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Fast Break: Bradley, undermanned C’s give strong effort; fall short in Atlanta 04.20.12 at 9:33 pm ET
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The Celtics were without Mickael Pietrus, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett on Friday night. To say Boston was undermanned is like saying Kevin Millar and Pedro Martinez didn’t exactly hit their marks during their speech at Fenway Park’s 100th birthday celebration earlier today.

Despite this, the B-squad put together a valiant effort against the Hawks, but fell short, 97-92. Joe Johnson led the way for Atlanta with 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Avery Bradley had a stellar performance for the Celtics, scoring a career-high 28 points on 12-of-22 shooting.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

‘A’ is for ‘Avery’: Avery Bradley scored 17 first-half points for the second straight game. He scored in a variety of ways: off strong cuts (his forte), penetrating to the basket, pull up jumpers — everything, really. He was 8-of-13 shooting, and carried the team offensively. In a game where he truly had to be, Bradley was exceptional and, at times, looked like a leader — keep in mind, he is just 21 years old.

Car Keys: While Bradley certainly figures to be prominently involved in the upcoming playoff run, Doc Rivers using the B-squad Friday night gave an opportunity for Keyon Dooling to show he can contribute to the Celtics cause. He started the game a perfect 4-of-4 shooting and had 10 first half points, including an impressive floating tear drop after abusing Vladimir Radmanovic off the dribble.

Hardly Intimidated: The Hawks beat the Celtics Friday night, but it wasn’t exactly a frightening performance from the potential first round playoff opponent. The Celtics hung around largely because of their offense — shooting 60 percent in the first half — and Atlanta didn’t exactly look like world beaters against the makeshift Boston lineups. In fact, the Celtics cut the lead to just one, 87-86, with just over two minutes remaining in the game. This was a closer game than it should have been from Atlanta’s perspective.

WHAT WENT WRONG

No Average Joe: A concern while starting Bradley at shooting guard is whether he can handle guarding players who can shoot over him. Bradley wasn’t tasked with covering Johnson every trip down the floor, but Johnson’s line was impressive nonetheless as he was able to post up Bradley on occasion.

In Defense of Defense: It’s certainly hard to put a great deal of stock into Friday night’s contest. After all, Boston was missing five rotational players. On the other hand, the team relented 58 first half points — the Hawks shot over 60% themselves through 24 minutes.

Bass-ically Non-Existent: Not a great night for Brandon Bass. The starting power forward scored 10 points and shot 4-of-15 from the field on a night where Boston desperately needed the few core players that were active to step up.

Greg Stiemsma has ‘big plans’ for Celtics playoffs 04.19.12 at 2:56 am ET
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Who would have thought Greg Stiemsma would play a key playoff role on this Celtics team? (AP)

When the Celtics reflect on their 2011-12 season — which saw them capture a fifth Atlantic Division crown Wednesday night despite a variety of injuries throughout the campaign — they might ask themselves, “How did we pull that off?”

Sure, they benefited from a renaissance season from Kevin Garnett, enjoyed Rajon Rondo‘s streak of 23 straight games with 10 or more assists and saw a rather unexpected growth from Avery Bradley. Then there’s the ascension of Greg Stiemsma.

Stiemsma didn’t begin seeing extended playing time until the second half of the season. In January, he was buried on Doc Rivers‘ bench and only averaged just over seven minutes. That number sky-rocketed to 18 minutes in March, and then 20 in April, due to season-ending injuries to Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal.

Still, despite the uneven playing time, Stiemsma is averaging 1.56 blocks per game this season, which ranks him 15th in the entire league, and second among all rookies (The seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, Bismack Biyombo, ranks first). Not bad for a training camp invitee.

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers, Greg Stiemsma, Paul Pierce
Fast Break: C’s shooting runs cold in Toronto 04.13.12 at 9:44 pm ET
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The Celtics are a much different team since their last loss to Toronto in early February. But no matter how much things change, sometimes, they stay the same. In an ugly affair Friday night, the Raptors defeated the Celtics, 84-79.

The C’s trailed by 10 with just over two minutes left in the game, but pulled within one, 78-77, with 20.5 seconds left in the game. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo helped spearhead the effort, shooting a combined 7-of-9 from the field in the final frame, but it was all for not. The Raptors hit their free throws, and Pierce missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game in the waning moments.

