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Fast Break: Celtics win but lose Shaquille O’Neal (again) 04.03.11 at 8:22 pm ET
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The pregame optimism that hovered around the Celtics disappeared early in the first half when Shaquille O’Neal limped off the court with what the team is calling a strained right calf. Shaq didn’t return and there was no further update provided. His future is uncertain at best. The good news for the Celtics is that Nenad Krstic‘s knee injury is much less serious than first feared and there’s a chance he can return by Tuesday.

As for the game, the Celtics got a much-needed 101-90 win over Detroit to stay tied with Miami in the loss column for second place in the East. They built a double-digit lead in the second half and had some anxious moments, but were able to hold off a Detroit team that is playing out the string.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Nenad Krstic will be back soon: The best news the Celtics received over the weekend is that Krstic suffered a bone bruise and didn’t do any further damage to his right knee. Krstic said that he hoped to return to the lineup on Tuesday when the Celtics host the 76ers. He has some pain in his knee and there is swelling, but all things considered this couldn’t have worked out better for him or the team.

Three of the big four isn’t bad: Paul Pierce scored 22 points, Kevin Garnett had 23 points and eight rebounds and Rajon Rondo dished out 14 assists. Now the Celtics just need to get Ray Allen going. They ran their first play for him and he got a wide-open jumper, but Allen later collided with Rip Hamilton and had to leave the game early in the first quarter. He finished with 13 points, but on just six shots.

Delonte West is doing everything the Celtics hoped he would: Delonte West had a lot of expectations to live up to when he returned from his wrist and ankle injuries, but he’s surpassed them most nights. West had one of his better all-around games with 10 points and five assists, while playing the kind of strong defense at two positions the Celtics desperately need.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Shaquille O’Neal’s return didn’t last long: For five minutes of the first quarter, Shaquille O’Neal was back on the court and all was well. But when he pulled up lame at midcourt and hobbled off, the Celtics were right back where they started in regards to the Big Fella. The team is calling a strained right calf.

Too many turnovers: The Celtics shot 62 percent in the first half and held the Pistons to 41 percent shooting, but they had only a one-point lead. The problem was too many turnovers. They had 11 in the half and seven in the second quarter alone. That kept the Pistons in the game.

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Fast Break: Celtics can’t rebound against Hawks 04.01.11 at 10:42 pm ET
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The Celtics four-game road trip began inauspiciously with an ugly win over Minnesota and a high-scoring loss to the Pacers. It ended in much the same manner with a highlight win over the Spurs off-set by an 88-83 loss to the Hawks that featured another fourth quarter collapse.

Here’s how it happened:

WHAT WENT WRONG

Second half bench minutes: The Celtics had built a 66-55 lead late in the third quarter when Doc Rivers turned to his bench. By the time Paul Pierce checked back in early in the fourth quarter, the Hawks a 71-69 lead. One way or another the reserves were going to have to play substantial minutes in this game. With this exception of Delonte West who played well, it was an uneven performance.

Serious shortage of bigs: With Nenad Krstic scheduled for an MRI, Shaquille O’Neal still a few days away (at least) and Garnett playing shorter minutes because of the back-to-back, the Celts front line depth was paper-thin. Jermaine O’Neal gave them 13 minutes and they would have been in deep trouble without them, but O’Neal is still getting his timing back. The Celtics gave up 14 offensive rebounds and it cost them the game.

Free throw shooting: Making 11 of 20 free throws on the road will never get it done, especially when the hometowm team goes 26-for-30. The Celtics lost by five points and were -15 at the free throw line.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

First half bench minutes: Rivers used the following lineup at one part of the first half: Delonte West, Von Wafer, Sasha Pavlovic, Jeff Green and Jermaine O’Neal. The group had its obvious problems — notably Green trying to guard Atlanta’s Al Horford — but Rivers stuck with his bench players for most of the second quarter and they rewarded him by keeping the game close. The reserves soaked up almost eight minutes of court time and that allowed the starters to be fresh when they returned late in the first half and build an eight-point lead.

