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Preview: Timberwolves at Celtics, Game 33 01.03.11 at 11:24 am ET
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The Minnesota Timberwolves are a bad team. This comes as no surprise to even the most casual NBA fan. Since trading Kevin Garnett, the T-Wolves have won 70 games and lost 210. That’s losing three out of every four games for 3+ seasons. They don’t defend, they don’t shoot very well and they turn it over way too much. That’s pretty much the formula for bad in the NBA.

They are also knee-deep in one of the most convoluted rebuilding projects in recent memory.

It started when they traded Garnett, acquiring a package of players that included Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair. All of those players have been traded (although they did bring Telfair back where he continues to be a mediocre backup). They also got back their first round pick from the Celtics, which turned out to be Jonny Flynn, a shoot-first point guard who can’t shoot, and acquired the Celtics pick, which became Wayne Ellington, a scorer who can’t score.

General manager David Kahn didn’t make the Garnett trade, but he did run the draft where he also took Ricky Rubio, who has yet to play a second in the NBA, and yet another point guard in Ty Lawson, who he traded to Denver. Lawson has become an integral part of the Nuggets, the eventual replacement for Chauncey Billups and is a far better prospect than Flynn. (Rubio remains a dream).

This past year, Kahn drafted 23-year-old Wesley Johnson, ancient for a draft prospect, and passed over the talented, but enigmatic, DeMarcus Cousins, who is averaging 11 points and eight rebounds along with his various misdeeds and histrionics. Johnson is a wing player, so naturally Kahn traded for another young wing player in Martell Webster, who thankfully can shoot, but has missed all but nine games with injuries.

For good measure, Kahn gave Darko Millicic a contract extension, leading to this fantastic exchange between Kahn and Chris Webber.

Kahn still wasn’t done. He dumped Jefferson for a player named Kostas Koufos, which made people laugh, but it might have been the best move of his tenure because he shed a big contract on a player with bad knees and opened a spot for Michael Beasley, obtained from the Miami Heat during their contract firesale. Beasley has regained his game after a lost season in Miami and is averaging 22 points and six rebounds a game. Trading Jefferson also allowed Kevin Love to blossom into a full-blown star.

And he signed another point guard in Luke Ridnour, which has turned out to be a good thing because Flynn started the year on the injured list and has struggled in his return.

Against all odds, this bunch has become one of the weirdest, and most fun teams of the lower depths of the NBA. Part of that is Love, who pulled down an amazing 33 boards in a game. Then there’s Beasley, whose hair demands its own reality show, and the fact that they play at the fastest pace in the league. They have become, along with the Warriors and the Blake Griffin-Clippers a League Pass cult favorite. But they’re still a hot mess.

TIMBERWOLVES (9-25, 3-7 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 105.3 (Points per 100 possessions, 18th)

Defensive Rating: 111.3 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 29th)

Pace: 97.6 (Possessions per game, 1st)

Likely Starters: Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Darko Millicic

Injuries: Jonny Flynn (Ankle, questionable), Anthony Tolliver (Knee, out).

CELTICS (25-7,7-3 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 107.7 (11th)

Defensive Rating: 98.9 (1st)

Pace: 90.8 (23rd)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal

Injuries: Kevin Garnett (Calf, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Glen Davis vs. Kevin Love

In the 2008 draft, then-GM Kevin McHale swapped picks with Memphis to obtain Love for the rights to O.J. Mayo. There was some talk last season that this was yet another Minnesota screw-up, but there’s no question who got the better end of this transaction. Love is one of the best rebounders in the league, maybe the best, and his offensive game is rounding into shape. If there is any justice, the NBA will find a way to put Love on the All-Star team, even in the stacked Western Conference.

All of which is to say that Glen Davis will have his hands full with Love. Davis shook off a rough first half against Toronto to finish with 15 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. He’ll have to be good for all 36 minutes against Love.

THREE STORYLINES

1. How will Rajon Rondo hold up on the second night of a back-to-back?

Doc Rivers didn’t think Rondo was going to play until about an hour before Sunday’s game, which raises the inevitable question: Was he actually ready to play? Rondo looked predictably rusty, but did flash his athleticism on a couple of plays. He also had his left ankle stepped on inadvertently by Linas Kleiza, which led to some anxious moments.

There’s a game Wednesday against the Spurs, another Friday against Toronto and then a quick trip to Chicago on Saturday so Rondo won’t have much time to recuperate.

2. Will the Celtics be able to slow the Timberwolves down?

Minnesota plays at the fastest tempo in the league, while the Celtics play much slower. There have been times when the Celtics have tried to run with faster teams, and there is no question they enjoy these kinds of games in the regular season. They should be careful not to get too caught up in Minnesota’s pace and let the Timberwolves hang around in the process.