The Celtics shot 37.5 percent from the field. The Raptors didn’t fare much better at 34.7 percent, but Toronto out-rebounded Boston, 50-37. For the Raptors, DeMar DeRozan scored 22 points. Pierce scored 18 points, but only shot 6-of-15 from the field.  Rondo’s 12 assists keeps his consecutive games with at least 10 assists alive at 20 games.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Killing Time: For a good portion of the second quarter Doc Rivers trotted out a lineup of Greg Stiemsma, Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, and Ryan Hollins — and they extended the lead to as many as 13. This kept the starting five’s minutes down early, which is critical, considering this is the first game of a back-to-back-to-back this weekend.

Killer B’s: Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley don’t get the publicity that the Big Four do, but the two are just as critical if the C’s have any dreams of a deep playoff run. In what was a terrible 24 minutes of offensive basketball, the duo combined to score 17 points (8-of-13 shooting), nearly half the Celtics entire output (36 points).

WHAT WENT WRONG

Star Power?: Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rondo were a combined 6-of-25 shooting with 16 points through three quarters. Without Ray Allen, Boston needed more production from their stars. Rondo, who dished out nine assists through 36 minutes, missed all four of his shot attempts. 

Killer Instinct: The crowd in the Air Canada Center was silent, the Raptors looked disinterested, and the B-squad had built the Celtic lead to 13. Yet, inexplicably, Boston began settling for jumpers and the Raptors chipped away at the double digit lead, dwindling it to six at halftime, 36-30, despite shooting 21 percent from the field.

Where was the knockout blow? Things only got worse at the start of the third quarter. Toronto’s confidence grew and a 30-10 run opened up a nine point lead for the Raptors. Point is, the Celtics could have made life much easier by putting the 20-win Raptors away when they had the chance.

Dry Paint: If the Celtics win in Miami was a great illustration of living off the jump shot, Friday served as an example of dying by it. The Raptors were able to get back in the game by attacking the basket. DeRozan was the game’s leading scorer midway through the third quarter with 15 points — he was only shooting 3-of-11 from the field at the time — but was 9-of-9 from the free throw line. The Raptors were winning the free throw battle 20-10 at this juncture of the game, which was a big reason why they outscored the Celtics in the third quarter, 27-11.

Mickael Pietrus makes an unexpected return 04.12.12 at 2:37 am ET
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The Celtics had clawed back eight-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Rajon Rondo raced up the floor and spotted Mickael Pietrus just beyond the 3-point line. Marvin Williams raced to close out the open space, but Pietrus set his feet and drilled a 3-pointer to extend the lead.

As Hawks’ coach Larry Drew called a timeout, Pietrus turned to the Garden faithful, held up three fingers, and strutted back to the bench while the crowd cheered. Aided by Pietrus’ unexpected return to the court, the Celtics were able to beat the Hawks, 88-86 in overtime.

It was only 19 days ago that Pietrus lay motionless in Philadelphia after violently hitting the floor following a drive to the basket, resulting in a severe concussion. He was immobile for over 10 minutes and the Wells Fargo crowd grew increasingly somber as players from both teams surrounded the fallen player.

“I fell so hard, it felt like my brain was moving,” Pietrus said. “I didn’t feel good, I was throwing up.”

Over the next two weeks, the Celtics rallied around their various injuries and have made a significant push, peaking just before the start of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Pietrus watched from home, hoping to contribute once he was fully recovered.

“I was laid out for two weeks,” he said. “I couldn’t do much. I was trying to rest my brain. I could not watch TV. I could not do anything basically. It’s not like an injury that you hurt your knee, you hurt your ankle, it’s your brain. You’ve got to get your brain right.”

Still, as much as he wanted to be on the court again, Pietrus said he used to the time to reflect on how lucky he was that his injury was not more severe.

“I was thinking about my kids,” he said. “I was thinking about my life. That could have been a different story for me. Today, I’m young, I still got my smile. I enjoy life. When I fell I was thinking more about my kids.”

After participating in one-on-one drills yesterday in practice, team president Danny Ainge and the training staff worked Pietrus out this morning. Once he was cleared to play, Doc Rivers said he only expected to use him for five or 10 minutes Wednesday night. But with the roster shorthanded without Ray Allen — who missed the game because of his balky ankle — and the team engaged in an overtime thriller, Pietrus stepped up, logging 29 minutes for the C’s.

