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Celtics try to recapture their toughness 01.09.12 at 5:59 pm ET
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WALTHAM — The Celtics have long prided themselves on their toughness and while it may have manifested itself in a sneer here or a posedown there (along with lots and lots of on-court talking) when the Celtics talk about real toughness they mean things like playing aggressive help defense, fighting through screens and rebounding.

Take the game on Friday against Indiana. The Celtics lost primarily because they got killed on the boards — the Pacers had 14 offensive rebounds.

“The difference in the game was Indiana was tougher,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They made tougher plays, they were more physical. The game was there to be won by either team, it was who was going to grab it.”

Part of this may be related to conditioning. Rivers took some of the blame for not conducting harder practices when he had the chance, so he ran them through a workout on Monday that was heavy on running.
The coach said the practice was “sloppy,” but also productive. He doesn’t feel their conditioning is where it needs to be yet, but it’s better than it was a few weeks ago. In addition to running them into the ground, the Celtics also went back to their core elements.

“We’re focusing on ourselves right now,” Rajon Rondo said. “We’ve got a lot of things that we have to work on. It’s starts with ourselves. We have to look into the mirror and dig down deep and try to find a way to start being basic and get back to the basics.

In general, Rivers is happy with his team. They have great chemistry and they’re willing workers, but it comes down to that word again: toughness.

“We can get along but I want to win too,” Rivers said. “The chemistry is phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys, but I may be asking for a tougher group of guys. I’m not sure yet.” Read the rest of this entry »

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A closer look at the Celtics’ struggles off the bench 01.08.12 at 2:01 pm ET
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Keyon Dooling is taking on a leadership role with the Celtics' second unit. (AP)

If we’ve learned anything over the first two weeks of this helter-skelter season, it’s that trends are developing at a rapid rate. One week you’ve got everything figured out, and the next teams are searching for answers to questions they didn’t know they had.

Like, for example, the recent Celtics habit of playing poor offensive first halves. “Don’t know,” coach Doc Rivers said when asked for an explanation. “If I could, I would explain it to them first and then I would try to work on it. Then, I hopefully wouldn’t have to answer this question.”

The Celtics scored just 34 points against the Nets on Wednesday and then, as Rivers said, set the game back a half-century with a dreadful 25-point showing against the Pacers on Friday, tying a franchise record for offensive futility.

In both games a pattern emerged: The starters began with a decent, if underwhelming, start and the second unit couldn’t provide any offensive support.

Against Indiana, they scored 10 points in the first six minutes. At the end of the first quarter, they had 14 points on the board, and it stayed that way for the first three minutes of the second quarter before Rajon Rondo and other starters checked back in.

It was a similar story the previous game against New Jersey. The difference on Wednesday was the reserves clamped down defensively against a Nets team that was missing its two best players and didn’t allow them to score. The Pacers are not the Nets, and while they didn’t run away with the game in the first half, they established a lead and forced the Celtics to play catch-up all night.

Small sample sizes abound, but there’s another trend developing through the first eight games. With one exception, every successful lineup the Celtics have used this season has included at least three of the four All-Stars. (The exception: Rondo, Allen, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass and Jermaine O’Neal, who have been their most productive lineup).

Not that this excuses the starters, who haven’t been nearly as efficient as they had been in the three previous wins against the Wizards and Pistons. Paul Pierce had a rough game on Friday, shooting just 3-for-17 with five turnovers. This was one game after Pierce poured in 24 points and helped them overcome Ray Allen’s absence. Pierce is Pierce. He’ll bounce back, as will the starters who have been playing together for more than four years.

The second unit is essentially brand new. With the exception of Daniels, Rivers is integrating five completely new rotations players in Bass, Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox, Greg Stiemsma and Avery Bradley, who is getting the first regular minutes of his career.