Paul Pierce picks it up: Early in the game, Pierce got into a minor altercation with Joe Johnson who gave him a little extra shove on a foul. Pierce shoved back and was hit with a technical. The minor incident seemed to wake up the Celtics who were down 15-10 at the time. Pierce scored 10 of his 25 points in the first quarter and had half the Celtics points in an otherwise sluggish opening quarter.

Kevin Garnett’s passing ability: Of all the starters Garnett has been the one that has constantly tried to facilitate ball movement, albeit sometimes to a fault. He had five assists in the first half and it was telling that he didn’t have any in the second, which is when the Celtics offense ground to a halt.

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Why getting the second seed matters 03.30.11 at 11:28 am ET
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The Celtics got a welcome break on Tuesday when the Heat were run out of Cleveland by the Cavaliers. It was a classic LeBron-fraude game as the would-be King had his entourage stopped by security and then skipped the pregame introductions, claiming he was still on his throne, as it were.

More importantly from the Celtics’ perspective, the Heat’s loss to the team with the worst record in the league knocked them back a step in their fight for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics remain two games behind the Bulls for the top spot with nine games left and a showdown looming in Chicago a week from Thursday. It’s not impossible for them to reclaim the top spot, but their more immediate problem is holding off the Heat for second place.

In addition to getting homecourt in the second round, the second seed carries with it the likelihood of a first round matchup with the reeling Knicks, while the third seed will probably draw the surging Sixers. Just how different have these two teams played over the last two months?

NEW YORK

Since acquiring Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from the Nuggets, the Knicks have gone 8-12 and had lost six in a row and nine of their last 10 before escaping with an overtime win over Orlando on Monday.

New York’s main issue is its defense, which went from acceptably bad to downright awful since the trade. Among their issues are a tendency to foul too much and an inability to guard the mid-range game.

They also lack size in the middle — with Ronny Turiaf out they have been reduced to starting either Shawne or Shelden Williams at center — and depth everywhere else. Offensively, they have gone from a team that lived on high pick-and-rolls with Amar’e Stoudemire to one that plays through Anthony.

Along the way, they have lost twice against the Cavs, Bucks and Pacers and also dropped games to the Bobcats and Pistons. And you thought the Celtics’ transition was difficult.

PHILADELPHIA

Since late January, the 76ers have gone 21-11 and recorded wins over the Spurs, Celtics and Bulls. They are a team that plays defense first and while they’re not at the Celtics level, they are in the top 10 in efficiency, field goal percentage defense and rebounding.

After years of waiting for Andre Iguodala to become something that he is not, they seem to have finally accepted his limitations as go-to-scorer and embraced what he does well. Elton Brand has had an underrated comeback seasons and Jrue Holiday has had a breakthrough season at the point. Additionally, the Sixers have a top-notch bench with Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young leading the way.

No matter who they draw in the first round, the Celtics will be heavy favorites and how they perform in the playoffs will be much more about them than their opponent. Still, getting the second seed has its obvious advantages. The question for the Celtics and coach Doc Rivers, is how hard will he work his core players to get it?

The Celtics just went through a stretch of 12 games in 19 days and went 5-7 while showing some of the obvious signs of schedule fatigue. It won’t get any easier with the final nine games crammed into the last two weeks of the regular season and three sets of back-to-backs remaining.

Fast Break: Fourth quarter dooms Celtics in loss to Pacers 03.28.11 at 9:41 pm ET
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Just as the Celtics began to solve one problem, they ran into another in the fourth quarter against the Pacers. The Celtics played one of their best offensive games in weeks, but ran out of steam at the end of a back-to-back in a 107-100 loss. They made sloppy passes and missed free throws — two sure signs of fatigue — and were outscored 26-15 in the fourth quarter. In other words, they were playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road.