“He was great,” Rivers said. “Danny called me today and said they worked him out and he was tried after two minutes. We went in thinking four or five minutes and get him ready for the games coming up. Going into it that was our plan. He actually never looked over and said he was tired. Maybe he was working out on the sly and we didn’t know it.”

Overall the performance was everything Rivers, Pietrus, and the Celtics could have hoped for. He gave the Celtics a few timely 3-pointers, solid defense, and a body to turn to off the depleted bench.  However, there were a few anxious moments when Pietrus hit the floor after a few diving lay-up attempts.

“That’s why they call me ‘Air France’, you know?” Pietrus said. “I got to take off, and I have to land.”

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Fast Break: C’s pace themselves in convincing win in Indy 04.07.12 at 9:27 pm ET
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The Celtics snapped their two game losing streak on Saturday night, beating the Pacers, 86-72. Rajon Rondo had double-digit (12) assists for the 16th straight game (the longest streak since John Stockton in 1992). Paul Pierce led the way with 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Kevin Garnett struggled with his shot for the majority of the game, but in the fourth quarter he heated up, scoring 10 of his 15 points in the final frame. For the Pacers, Danny Granger scored 20 points.

Boston will host the 76ers, who currently trail the Celtics for first place in the Atlantic division, on Sunday night. Philly has already beaten the C’s in dominant fashion twice this season.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

What Goes Around Comes Around: In the Jan. 6th match-up at the Garden, the Celtics set a franchise record-low for points in the first-half, only scoring 25 points. The Pacers didn’t embarrass themselves to that level, but in a battle with playoff implications, they certainly came out flat, only putting up 33 first-half points. Part of this effort was poor execution, but the Celtics also played swarming defense and contested shots — especially in the paint, where Greg Stiemsma had five (yes, FIVE) first-half blocks.

No Reservations: The production off the Celtics bench has been volatile all year. The starters, from an offensive standpoint, have had to carry the load. Doc Rivers shortened his rotation and established roles after the All-Star break, which has improved the unit’s efficiency. With Ray Allen relegated to the bench after missing six games, the reserves should have more firepower going forward.

This was the case Saturday night, as the Celtics bench outscored the Pacers reserves, 37-12. The expected output from Allen (19 points) came. The way in which Allen scored was encouraging, as his whole arsenal was on display. He hit a few 3-pointers, a mid-range jumper and converted a lay-up on the fast break, even though he ended up shooting just 7-of-19 from the floor.

But unsung heroes also came up big for Boston. Stiemsma added 10 points and nine rebounds and Sasha Pavlovic (8 points) continued to play the role of “good soldier,” contributing in the limited minutes of action he is given.

Sharing is caring: The Celtics had 27 assists on their 32 field goals. The strong ball movement in the half court gave open looks for Boston.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Making Things Uncomfortable: As good as the Celtics defense was, their offense struggled at times. Boston shot 42.1 percent from the field and at times settled for jump shots, which led to a 19-14 free throw discrepancy in favor of the Pacers. A more aggressive offensive approach could have helped Boston’s cause.

That said, the Celtics’ lead did float around nine points for the duration of the game, so it’s tough to find fault in the performance.

Bad B’s: This will probably be a game Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass will want to forget. The two starters have been pleasant surprises for the Celtics and have played well beyond preseason expectations. Saturday night, however, the two combined for six points (2-of-13 shooting).

Celtics fast starts key to winning ways 04.02.12 at 12:31 am ET
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“The bottom line is we can’t dig ourselves into these holes in the first quarter. It’s seems repetitive. Starters have to do a better job of getting off to better starts. We had to scratch and claw our way back and exert so much energy. Guys get tired and can’t get over the hump.”- Paul Pierce following a 88-79 loss to the Bulls during a five-game losing streak earlier this season.

“Probably early in the year, we were probably out of shape. Right now, we’re starting to find out groove. We’re coming out being aggressive from the jump. That’s our mentality, we’re usually the aggressor — not the retaliators. So, when we come out and play that way it’s pretty much to our advantage.” - Paul Pierce on Sunday, following the Celtics 91-72 win over the Heat.

During their five-game winning streak, the Celtics have jumped out to quick leads. As Pierce lamented earlier in the season, in the NBA teams make runs to bring themselves back within contention, but the energy expended during those frantic momentum swings often leaves players gassed and unable to complete the comeback.

