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Getting the point: Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore 02.01.12 at 1:13 am ET
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Avery Bradley

When Rajon Rondo went down with a sprained right wrist late in the third quarter against the Raptors, those that have been predicting the Celtics’ imminent demise sensed the end creeping ever closer. How would the Celtics survive without their only true shot-creator and undoubtedly their best player this season?

Amazingly, the Celtics have not only survived, they’ve prospered, winning five of seven games to reach the .500 mark and rattling off their three most impressive wins of the season: beating the Magic twice and the Pacers on a second night of a back-to-back.

The most obvious reason for their success has been the reinvigorated play of Paul Pierce. After dropping 20 points on the Cavs in a tighter-than-it-needed-to-be-but-still-a-win performance on Thursday, Pierce has scored 155 points in the seven games without Rondo and also has 52 assists. Pierce has taken over the playmaker role and his game returned from the lockout ether at just the right time.

Offensively, the Celtics have been winning games almost in spite of Rondo’s replacements at the point: Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore. The young guards often bring the ball up the floor and make the first pass, but it’s been either Pierce or Kevin Garnett in the high post who then initiate the offensive sets. That formula has worked well enough for the Celtics who have generally played to their offensive efficiency of 98.9 points per 100 possessions.

Bradley and Moore have also had their moments offensively. Over the last four games, Moore has made 11-of-18 shots and gone 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Moore has been steady, if unspectacular, at the point with 10 assists and eight turnovers and has quickly gained the trust of the coaching staff, as well as his teammates.

Like Moore, Bradley has mostly kept his turnovers down. Eleven of his 15 turnovers during this stretch of games came in two contests. Limiting turnovers is no small thing for a team that has struggled mightily throughout the season in that regard.

Bradley has had success scoring at the rim where he’s shooting 64 percent. Against the Cavs, Bradley was able to duck in for layups and also had a strong move working across the lane. He has the athleticism to finish inside and is starting to figure out that he can’t bull-rush taller defenders. Where Bradley has struggled is with his jump shot. He’s made just 10-of-28 shots from 16-23 feet this season and is just 1-for-11 from 3-point range.

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Fast Break: Celtics let one get away 01.29.12 at 8:22 pm ET
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The Celtics had the game well in hand and then, everything fell apart. They went scoreless for the final four and a half minutes and rookie guard Kyrie Irving sliced through the defense for a layup with 2.6 seconds left to give the Cavaliers an 88-87 win. Paul Pierce missed a shot jumper at the buzzer.

The loss snapped the Celtics four-game winning streak and was easily one of their worst of the season. The two teams are back in action again on Tuesday in Cleveland.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The Cavs took advantage of Jermaine O’Neal‘s absence by attacking the paint at every opportunity. Sixteen of their first 19 points were scored in the paint and they finished with 54 for the game. Anderson Varejao had his way with the Celtics’ bigs and Irving was able to penetrate at will.

– Irving took Avery Bradley apart, scoring 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting.

– At times the Celtics were careful with the ball. At others — such as in the second quarter when they turned it over seven times — they were careless. When they kept the turnovers at a minimum, the Cavs couldn’t stop them.

– The Celtics reserves were outscored 30-14.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Ray Allen returned to the lineup and the Big Three were once again whole. They scored 50 of the Celtics’ 70 points through the first three quarters and made 20-of-29 shots. Allen finished with 22 points, but missed a layup that would have given the Celtics a nine-point lead. That’s when the Cavs made their run.

– Paul Pierce had another strong all-around game with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.

– The Celtics almost won this game with offense. They shot 52 percent and had assists on eight of their 10 made shots in the first quarter. They couldn’t keep up the pace, but it was one of their best extended stretches of passing this season.

– The bench didn’t have a strong game (see below), but they were able to maintain a lead in the fourth quarter while Pierce and Garnett were able to rest. Sasha Pavlovic made two big shots including a baseline dunk.