There’s hope that Mickael Pietrus can make his debut this week. Pietrus had offseason knee surgery but has looked good in workouts, according to several observers. He’s a career 36 percent 3-point shooter and takes almost half his attempts from behind the arc. Pietrus isn’t a savior, but the Celtics desperately need that deep-shooting threat and his versatility on the wing.

The concern, as it has been since Danny Ainge hastily (and rather ingeniously) cobbled together this second unit, is that there simply isn’t enough scoring. The reserves are shooting just 42 percent from the floor and 31 percent from 3-point range and their offensive efficiency ranks 25th per HoopsStats.

“That’s on me,” Rivers said. “I’ve got to find something I can give them. They’re an energy group. They’re not a scoring group. We’ve got to come up with something. That’s not on them.”

On Friday, Rivers took Dooling aside, and the veteran guard has already become a trusted source of basketball ideas. They returned to the same notion that Dooling has had since the beginning of camp: The second unit needs its own identity. They’re not the starters. They don’t have the same skill-sets, especially offensively where there is no one who can come close to matching Ray Allen and Pierce’s shooting abilities.

A major part of their struggles has been a lack of practice time. That’s a given, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted both offensively and defensively where schemes have to be implemented and continuity has to be developed. There was no official practice this weekend, but the reserves were expected to come in and work out on Sunday.

“It’s refreshing with this group,” Rivers said on Thursday before the team held its first practice session of the season. “They don’t look at it as punishment. This group is, what time? Keyon is the leader of it. He’ll come to you and say how about 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock. He’s been phenomenal [with] that.”

There’s a lot to work on. First, the bad news:

Spacing has been an issue without consistent shooting on the floor and Dooling has more turnovers (14) than assists (11). Rivers had Bradley bring the ball up the floor at times so that Dooling can run off screens and initiate movement and while the young guard has kept his turnovers in check, he’s not a playmaker at the point. Daniels is shooting 27 percent and he and Bradley have missed 10 of their 11 3-point attempts. Stiemsma can make a jump shot as we’ve discovered, but he is by no means a player who can create his own offense.

But there is potential here. Bass has emerged as a top-flight sixth man and is getting his share of minutes with the four All-Stars. Dooling is making 39 percent of his 3-pointers and Stiemsma (blocks) and Bradley (on the ball pressure defense) have flashed the kind of game-changing defensive ability that will be valuable for a team that will have to fight veteran legs all season. Wilcox missed three games with a shoulder injury, but he has been active on the offensive glass, a valuable skill for a team that ranked dead last in offensive boards last season. For all his struggles, Daniels has worked well with starter-heavy lineups.

Unlike past seasons when Rivers played eight, or nine players at the max, he’s using 10 and sometimes 11 players in games. It’s all part of the development process for a team that has barely begun to play together. There’s time to make it all work, but it’s been an uneven beginning for the reserves.

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Live Blog: Celtics take on David West and the Pacers 01.06.12 at 7:30 pm ET
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Brandon Bass flies under the radar, just the way he likes it 01.05.12 at 5:26 pm ET
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Brandon Bass is excited to join the Celtics. (AP)

WALTHAM — It’s a measure of Brandon Bass‘ impact on the Celtics in this young season that the narrative has already moved on beyond his lack of assists and turned to his actual production. (Good thing too, because Bass understands his role completely). Bass is averaging 14 points and 6.6 rebounds in 27 minutes a night and providing a real sixth man presence.

One more note on the passing thing. It’s become a joke within the Celtics locker room, but in a good-natured way. Doc Rivers had a great line after their game on Wednesday when he referenced the immortal Yinka Dare who needed — no lie — 78 games to notch his first career assist.

“We told him he was threatening Yinka,” Rivers said. “I don’t want him thinking pass too much. He’s a scorer. You don’t want to screw him up. You don’t want him passing too much. He passes to the basket.”

Bass has fit in easily with his new teammates. He’s funny and engaging, but he’s not a goof. He’s savvy and sharp without being cunning. He also understands that his life is immensely easier playing with four All-Stars who want him to be himself.