3. How is Paul Pierce?

Pierce rolled his ankle late in the game against the Raptors after a late-game uncontested dunk. The Celtics don’t think it will be serious, but that was before their flight. The last thing they need is a lingering ankle injury affecting Pierce.

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Fast Break: Rondo’s return helps rally Celtics past Raptors 01.02.11 at 8:31 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo returned to the Celtics lineup after missing seven games with a severely sprained ankle, and while he wasn’t in top form, he had a definite impact on the Celtics, who snapped out of their recent funk with a 93-79 victory over Toronto on Sunday night. (Recap.)

The Celtics outscored Toronto 50-37 in the second half and shot 54 percent. Their double-digit win was even more impressive when you consider they also allowed 19 offensive rebounds. There’s no rest for the Celtics, who play the Timberwolves in Boston Monday night, but this was a much-needed win after two weeks of struggles.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Rajon Rondo returned: The Celtics led 13-8 after six minutes and Rondo was feeling so good he even busted out his fake behind-the-back layup move. Then he picked up his second foul and went to the bench. So long, early lead. Rondo played nine more minutes in the second quarter and went the whole way in the third as the Celtics opened up a nine-point lead.

Rondo wasn’t great — four points, eight assists, five turnovers in 33 minutes — but you could see the difference in how the Celtics got into sets quicker and the passing was much crisper. In the third quarter, the Celtics made 12-of-17 shots and had assists on 10 of them. That’s the kind of impact Rondo has on a game.

Paul Pierce made amends: Pierce had a bad game against the Hornets on Friday afternoon. It happens. Pierce took the extra step of taking the blame for the loss, which wasn’t necessary, but was in line with his role as team leader. You know what speaks more loudly? Taking over the next game. In the first half, when the Celtics were struggling for offense, Pierce scored 20 of their 42 points. That’s leadership.

Center depth: Shaquille O’Neal got in foul trouble again, which is like saying the sun rose in the east. The good thing for Doc Rivers was that he had options. Rivers kept Shaq in the game after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and the big guy was able to convert a layup. He could afford to take the risk because he knew he had Jermaine O’Neal waiting behind him and Semih Erden, if necessary.

The O’Neals combined for 13 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots, which is exactly the kind of production they need from the position.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Glen Davis continues to struggle: It’s not that Davis hasn’t been able to do a decent Kevin Garnett impersonation. He hasn’t even been able to be Big Baby the last game and a half. Davis seems to be fighting himself as he adjusts to his new role as a starter, but after starting the game by missing eight of nine shots, Davis came alive in the third quarter.

He finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in what might have been the best bad game anyone on the Celtics has played this season.

Transition defense: This has become the new watchword for Rivers, and the Celtics are struggling a bit in terms of getting back on defense. They gave up 27 fast-break points against Toronto, who is one of the fastest teams in the league in terms of pace. The Celtics play a number of young teams over the next few weeks and you can believe they will want to get out and run, rather than try to go toe-to-toe with the bruising Celtics.

Defensive rebounding: Attention, Celtics big men: Kevin Love is waiting for you on Monday. You might want to tighten up on the boards.

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Preview: Celtics at Raptors, Game 32 01.02.11 at 10:23 am ET
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After Sunday’s game with Toronto, the Celtics play nine of their next 10 in Boston. It’s a weird quirk in the schedule that sends them to Canada before their homestand, and it’s either a chance to get things back on the track after losing three of four or a potential landmine that will continue their struggles.

The defensively-challenged Raptors may be just what the Celtics need to snap them out of their offensive malaise. Toronto has won just three times in their last 13 games and, like the Celtics, they are dealing with a number of injuries.

Power forward Reggie Evans has been out since November after breaking his foot. Andrea Bargnani has missed five of the last seven games games with a calf strain. Sonny Weems missed their last game against Houston with back spasms and Jerryd Bayless left the Rockets game after eight minutes with an ankle sprain.

The injuries have given rookie Ed Davis a chance to play meaningful minutes and he responded with 17 points and 12 rebounds in a win over the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks, but the Raptors are in rough shape.

The Celtics may get Rajon Rondo back, but that is uncertain at best. Still, they have plenty of healthy talent to deal with Toronto, provided they are in the right mental shape.

[Boston at Toronto, Sunday, Jan. 2, 6 p.m. TV: CSN. Radio coverage on WEEI begins at 5;30 p.m.]