Fast Break: Comeback Celtics stun Magic 01.26.12 at 10:55 pm ET
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There was no reason to think that the Celtics had any chance of coming back in a game when they were down by 27 points and playing without three starters. But the Celtics slowly began to chip away at Orlando’s lead in the second half and late in the third quarter, E’Twaun Moore caught fire knocking down three 3-pointers as the Celtics rallied all the way back for a 91-83 win in Orlando.

Paul Pierce led the way with 24 points, 10 assists and six rebounds and Kevin Garnett added 12 points and 10 rebounds. The Celtics got a huge lift from Moore and Mickael Pietrus, who combined for 28 points and seven 3-pointers, making up for the absence of Ray Allen.

They were also missing Rajon Rondo and Jermaine O’Neal, which meant that Garnett had to play Dwight Howard and the veteran held the All-NBA center in check. Orlando did not score a field goal until more than halfway through the fourth quarter and picked up two fourth quarter technicals, which helped seal their fate.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Moore, the rookie from Purdue, simply played out of his mind, making all four of his 3-point shots and finishing with 16 points. The Celtics have loved his aggressiveness and on Thursday night that translated into much-needed points.

– Slowly but surely, Garnett’s game has been coming back together. He’s scored in double figures in seven straight games and his defense has been tremendous. Garnett played Howard as well as you could ask and was one of the few players who brought anything to the table offensively in the first half.

Mickael Pietrus started for Allen and at least approximated Allen’s 3-point shooting, knocking down three of them and finishing with 12 points.

Chris Wilcox didn’t do much in the box score but his activity and energy on defense was a huge lift in the fourth quarter.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– It was almost a gift for the Celtics when Howard got two quick fouls and jumped out to an 8-2 lead. But when Howard left, the Celtics didn’t attack the basket and instead were content to fire up off-target jumpers. The Magic outscored them 30-8 the rest of the first quarter and put them in a deep hole.

Greg Stiemsma picked up four fouls in only seven minutes in the first half and he and Wilcox contributed no points and one rebound in 15 minutes. Since his breakout game against Washington on New Year’s Day, Stiemsma has made just two shots and scored only six points.

Five restricted free agents for Celtics to consider 01.26.12 at 1:31 am ET
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Eric Gordon will be a restricted free agent this summer. Will the Celtics be interested? (AP)

On Wednesday, Minnesota forward Kevin Love signed a four-year extension that could be worth up to $60 million. Love didn’t get the five-year max offer that he was seeking from Minnesota, but he may have gained something more valuable: control over his future. Love can opt out after three years, which would make him an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season at the same time Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams will be finishing their rookie deals, as well as coach Rick Adelman, who is also signed through the 2015 season.

Why the Timberwolves didn’t lock up the 23-year-old double-double machine when he wanted to sign on for the long-term is the kind of curious decision that has defined GM David Kahn‘s very curious tenure. But it does take Love off the restricted free agent market this summer and removes another potential target for the Celtics, who are positioned to have ample room under the cap after the season.

The problem with having all that cap space is there are very few worthy players to spend it on outside of Dwight Howard. Team president Danny Ainge noted last week in an appearance on The Big Show that, “My philosophy is it’s really challenging to build a team when you overpay role players before you have your stars.”

That puts Ainge in a difficult spot, but patience is the right call and for an obvious example of what not to do when cap money burns a hole in your pocket, see the Pistons, who blew up their roster when they traded Chauncey Billups and then quickly signed Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to their ever-lasting regret.

Make no mistake, the 23-year-old Love is a star and quite possibly a franchise player in the making. He’s exactly the kind of player for whom you save cap space when he does hit unrestricted free agency and thanks to the Wolves, that will now happen far sooner than it would have otherwise. But the Celtics, and everyone else, will still have to wait.

Wednesday was the deadline for players from the 2008 draft to sign extensions and in addition to Love, Denver signed Danilo Gallinari to a four-year deal. They join Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook as the other players from the draft class to sign long-term deals.

