last season. Like last year, Rondo has been shooting less in the second half of the season, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been as active. He has recorded double-digit assists in each of their last 13 games and cut his turnovers down dramatically. He also showed on Sunday that when the situation calls for it, he can elevate his game. That wasn’t always the case last season.

For all that, one of the biggest reasons for the Celtics’ turnaround remains largely ignored. Paul Pierce is playing his best basketball of the season.

Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Paul Pierce,
Celtics notebook: The lure of passing 03.31.12 at 9:23 am ET
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When Ryan Hollins arrived in Boston, he had something he wanted to tell coach Doc Rivers.

“I appreciate the way you guys play,” Hollins said. “It’€™s unselfish, no one cares about the points and you guys play to win. You don’€™t see that in the NBA. If Kevin [Garnett] has five points and 13 rebounds and we win, he’€™s excited. If [Rajon] Rondo has zero points and 15 assists, he’€™s excited. You don’€™t see that. I really appreciate that about the team.”

Hollins has already benefited from the passing culture. He and Rondo have hooked up for three alley-oops in the last two games and his eyes lit up when asked about playing with the point guard.

“I love playing with Rondo,” Hollins said. “The type of player I am, I’€™m going to complement Rondo and he’€™s going to complement me. If I can be at the rim, it opens up all the other shooters. The coaching staff is on me to dive and run in transition. It opens everything up.”

Hollins has played just 28 minutes in five games with the Celtics, but his testimonial lies at the heart of what has helped make the Celtics successful again. Their offensive problems have been well documented but here are the gritty numbers:

They rank 26th in points per 100 possessions, just ahead of New Orleans and just behind Toronto, 28th in free throw attempts and dead last in offensive rebounding. They’re ninth in 3-point shooting percentage, but just 23rd in attempts. While they have been making an effort to push the pace since the All-Star break, they do the majority of their scoring in the halfcourt via jump shots.

While Paul Pierce is still capable as a shot-creator and Rondo can open up space, the Celtics rely on passing and ball movement for open shots. More than 67 percent of their made baskets come off assists — the highest rate in the league — and while Rondo racks up assists, the commitment is team-wide. Pierce averages five assists per game and Garnett’s passing from the high and low post remains a unique facet of his game.

It’s a trait that’s not only contagious, it’s passed along to the new players.

“Great passer,” Avery Bradley said of Garnett. “He teaches Brandon [Bass]. When we’€™re watching film, passes that he makes. That just shows what kind of teammate Kevin is, because somebody could be like, nah I don’€™t want to tell him to help him get better, but Kevin is constantly trying to help everybody get better.”

Wait, no-pass Bass? Yes, no-pass Bass too. The shoot-first forward has a higher assist rate than at any other time in his career. (The Celtics are more than happy with Bass’ play, by the way. They want him to take his shots and he turns it over far less than the other starters, which shows a player who understands his game and his role.)

One of the primary appeals for the Celtics in free agency is the culture they’ve developed over the last five seasons that celebrates winning over individual numbers. That may not be enough to lure the top free agents, but it will surely attract some players.

SPEAKING OF THE FUTURE Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo
Fast Break: Celtics all alone in first place 03.30.12 at 10:22 pm ET
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You’ll have to excuse the Celtics if they never want March to end. After a 100-79 win in Minnesota on Friday night, they capped off the month with a 12-5 record and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division after the 76ers inexplicably lost by 21 points at Washington.

The Celtics are hitting their stride and playing their best basketball of the season. Their timing couldn’t be better with a brutal week on tap that starts Sunday with a game against the Heat and features the Spurs, Bulls, Pacers and Sixers.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Avery Bradley, scoring machine: The Celtics found out before the game that Ray Allen would miss his fifth straight contest with a sprained ankle, but the Celtics haven’t missed Allen nearly as much as they thought they would. Since moving into the starting lineup, Bradley has scored 60 points in four games. He had 14 in the first half on 5-for-6 shooting that once again included backcuts and open jump shots.

Rajon Rondo, assisting machine: The last time Rondo took 10 shots in a game was a week and a half ago against Atlanta. Since then he’s racked up 86 assists. He had 12 in the first half, and no turnovers. This was the 12 straight game that Rondo has recorded double-digit assists.

Kevin Garnett, simply a machine: There was some talk in Minnesota that the home crowd should boo Garnett after he said on Wednesday that he had no feelings for the Timberwolves organization. That’s an odd reaction considering everything Garnett gave the franchise during his 12 seasons there, but there was much anticipation for his return, especially considering the way Kevin Love has put himself into the MVP discussion recently. This was no contest.