CELTICS (24-7, 7-3 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 107.9 (Points per 100 possessions, 11th)

Defensive Rating: 99.3 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 1st)

Pace: 90.8 (Possessions per game, 23rd)

Likely Starters: Nate Robinson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal

Injuries: Rajon Rondo (Ankle, questionable), Kevin Garnett (Calf, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

RAPTORS (11-21, 3-7 last 10 games)

Offensive Rating: 106.5 (14th)

Defensive Rating: 110.6 (27th)

Pace: 94.7 (6th)

Likely Starters: Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, Linas Kleiza, Joey Dorsey, Amir Johnson

Injuries: Andrea Bargnani (Calf, questionable), Jerryd Bayless (Ankle, questionable), Sonny Weems (Back, questionable), Peja Stojakovic (Knee, out), Reggie Evans (Foot, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Ray Allen vs. DeMar DeRozan

In his second season, DeRozan has upped his scoring average from 8.6 to 13.8 points per game, which looks nice but is mostly the result of playing more minutes. Overall, DeRozan hasn’t made a huge jump but he has shown flashes of brilliance such as his 23-point outburst against the Lakers and a 37-point performance against Houston in Toronto’s last game.

If Bargnani can’t play, DeRozan becomes the focal point of Toronto’s attack. Allen has kept him in check in their two previous meetings this season holding him to just 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting.

THREE PLOT POINTS

1. Can the Celtics bounce back?

They have played some ugly basketball over the last few weeks, even before they started losing games. Better ball movement would be a nice start as the Celtics have gone from a fluid, spread-the-wealth team to a one-pass-and-shoot squad. That has been most evident in the 3-point shooting where the Celtics have made 40 percent or better of their attempts just twice since Rondo went out of the lineup.

2. How much will Jermaine O’Neal have after playing 33 minutes Friday?

Doc Rivers never intended to play O’Neal that much in just his fourth game back after missing 19 games with a knee injury, but Rivers stuck with him for 16 straight minutes to close the game. It was O’Neal’s best performance of the season, and while his offense will come around in time, he showed the kind of rebounding and shot-blocking presence that the Celtics have been waiting for.

3. Will Rondo play?

Rondo tried to give it a a go against the Hornets Friday, but after warming up before the game he felt like he wasn’t back to full speed yet. Rondo desperately wants to get back on the court, but after the game, he sounded resigned to the possibility that it may take him a little longer to return to the lineup.

Considering the state of the Raptors, the Celtics may not need him Sunday. Either way, Rondo won’t play until he is ready and that is the correct decision, no matter how many games the Celtics have to struggle through this winter.

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Doc Rivers: ‘There is no rotation right now’ 12.31.10 at 2:54 pm ET
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The easy question for Doc Rivers and the Celtics is replacing Kevin Garnett in the starting lineup. That job will fall to Glen Davis, as expected. The harder part is figuring out what to do what to do when Rivers has to go to his bench. For the time being, that’s a game-by-game process.

Rivers can go big with Semih Erden and Jermaine O’Neal backing up Davis and Shaquille O’Neal. Or he can go small with Paul Pierce and Marquis Daniels as forwards.

“We’re going to do both,” Rivers said before the Celtics took on the Hornets. “Again, for right now, there is no rotation. There’s the starters and then we’ll figure it out from there on. “The game will dictate that, foul trouble may dictate that. We just have to be ready as a staff.”

Rivers said he’s not a fan of going small, although circumstances and matchups may push him in that direction. Beyond the uncertainty, Rivers is also concerned that players may try to do too much without Garnett, and he’s not just talking about Davis. “That’s my biggest concern for everyone. Not just Glen, but everyone,” Rivers said. “That’s the human nature. We’re going to win games for this period of time with being a team. We’re not going to win any other way.”

Rivers also appealed for patience with Jermaine O’Neal, who is working his way back after missing 19 games with a knee injury. “It’s a tough time for Jermaine too,” the coach said. “Coming off the injury, he has to make sure he’s not trying to doo to much himself and we have to be careful with his minutes.”

But Rivers isn’t giving up on these games. The Celtics play 11 of their next 13 at home starting with this afternoon’s contest with the Hornets and he anticipated trying to make a big push during this stretch when the season started.

“Right now we are a game to game team, and that’s all we can be with all the injuries we have,” Rivers said. “But we have to be a game to game team that’s trying to win games.”

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Rajon Rondo won’t be playing against Chris Paul, Hornets 12.31.10 at 2:45 pm ET
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Despite being listed on the active roster for the Celtics’ game against New Orleans Friday afternoon, Rajon Rondo will not play, according to Celts’ coach Doc Rivers. “He’s just not ready to play,” Rivers said. “He’s close, though. He’s getting better. He’ll be back soon. Maybe the next game or game after. We just don’t know yet, but he’s getting closer.”

Rondo has missed six games since spraining his left ankle on Dec. 15 in New York. During that span the Celtics have gone 4-2. For more Celtics news, check the Celtics’ team page at weei.com/celtics.

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Preview: Hornets at Celtics, Game 31 12.31.10 at 9:12 am ET
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No team in the NBA has had an odder beginning to their season than the New Orleans Hornets, who started the season by winning 11 of their first 12 games, and then lost 13 of their next twenty. The on-court ups and downs are a very small part of the Hornets’ story, however. In early December, the NBA announced that they had purchased the team from owner George Shinn, setting off all kinds of panic alarms about the future of the franchise.