“I’m grateful to be a part of this group,” Bass said. “To play with Kevin Garnett, Paul [Pierce], Ray Allen, [Rajon] Rondo, ain’t nobody worrying about me, man. I’m flying under the radar and I want it to stay like that.”

It’s very easy to make yet another comparison between Bass and his childhood friend and former LSU teammate, Glen Davis. Bass has resisted the comparisons, because let’s face it, players want to be judged on their performance, not anyone else’s play. It came up again at practice on Thursday because Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has already taken issue with Davis. (If you took the under on 10 games, congratulations.)

“He’s not playing well, and I’m not sure his mind’s on the right things right now,” Van Gundy said as reported by the Orlando Sentinel. “What we need him to do is defend, which he has done pretty well, rebound better than he’s rebounding and move the ball and set screens.”

Davis didn’t talk with reporters after Wednesday’s game. Same old, same old with Davis, who forever seems to want to be something he’s not while ignoring the things that made him into a valued role player.

“Well, you gotta keep pushing him, and finding Baby’s buttons,” Rivers said. “And Stan will; Stan’s an excellent coach. It’s frustrating at times. But the one thing that Stan knows, and I know, [is] that Baby is not a bad kid. He’ll find it. It’s just, then you gotta find it again. And then again. And that’s just who Baby is. At the end of the day, that’s who Baby is.”

Bass supported his friend saying, “You know, I haven’t talked to him of late, but I mean, Glen knows the situation. He’s been in worse situations than that, so I feel like he’ll be able to overcome it sooner than later.”

The endless comparisons to Davis put Bass in a no-win situation and he’s smart enough to know that he’s better off worrying about his own situation. First and foremost is understanding the team’s defensive scheme. Bass is a willing defender, but the Celtics’ defense takes reps and communication to work and Thursday was their first practice since the season began.

Rivers praised his individual defense, but noted, “If you told Brandon to just guard his guy he’d be terrific. Where he’s still struggling is the rotations and he’ll get it.”

“It’s not a concern, he’s going to get it,” the coach continued. “Chris [Wilcox] is behind a little bit. A lot of their weakside helps are late and stuff like that. We’re just trying to get them to understand guard your guy and the ball at the same time, if you want to just simplify it. They’re into just guarding their guy, especially on the weakside.”

Bass is also learning how to play with Rondo, especially in transition where he offers the best finishing option that Rondo has had in years. “Man I got to have Stickum sometimes on my hands for his passes,” he said. “You never know how he’s going to pass it either. It’s going to be a bounce pass, a lob, you never know, but I’ll be ready whenever he’s ready to pass it.”

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They call him ‘No Pass Bass’ and the Celtics don’t mind 01.03.12 at 3:05 pm ET
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Brandon Bass doesn't pass often, but the Celtics are fine with that. (AP)

Brandon Bass doesn’t pass. That’s what people tell him anyway.

“Somebody told me one of my nicknames is ‘No Pass Bass,’” he said after the Celtics beat the Wizards on Monday to complete a home-and-home sweep. “I want to continue to get set up by [Rajon] Rondo but I want to be able to set up other people as well. Return the favor.”

Bass was laughing when he said it, but beneath the humor there was some bite. No one likes to explain why passing isn’t an important part of their game, but part of succeeding in the NBA is understanding what you do well, and just as importantly, what you don’t do well.

“Getting people involved, I think, that’s not what I do best,” Bass said. “But whenever I get an opportunity to make a play for somebody else, I’ll be willing to do that.”

Bass does pass, he just doesn’t normally rack up assists. He’s a facilitator in the offense, if not a playmaker for others.

Witness the first three sets from the second quarter of Monday’s game. Each time the offense began with a pass to Bass in the high post. He passed twice on the first possession before getting loose under the rim for a dunk on a nice pass from Kevin Garnett. On the next two, Bass executed a handoff to Paul Pierce who drove and scored.