That’s why Sunday’s fast start was so imperative to Boston’s 91-72 blowout victory against the Heat. Rajon Rondo — en route to his fifth triple-double of the season – led the way with in the first 12 minutes; scoring 10 points, dishing out four assists, and corralling four rebounds. The lead dwindled to five by halftime in large part because Boston went through an all-to-familiar offensive lull when they trotted a lineup of Kevin Garnett, Greg Stiemsma, Keyon Dooling, Avery Bradley, and Sasha Pavlovic in the second quarter.

The key, however, was that Rondo and Pierce earned valuable rest prior to halftime. With the Celtics still ahead by five, and their two All-Stars fresh for the final 24 minutes, Boston pounced on the Heat in the third quarter, outscoring Miami, 31-12. And Miami, who had already climbed back from a 10-point first quarter deficit, resigned to taking low percentage mid-range jumpers. The Celtics never looked back.

“Offensively and defensively we like to come out and throw the first punch,” Pierce said. “If we’re able to do that for the full game, then I like our chances night-in and night-out against anybody.”

Because of a laundry list of injuries, the Celtics have had to play with a short bench, putting added responsibility to the starters to produce early in games. In each of the last five games, they have jumped out to substantial leads, which in turn, creates a cushion whenever the undermanned bench take the floor.

Last Sunday, against the Wizards, the Celtics grabbed a 15-point lead after the first quarter, and stretched the margin to 19 by halftime. Washington gave a determined effort in the opening stages of the second half, cutting the deficit to eight points, but the lead earned at halftime proved to be insurmountable. Despite being outscored 42-35 in the second half, the Celtics cruised to a relatively easy 88-76 victory.

The next night in Charlotte, the Celtics starters went to work immediately, grabbing an 18-point lead after the first quarter, trying to finish the game before the lowly Bobcats knew it started. Like the Wizards, the Bobcats responded with a 35-point second quarter. The Celtics were able to recover in the second-half and turn their two-point halftime advantage into double digits in the fourth quarter, before putting Charlotte away 102-95. Imagine if the starters imply held serve in the first quarter though — surely, they would have been staring at a double-digit halftime hole.

Last Wednesday, a 28-14 second quarter advantage against the Jazz gave Boston enough wiggle room to sustain a few blows by Al Jefferson and company, eventually pulling away to their fourth straight victory.

It took them more than half a season to find their rhythm from start to finish, but the Celtics are starting to find it.

Watch the throne: C’s heat up as Sunday showdown nears 03.31.12 at 5:46 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo and LeBron James will face off again at TD Garden on Sunday. (AP)

The elation was reminiscent of a championship ceremony. The collective relief from the crowd, the exhaustive expressions of the victors and the sour disappointment of the losers were all palpable. The Heat had beaten the Celtics in five games … to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Re-watching the celebration unfold, it becomes extremely difficult to keep the moderate accomplishment in perspective. LeBron James began “Tebowing” (before “Tebowing” was a thing), Dwayne Wade fell to the floor like Michael Jordan after he won his third NBA title in 1993, and Doc Rivers (who was rumored to be stepping away from coaching after the conclusion of the Celtics’ playoff run) wandered around the floor like a lost puppy.

Needless to say, it felt like something was happening. A coronation of some sort. Presumably, the hoary Celtics would no longer be a threat following the 2010-11 playoffs, and the manner in which James spoke about his adversary in the immediate aftermath was extremely deferential — almost like a eulogy.

“First of all, I want to give a lot of thanks to the Boston Celtics,” James said. “Doc Rivers, that coaching staff, them players — they make [you] fight for everything, you can never take your foot off the gas, you can never take a second off against that team, so a lot of respect for that team.”

However, as James was giving praise and soaking in the moment, Rivers was preparing for his post-game press conference, where he unexpectedly declared he was coming back to coach the next season and beyond.

The Heat would advance to the NBA finals, eventually losing to the Mavericks in six games. Rivers’ decision made ripples, putting a moratorium on the passing of the crown, but most likely flew under the radar in the Heat locker room since they had advanced and the Celtics were going home.

That playoff series featured emotions that seemed elevated beyond the stakes of the individual contest. Regardless of where the two teams stand in the conference rankings, there’s enough star power — one Big Three facing another — to make matchups between the teams an event. And that is part of the allure of the next meeting of the teams on Sunday, when the Heat come to TD Garden to face a Celtics team playing at its highest level this season.

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