But there were several intriguing players who didn’t sign deals and will be restricted free agents this summer. While none of them are franchise players worth max money, here are five intriguing possibilities for Ainge to consider. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, Nic Batum
Paul Pierce’s breakout game 01.23.12 at 12:49 am ET
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Paul Pierce finally looked like himself in the Celtics win over the Wizards. (AP)

It would be wrong to say there were signs that Paul Pierce was ready to drop 34 points in a game the Celtics had to have. There have been flashes here and there — a 24-point effort against Oklahoma City, a pair of dunks against the Suns on Friday — but there really hasn’t been any consistent thread to Pierce’s game this season to indicate he was ready to put it all together like he did in the Celtics’100-94 win over the Wizards on Sunday.

Pierce wasn’t in shape when he came from a bruised right heel and he wasn’t in the best shape before the injury. Both things contributed to his slow start, but one season after shooting almost 50 percent from the floor, Pierce’s shooting percentage has tumbled below 39 percent and his turnovers are also higher. (One area where Pierce has remained constant is his passing. His assists are up, which is either a sign that he’s playing his way back into shape or perhaps a signal of yet another late-career adjustment for one of the modern-day masters of the art.)

He started the season slowly, but efficiently, averaging 16.5 points and over six rebounds and four rebounds in his first four games. But as the competition got tougher, Pierce’s flaws were evident. He went 3-for-17 against Indiana and followed that up with a 2-for-5 effort against Dallas and 3-for-12 shooting against Chicago. Then came two high-scoring, but uneven performances against the Pacers and Thunder and then a pair of lackluster outings against the Raptors and Suns.

All things considered, we had yet to see the Paul Pierce that we’ve grown accustomed to watching over the years. He appeared hesitant handling the ball, and like the rest of the Celtics, he’s had major difficulty scoring inside where his percentages at the rim have gone from 70 to 54 percent.

But against the Wizards — and yes, the Wizards are a bad defensive team — Pierce found his groove and all of his trademark moves were on display. He found his sweet spot, going 4-for-4 on elbow jumpers from the left side of the court. He worked the right-hand side for a pair of 3-pointers and another 20-footer. He also got to the free throw line 15 times and made 12 of his shots.

Pierce wasn’t just a scorer. He had 10 assists and helped get Kevin Garnett going in the second half, as well. Garnett made only one of four shots in the first half, but after a pick-and-pop jumper from Pierce he buried three straight attempts and finished with 17 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the second half.

The Wizards who had no one who could guard him. Rookie Chris Singleton drew the first assignment and he has potential as aa wing defender, but he’s also a rookie and Pierce took advantage of him. Rashard Lewis couldn’t keep up and Wizards coach Flip Saunders even tried guard Jordan Crawford on Pierce with predictable results.John Wall also got a turn, and when the Wizards resorted to double-teams, Pierce picked them apart.

It was an example of how much better the Celtics when just one of their Big Three have it going, especially Pierce, because he has the ability to create offense for himself and for others.

Now the question is whether he can do it again. He faces off with one of his old nemesis’ in Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglo on Monday and Pierce will have to be sharp because Rajon Rondo has missed two straight games with a sprained right wrist and Ray Allen left Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain. If either of them can’t play, let alone both, the burden on Pierce will increase.

The Celtics are 6-9 and half of their wins have come against the lowly Wizards. They haven’t proven anything yet, but Pierce’s game on Sunday was the first positive sign they’ve had since he returned.

Fast Break: The Truth sets Celtics free 01.22.12 at 3:37 pm ET
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The Celtics have been waiting for Paul Pierce to arrive, and the captain delivered on Sunday afternoon in a 100-94 road win over the Wizards. Pierce scored 34 points to go with seven rebounds and 10 assists and looked like the Pierce of old, as opposed to an old version of Paul Pierce.

While Pierce helped lead the Celtics’ best offensive performance in weeks, the team’s defense was routinely burned in transition by the younger, faster Wizards and a double-digit third quarter lead quickly evaporated. The Celtics were able to hold on down the stretch thanks to Pierce and solid games from Brandon Bass — 13 points and nine rebounds — and Kevin Garnett, who scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half.