Everyone loves to talk about players fitting into their roles, which is usually code for rebound, play defense, pass and get the hell out of Allen, Rondo and Pierce’s way. But Bass’ role is different. The Celtics want him to be aggressive with his shot. In fact they need him to do that, considering he’s coming off the bench with such non-scoring threats as Marquis Daniels, Avery Bradley and Chris Wilcox.

“I don’t think Brandon has a problem shooting,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said last week. “When he gets it he’s probably going to shoot it. It’s a good thing though. He’s an aggressive player and that’s what we want him to be so he’s going to have good nights and he’s going to have bad nights too. He is human, but he’s factor.”

Still, his assist totals are absurdly low, even at this early part of the season. Bass has played 168 minutes through six games and has just two assists. He’s attempted 68 shots, the second-most on the team and just one attempt behind Ray Allen. One might think that Bass is a black hole on offense, a ball hog who dominates the offense when he’s on the floor. That would be wrong.

Bass may not rack up the assists, but he rarely turns the ball over either. He has just three this season. Because his turnovers are so low, Bass’ Usage Rate (an estimate of possessions used combining field goals, free throws and turnovers) is only 21.4 percent, which means that he doesn’t dominate the ball nearly as much as it seems. For perspective, Bass uses about as many possessions as Allen and less than Garnett, Pierce and Rondo.

When he does shoot, which is often, there’s a good chance he’s going to score. He’s shooting 53 percent from the floor and he’s killing it from 16-23 feet where he’s shooting 64 percent, a mark that is second only to Dirk Nowitzki among power forwards, per HoopData.

If there’s a concern, it’s his shooting percentage at the rim, which is barely over 52 percent. However, Bass has a long track record of scoring efficiently inside and one would think that would balance out as he begins to get more comfortable in the offense and understands how to maneuver within their sets.

The Celtics have no qualms with the way Bass is playing. The proof is in the lineups where Bass has already established himself as the bench players most likely to play with the four All-Stars. Rivers played Garnett and Bass together for the entire fourth quarter and left him on the floor when Rondo, Allen and Pierce rotated back into the game. You can expect to see more of it as the season progresses. “I love that lineup because it’s shooters galore and it makes Rondo very productive because there’s nowhere to help,” Rivers said.

Bass was productive in the fourth quarter, but again, he didn’t dominate the ball. In fact he helped get Allen open for a pair of back-breaking 3′s. He had what some call a “hockey assist” when he passed out to Garnett who dished to Allen for a wide-open jumper. (When a reporter brought up the hockey assist, Bass responded, “Yeah man, that’s cool. I like that.”)

Later, he helped create space on an Allen transition 3 by sprinting down the left-side of the court and bringing an extra Wizards’ defender — Allen’s defender — along for the ride. His teammates are also fine with the way Bass plays. Again, they encourage it.

“Brandon’s played on some other teams with immense talent and our team is no different from that,” Garnett said. “I think the difference in our team and any other teams he’s played on is we’ve embraced him here. He’s one of us.”

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Fast Break: Celtics Stiemroll the Wizards 01.02.12 at 9:58 pm ET
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You only get one chance to make a first impression and while Greg Stiemsma‘s first start may have been a revelation to Celtics’ fans, he had already impressed coach Doc Rivers. “That’s somebody we didn’t know we would have,” Rivers said. “After the second or third day of camp you’re thinking wow, this guys pretty’s good.”

Stiemsma was better than his good on Monday night against the Wizards starting in place of Jermaine O’Neal (left hamstring). He wasted little time asserting himself as he blocked Washington’s Rashard Lewis. The play angered Wizards’ coach Flip Saunders who got two quick technical and was ejected 106 seconds into the game.

Stiemsma’s shot blocking is already an established part of his game — he came in averaging 7.3 blocks per 36 minutes — but he also showed a nice touch from the outside and wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the more athletic Wizards. Stiemsma finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.