While the Hornets operate in limbo, the ingredients for a solid team are in place. They rank among the top teams defensively. David West is still a decent scorer, Emeka Okafor has solidified his role as a defender and rebounder, and of course, there is Chris Paul, who is re-establishing himself as the best point guard in the league.

Beyond that trio, the Hornets have problems. Marco Belinelli has predictably cooled off after a hot start and Trevor Ariza has struggled offensively. Their poor shooting on the perimeter helps explain the Hornets lackluster offensive numbers, even with Paul. A second unit that has yet to establish itself is another cause for concern.

As long as Paul is there, the Hornets remain a dangerous, albeit flawed team, and until their franchise situation is resolved, their future remains murky.

HORNETS (18-14, 4-6 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 104.2 (Points scored per 100 possessions, 23rd)

Defensive Rating: 102.6 (Points allowed per 100 possessions (7th)

Pace: 90.1 (Possessions per game, 26th)

Likely Starters: Chris Paul, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, David West, Emeka Okafor

Rotation: Jarrett Jack, Jason Smith, Willie Green, Quincy Pondexter

Injuries: West (Ankle, questionable)

CELTICS (24-6, 8-2 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.3 (11th)

Defensive Rating: 99.4 (1st)

Pace: 90.9 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Nate Robinson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal

Rotation: Marquis Daniels, Jermaine O’Neal, Avery Bradley, Von Wafer

Injuries: Rajon Rondo (Ankle, questionable), Kevin Garnett (Calf, out), Semih Erden (Flu, questionable), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Chris Paul vs. Nate Robinson (or maybe, Rajon Rondo)

If Rondo is able to play, and there is doubt after Doc Rivers told WEEI that Rondo has experienced swelling in his ankle after workouts, then the task of guarding the NBA’s best point guard falls to Robinson.

The NBA’s point guard trinity consists of Paul, Rondo and Utah’s Deron Williams. (Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are closing in, but not there yet, while Tony Parker, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash linger). Rondo has the ring, as he supposedly said to Paul in their contentious meeting last fall, but Paul is still the league’s standard-bearer at the position. There are lots and lots of numbers that back Paul up, but a more interesting debate is what would happen if you put Paul on a team like the Celtics and Rondo on a team like the Hornets.

Certainly Paul is a more accomplished scorer than Rondo and may be better-suited to a team that needs him to dominate that area, but Rondo has flourished playing with future Hall of Famers, and of course he has the playoff success that Paul doesn’t. Perhaps it’s telling that both teams would have to think long and hard about trading one for the other.

THREE STORYLINES

1. Will Rondo play?

It appears to be a game-time decision, and if he can’t go the Celtics will have their hands full with Paul.

2. How will the Celtics adjust to life without Kevin Garnett?

Glen Davis will likely start, which leaves a huge hole on the bench where Davis is soaking up 30 minutes a night behind Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal. That means more time for Jermaine O’Neal who played well against the Pistons. Doc Rivers could also go small with Paul Pierce and Marquis Daniels as the forwards.

3. It’s an afternoon game after a long road trip.

The schedule leads to its own problems as the Celtics returned home Thursday after a week on the road. There has been precious little practice time the last month and it generally takes teams a game to return to form after a road trip. The injuries don’t help either. This has all the makings of a grind-it-out game between two of the NBA’s top defenses.

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Danny Ainge on The Big Show: Kevin Garnett has a strained calf 12.30.10 at 5:12 pm ET
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Danny Ainge (AP)

Celtics president Danny Ainge told The Big Show Thursday that after an MRI and a thorough examination, Kevin Garnett would likely be out a couple of weeks with a strained calf muscle.

“It’s a muscle injury, a strained calf,” Ainge said. “It’s actually the softer side of the leg below the knee. It’s not anything to do with his knee, which is great news, and it’s one of those injuries that he may be out for a couple of weeks at the most. That’s my guess. It’s always a guess. I’ll just say two weeks. I think that’s on the conservative side.”

Ainge said that when he saw Garnett go down and grimace in pain that he was hoping it wasn’t serious, but he did flashback to the Utah game in 2009. “That was a specific injury that he had and had been playing with,” Ainge said. “KG had been playing with a sore leg for weeks before that Utah injury and it wasn’t something that just happened. he had that bone spur on there for much longer than before that Utah game.”

Ainge also had an update on Rajon Rondo who has missed six games with an ankle sprain. “Rajon is getting better,” Ainge said. “It was a pretty severe sprain. Rajon is in a situation where he could play, but he’s in pain still. He has pain on both sides of the ankle and we just don’t want to get him back on to the court until he can play hard.”

Here are more highlights from the interview: Read the rest of this entry »

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