Garnett got the better of the matchup from the opening tip and scored 24 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 10 rebounds. Love, meanwhile, went for 22 and 11 but shot only 5-for-18 from the floor.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Is this a trick question? Nothing went wrong in a game the Celtics led from the opening minutes. It was one of their most complete road victories of the season.

Should the Celtics play for seeding? 03.30.12 at 12:39 am ET
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It has taken them 50 games and more than three quarters of the season, but the Celtics and Philadelphia are tied atop the Atlantic Division with identical 28-22 records. In order to catch the Sixers, who own the tiebreaker, the Celtics had to go 13-5 since the All-Star break. Philly has been a .500 team at 8-8 over that same span.

There’s no doubt that the Celtics have hit their stride since coach Doc Rivers moved Kevin Garnett to center and shortened his rotation, but there is some doubt as to whether they can sustain that pace during a brutal final month of the season.

Nine of their final 16 games are on the road, and 13 of those are against playoff teams, or teams still in contention for a playoff spot (Minnesota and Milwaukee). They play the Heat three times and the Hawks twice, in addition to the Spurs, Magic, Sixers and the Bulls and Pacers on the road. There are four sets of back-to-backs and one three-in-three.

The good news for that three games in three-night stretch is they come against Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte. The bad news is they are all on the road.

Rivers wanted to push his team to play for a better seed last season, but after an uneven March he changed direction and settled for the third seed after Miami and Chicago blew by them in the standings. This season is a little more unsettled.

“At the end of the day if it comes down to seeding or health, I’€™m going to choose health,” Rivers said before the Celtics played Utah on Wednesday. “You would rather have a better seed, but you can go wherever you want, if you’€™re not healthy it’€™s not going to matter, especially with us. It’€™s an interesting thing.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The Celtics are in first place, can they stay there? 03.26.12 at 11:38 pm ET
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On Jan. 20, the Celtics scored 71 points in a home loss to Phoenix that put their record at 5-9. A month later, they capped off a road trip from hell with a 15-point loss to Oklahoma City that left this proud team talking about moral victories. That’€™s how sub .500 teams talk, which is what they were, lugging a 15-17 mark into the All-Star break.

A month after that, they’€™re in first place after beating the Bobcats, 102-95. The Sixers hold the tiebreaker, so technically the Celtics still have a game to make up on Philadelphia, but the accomplishment is still worth acknowledging. Did anyone really see this coming?

This is a team that showed up out of shape with a makeshift roster constructed for the main purpose of not being here after this season. They’€™ve had two five-game losing streaks ‘€“ the first time that’€™s ever happened in the Big 3 era — and they lost two crucial players to heart conditions, their starting center to season-ending wrist surgery and just had another get carted off the court in a stretcher.

The last two nights they have been without Ray Allen, as well as his primary backup and invaluable role player in Mickael Pietrus. Sure, they played the Wizards and Bobcats, the two worst teams in the league, but the victories all count the same and for the Celtics to remain in the mix for the division race, these are the game they have to win.

They are 8-14 against teams with winning records this season and more than a third of their 27 wins have come against four teams: Washington, Charlotte, Toronto and New Jersey.

In April, they play 15 games in 26 days with 12 of them against teams who are competing for the playoffs. The other three are on the road on back-to-back-to-back nights. Beginning on Sunday when they host Miami, the Celtics will play the following schedule in eleven days:

Miami, San Antonio, at Chicago, at Indiana, Philadelphia, at Miami (again) and Atlanta. Then they play Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte in consecutive days.

If they are still in first place after all that, then that will really be an accomplishment because winning the division — so often an afterthought over the last four years — takes on added importance this season. The reward is a fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The alternative will likely be the seventh seed and a first round matchup with the Heat.

Still, the Celtics have reason to feel good about themselves. They’€™ve won 12 of 17 games since the All-Star break and they continue to survive whatever obstacle is put in their way. Whether it was the loss of Chris Wilcox, the eight-game road trip, the trade deadline, the lack of big men depth without Wilcox and Jermaine O’€™Neal and the frightening Pietrus incident, the Celtics have persevered.

Much of the credit belongs to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who have stepped forward in the second half of the season and carried the team. Pierce scored a season-high 36 points against the Bobcats and he’€™s been playing like the middle of the season Pierce again. In his last four games, he’€™s scored 102 points and grabbed 38 rebounds.

Garnett continues his amazing renaissance as the team’€™s center. He took 20 shots against Charlotte ‘€“ on the second night of a back-to-back ‘€“ and it’€™s suddenly not a stretch to think he could be the team’€™s center for the next two years if that’€™s what he wanted to do.

This season has not been about growth or cohesion. It’€™s been about survival and on March 27, they can finally look at the standings in their division and see their names on the top line. In many ways, the hard part is just beginning.

Read More: Kevin Garnett, Mickael Pietrus, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen
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