The Celtics went with a smaller lineup in the fourth quarter as Stiemsma gave way to Brandon Bass and the Celtics were able to hold on for a 100-92 victory, their third straight. They have a chance to get over .500 on Wednesday when they host the Nets.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Ray Allen was the only viable offensive threat for the Celtics in the first half, scoring 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting that included three 3-pointers in four attempts. Allen finished with 27 points and made a couple of momentum-turning 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

– As good as Allen was in the first half, that’s how good Paul Pierce was in the third quarter when he scored eight of his 21 points. The problem was that Pierce had already logged 30 minutes so Rivers used Marquis Daniels extensively in the fourth quarter and Daniels responded with a strong performance.

– Bass had a productive night off the bench after a shaky first quarter. He was once again the only scoring threat off the bench and grabbed six rebounds in addition to his 14 points. Bass was also a willing passer, despite only getting one assist.

Avery Bradley had a dominant stretch of defense in the first half when he hounded Wizards guard Jordan Crawford and essentially stopped the Washington offense from functioning.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– You knew it was going to happen on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Wizards loaded up on categories like second-chance points (17-9) and in transition where they outscored the Celtics 17-9. On nights like that the Celtics have to rely on their shooting to carry them and they were stuck in the low 40′s.

– Outside of Bass and a decent night from Daniels, the Celtics bench could not generate any offense. Keyon Dooling doesn’t appear comfortable running the offense yet and Chris Wilcox needs to find a rhythm after missing almost three games with a shoulder injury. The Celtics lack of bench scoring could be a major problem this season.

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Fast Break: Rajon Rondo’s triple double mystifies Wizards 01.01.12 at 8:27 pm ET
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Say what you want about the quality of the Celtics opposition, but in this NBA season teams will take wins wherever they can find them, especially a Celtics team that started the season 0-3. The Celtics had their way with the Washington Wizards on Sunday night for the most part and have now won two straight after a 94-86 victory.

Rajon Rondo had a triple double with 18 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds and Kevin Garnett had a season-high 24 points and nine rebounds.

They’ll get a chance to even their record on Monday against the Wizards at TD Garden. That figures to be a tougher test for the Celtics for the simple reason that it will be their game in four days and their second dreaded back-to-back of the season.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– The starters opened up an early lead and established both a rhythm and a pace to the game. Rondo had assists on five of their first six makes and everyone contributed. They took a 17-point lead into the half and Rondo had 9 assists and zero turnovers. All five Celtics’ starters had at least six points in the first and each won their individual matchups.

– Rondo saved the game in the third quarter by scoring 10 points and making all four of his shots. He scored in the post where he made a nifty move on John Wall, on drives and from the outside. The Celtics needed every bit of his offense because they came out flat and let the athletic Wizards take over on the offensive glass.

– Garnett had 12 points and 6 rebounds in the first half and dominated Andray Blatche. It was Garnett’s best half of the season and a welcome sign after he put together a solid, if unspectacular, outing in Friday night’s game against the Pistons. Even better he scored another 12 points in the second half to finish with 24 and nine rebounds.

– The Wizards are a bad basketball team. Mainly, they’re a terrible offensive team so it was a combination of Washington ineptitude and solid Celtics’ defense that caused them to shoot 28 percent in the first half and miss all nine of their 3-pointers.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– As well as the starters opened the first half, that’s how poorly they played to start the second. The Wizards beat them for loose balls, on the offensive glass and in transition. Jermaine O’Neal had two shots blocked and Garnett couldn’t get up for an alley-oop when he was wide open under the basket. It’s not a news flash that the Celtics are old but it is a reminder that they can go from sharp and efficient to looking like a team in dire of an athleticism during the course of the same game.

– It’s early yet but it appears that the reserves are not as comfortable playing with one or two of the four All-Stars as they are playing in an all-reserve lineup or with three or more of the starters. Whether it’s a situation where they are deferring or simply a lack of cohesion, the Celtics stagnated when those lineups were on the floor.

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