They were once again without Rajon Rondo, who missed his second straight game with a sprained right wrist. They also lost Ray Allen to a sprained left ankle early in the second quarter. He went back to the locker room and did not return.

The Celtics had lost six of seven games heading into Sunday and are now 6-8. Half of their wins have come against Washington, but they’ll take them any way they can get them right now. They’re back in action on Monday at the Garden against the Magic as Glen Davis makes his return to Boston.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Pierce had his breakout game for the Celtics, doing a little bit of everything. His effect on his teammates was evident by his 10 assists. When the Wizards doubled him off pick and rolls he found Bass for a jumper. He also got Garnett going in the second half with solid pick-and-pop action.

– The Celtics had assists on 13 of 16 makes in the first half and had much better ball movement and spacing than in recent games. That went away in the second half as they relied on Pierce to generate their offense, but it was a positive step.

Mickael Pietrus had to play big minutes after Allen jammed his left ankle and the veteran swingman played well. He knocked down two 3-pointers, but he also went to the post and drew a foul and put the ball on the floor to create a jump shot. Pietrus also committed two bad fouls in the fourth quarter, but he played well in his first game with major minutes.

– Bass also had a solid game, scoring 13 points to go with nine rebounds. He looked much more comfortable in the Celtics’ sets and had a strong finish going through JaVale McGee.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Allen began the game making three of his first four shots as the Celtics made a concerted effort to get him off screens. But Allen jammed his left ankle early in the second quarter when he ran around a screen set by the Wizards’ Jan Vesely. There was no contact on the play. Allen went back to the locker room and did not return.

E’Twaun Moore has had his moments thus far in his rookie season, but so far that hasn’t translated into production. He’s made only one of his last 15 shots. Marquis Daniels has also struggled and beyond Bass and Pietrus, the Celtics bench has yielded few results.

Avery Bradley remains a work in progress. He took several wild shots and careened into three Wizards on the fast break and got called for a charge. Bradley had six rebounds and seven assists, but he also was 1-for-8 from the floor and 1-for-4 from the free throw line with six turnovers. Wizards guard John Wall had his way with him on the defensive end, scoring 27 points to go with 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Read More: Avery Bradley, E'Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus, Paul Pierce
Fast Break: Celtics snap losing streak, beat Raptors 01.18.12 at 9:56 pm ET
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The Celtics have been desperate for a strong start and they finally got one on Wednesday against Toronto, opening up a 21-7 lead and making nine of their first 16 shots. They rode that early lead through some rough patches in the second quarter and earned a much-needed 96-73 win over Toronto, snapping a five-game losing streak.

It wasn’t all good for the Celtics as Rajon Rondo was put on the ground by Linas Kleiza with a hard foul late in the third quarter. Rondo landed awkwardly on his right wrist and didn’t return to the game. Kleiza was originally assessed a Flagrant-2 foul on the play, but it was downgraded to a Flagrant-1 after a review.

The Celtics opened up a 29-14 lead in the first quarter and while they eventually cooled down, the Raptors didn’t have nearly enough offense to make up the ground with leading scorer Andrea Bargnani out of the lineup with a strained left calf. However the win came, the Celtics will take it. They’re back in action on Friday against the Suns.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Rajon Rondo didn’t get his first assist until the 6:01 mark of the third quarter, but it was hard to argue with his floor game. Rondo went to the basket repeatedly and made seven of his first eight shots. He also went to the free throw line seven times in the first half and made five.

Kevin Garnett came out aggressive with six points in the first four minutes and 10 points by halftime. Garnett finished with 15 points and seven rebounds and while he’s still having trouble finishing inside, this continued a run of stronger games for Garnett.

Paul Pierce only scored eight points but he had seven assists and four rebounds. With Rondo looking to score, Pierce played the role of facilitator and did it well.

– The Celtics hit the defensive glass and didn’t turn the ball over. A very good combination.

Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass formed an effective two-man bench, combing for all 19 points for the reserves prior to fourth quarter garbage time. Pietrus finished with 12 points, all on 3-pointers and Bass had 13 and nine rebounds.

WHAT WENT WRONG Read the rest of this entry »

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