Here’s how it happened:

WHAT WENT WRONG

Foul trouble for the bigs: Kevin Garnett picked up his second foul with five minutes to go in the first quarter and the Celtics leading 22-12. By the time he returned the Pacers had a 37-35 lead. Garnett didn’t stick around long, getting his third foul two minutes later on an over-the back call. Nenad Krstic also spent the first half in foul trouble, which allowed the next thing to happen …

Roy Hibbert went off: Glen Davis does a lot of things for the Celtics and one of the most important is his willingness to guard taller players. Davis typically use his bulk to keep bigger post players out of the paint and his nimble feet to get to a spot on the floor and draw charges. Both skills were useless against Hibbert who simply shot over him and made 9-of-10 in the first half. Davis played well for the most part, but having to guard Hibbert wouldn’t have been in his job description if Garnett and Krstic hadn’t spent the night in foul trouble.

Jeff Green needed to assert himself: Over the last few weeks, Jeff Green has become the kind of offensive energizer the Celtics were looking for when they acquired him from Oklahoma City. Aside from getting to the line at the start of the fourth quarter, Green offered little in the way of an offensive spark in his 28 minutes of action.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Rondo was Rondo: Rajon Rondo wasn’t supposed to play Monday night. An hour before the game tipped off, Doc Rivers told reporters in Indiana that his point guard would sit out a second straight game to rest his injured pinky finger. That changed about 45 minutes later when Rondo took the floor for warmups. In the first quarter he made all five of his shots (all on layups) and made two free throws. This is the Rondo they have been waiting for.

Third quarter rally: This would have been very easy for the Celtics to pack it in at halftime. They were down eight, it was the second game of a back-to-back and they weren’t getting the calls from the officials. Instead, they put together an impressive third quarter run that put 36 points on the board and gave them back the lead.

Paul Pierce picks up his game: Lost in all the angst over Rondo is that Paul Pierce has been the other missing ingredient in the Celtics’ offense. He’s shooting just 26 percent from 3-point range since February and while his percentages have dropped, his turnovers have risen. But Pierce shot the ball better — making 8-of-13 and going 3-for-4 from behind the arc.

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Fast Break: Celtics narrowly beat Wolves 03.27.11 at 9:33 pm ET
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For nine minutes the Celtics looked unbeatable. For the next 30 they looked like the Nets. They were able to pull off an 85-82 win because Paul Pierce found his offensive game just in time, Kevin Garnett did work on the post and the Wolves played like the Wolves, committing silly turnovers and throwing away chances to win the game.

The Celtics will take it, but this was not progress. This was against a team that had won 17 games and was playing without its best player in Kevin Love. Perhaps that first quarter gives them something to build on, or maybe the way they closed out the game defensively will give them a spark.

One way or another, however, the Celtics needed a win and here’s how they did it:

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Fast start: The first quarter was a thing of beauty. The ball movement was crisp, the shots were well taken and there was an energy and bounce to the Celtics’ game. They shot 59 percent and had nine assists on 13 made field goal with zero turnovers. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, that kind of efficiency is hard to do against anyone. It was 15-5 after four minutes, 22-5 after six and 28-8 after nine. The Celtics then proceeded to do everything the opposite way after the opening quarter.

Kevin Garnett continues to bring it: If there’s one player who should escape scrutiny these days it’s Garnett, whose production has held steady this month. Garnett dominated the defensive glass when he was in the game and also served as a second point guard by making the extra pass and racking up assists. Garnett finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and five assists and was once again the Celtics’ best all-around player.

Delonte West filled in nicely for Rajon Rondo: Early in the game when the Timberwolves went under screens, West buried two jump shots. The T-Wolves adjusted and when they went over the screen, West hit Garnett on the roll who found Nenad Krstic open underneath for a layup. He finished with eight points, five assists and one huge offensive rebound that prolonged a possession and put the Celtics up five.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Nenad Krstic is still fighting himself: The Celtics made a concerted effort to get their center the ball in a position to score and the results were mixed. There were times when he caught it and went up strong for dunks, and there were others when he pump-faked himself into oblivion. Krstic didn’t play in the fourth quarter and except for a few brief flashes, he continues to look lost.

Glen Davis was outplayed by Anthony Tolliver: With Krstic struggling, the Celtics needed something positive from their other big man, but Davis missed 11-of-15 shots and was outworked by Tolliver, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds. To Davis’ credit, he played almost the entire second half after Rivers benched Krstic.

Paul Pierce, also struggling: Pierce’s offense has come and gone lately. Fortunately for the Celtics he was able to turn it back on in the final three minutes and help the Celtics pull off the win. Pierce’s stat line of 23 points and 7 rebounds looks solid, but he shot 2-for-8 from 3-point range and continues to struggle with his shot. Like Davis, Pierce redeemed himself with solid play down the stretch.

Read More: Celtics, Fast Break, Timberwolves,
Delonte West reinjures ankle 03.26.11 at 12:20 am ET
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Delonte West

During practice on Thursday, Delonte West aggravated his right ankle injury and he felt the effects in Friday’s Celtics loss to the Bobcats.

“At the end of the day I keep trying to downplay it,” West said. “I’ve had sprained ankles before and it only takes two, three days you’re back in action. I’ve got a chipped bone in there. I think I overdid it the other day in practice. Yesterday I was going super-hard and the ankle swole back up on me.”

West said that he did two hours of treatment on Friday to get ready for the game, but he had no lift on his shot and had to leave the game with 7:15 left.

“Once I step on the court there’s no excuses,” West said. “I’m still going to play defense. When I went up for a shot I noticed it was all in my takeoff and landing, it was throwing my shot off. That last play before I went out I feel like I barely left the ground.”

West will be in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to meet with his probation officer. He is scheduled to finish his house arrest sentence for weapons charges. He said that he plans to join the team in Minnesota for their game with the Timberwolves on Saturday and hopes to be able to play.

“I think a day or two should be sufficient,” West said. “When I say no more excuses, this is the last time you’re going to hear about the ankle from me.”

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Getting the new Celtics to play like Celtics 03.24.11 at 5:28 pm ET
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Kevin Garnett

There’s really no precedent for what the Celtics are trying to accomplish in a post Kendrick Perkins world. While other teams have added complementary parts to the equation at the trade deadline or even one large piece to the puzzle, the Celtics turned over a third of the roster, while also trying to re-introduce three important cogs who missed a combined 134 games because of injuries in Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal.

That’s a lot of change for a team that prides itself on its consistency. For years they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and how they were going to do it. When something went wrong it required a subtle tweak more than a complete overhaul.

Step one is the relatively straightforward assignment of having the new players learn the system. That takes time and repetition, but at the end of the day basketball is basketball and it’s not like there’s a hundred different ways to defend the pick and roll.

More than the schemes and the playbook, however, the biggest challenge is more intangible than tangible and it’s the biggest question hanging over the team for the next three weeks: How do you get the new faces to play like Celtics?

“The most important thing Doc [Rivers] is trying to teach them is how we play, how the Celtics play,” assistant coach Armond Hill said following the team’s practice on Thursday. “How we move the ball, how we play defense.”

Added fellow assistant Kevin Eastman, “Every team that is vying for championships, they have a DNA. Part of our DNA is not just the set that we run or who we go to, but it’s how we do it. The how is every bit as important.”

Ask any of the veteran Celtics and they will echo the coach’s thoughts.

“Getting them to understand the level and disciple and professionalism and all the other things that come with being a Celtic, Kevin Garnett said on an interview with WEEI’s Mut & Merloni [Listen to the audio here]. “The responsibility of playing hard every night. We’ve set that precedent here.”

They have been around each other so much over the last three and a half seasons that their approach has become second-nature. That doesn’t mean they don’t mess things up on occasion. Just look at the last minute of the loss to Memphis on Wednesday where the execution broke down. But when things go wrong, they have a deep understanding of the how and the why and it becomes a matter of fine-tuning the process to get the desired results. There’s a level of trust and familiarity involved and that simply can’t be distributed and absorbed like a playbook.

That, more than the wins and losses, is what the last three weeks of the regular season is all about. Read the rest of this entry »

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