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Dog days of March could lead to glory days in May for Celtics 03.07.12 at 9:31 am ET
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At the end of the season, we’ll look back at the schedule and see the Celtics’ 97-92 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Rockets in early March. The box score and game details will show that Boston was down 10, with just over 5½ minutes left, and coming off an emotional overtime win over the Knicks. All of these components add up to the type of game that galvanizes a team.

Not in the 2011-12 season, though. This was ugly basketball at its finest (or sloppiest, depending on how you want to look at it). Tuesday night’s game featured more candidates to be on Sportscenter’s “Not Top 10 Moments” than actual sound basketball plays. But after 53 grueling minutes of basketball, the Celtics were the ones that don’t have to look back regretting they lost a game neither team deserved to win.

“It was a no-energy game,” Doc Rivers said. “You can feel it. I even said at halftime even the building had no energy. It’s just one of those nights. And our guys kept talking about grinding the game.”

The Celtics fell behind by seven after one quarter. Uncharacteristically, Boston had a great second quarter, and took a six-point lead into halftime. The C’s bolstered the margin to double digits in the third quarter. The Rockets responded by going on an impressive 35-11 run that propelled them to a 10-point lead with just over 5½ minutes left.

“It was definitely a strange game,” Paul Pierce said. “It was a battle of wills. One team wanted it one quarter, then the [other the next]. Like a seesaw battle. They make a run, we make a run, they make a run. Nobody could really just put the other team away.”

As the Celtics’ four-game winning streak appeared to be in jeopardy, they turned to the foundation that this team has been built on these past five seasons — defense. Their rotations were crisp. Houston muddled around the perimeter, and with every swing pass the recipient was greeted by a Boston defender. The imposing defensive style forced consecutive shot-clock violations, and with just under two minutes left the Houston lead had dwindled to just three.

“The defensive energy picked up,” Ray Allen said. “When they went on a run, we weren’t getting any stops. They kind of dictated how the game was being played. We changed that by pushing them up away from the basket. Everything that they had was contested, and we got rebounds.”

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The Truth surfaces when it matters most 03.04.12 at 9:44 pm ET
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Prior to the 2008 playoffs, ESPN interviewed The Big Three. The Celtics had a great regular season and the title aspirations which were frequently talked about once Danny Ainge dealt for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were coming to fruition. The interview featured a wide-range of questions, but one stood out. If the game was on the line, who would take the last shot? The three were asked to answer simultaneously on the count of three. Paul Pierce and Garnett both said Allen, and Allen answered “The open man.”

Although Allen and Garnett have both hit their fair share of significant shots in the waning moments of games, it’s safe to say — five years later — we have the answer…Pierce.

That’s why on Sunday, with the Celtics trailing 103-100 against the Knicks, it wasn’t shocking to see the captain breathe life into his team, hitting a 3-point shot in the face of Iman Shumpert with just over four seconds left in regulation.

“The play was for Ray,” Pierce explained. “We set a double screen for Ray to come off two screens. If he wasn’t open on the first, we’d set another for him. The play really kind of gotten broken up, because [RajonRondo wanted to go baseline and flare me to the baseline, but once I saw Kevin with the ball, I just wanted to come off of it. I came off wide open and got a wide open look.”

Pierce’s clutch shot sent the game into overtime after Carmelo Anthony misfired along the baseline as time expired. The Celtics seized the momentum and went on to win, 115-111.

The refreshing aspect of the win is that Boston has typically found itself on the other side of the equation in close games this season. On opening day in Madison Square Garden, the Knicks prevailed, 106-104, as Garnett missed a close range jumper which would have tied the game. Later in the season against the Mavericks, Pierce hit a dramatic 3-pointer to tie the game, but Dirk Nowitzki answered with a diving lay-in to secure a victory for Dallas. Against the Cavaliers it was rookie Kyrie Irving who converted a lay-up off a pick and roll to propel Cleveland to a dramatic come-from-behind win in Boston. Finally, about a month ago, it was Pierce who botched an opportunity to feed Allen for a potential game-winning shot in an overtime loss against the Lakers.

On Sunday it appeared yet again that the Celtics would flounder down the stretch after conceding a fourth quarter lead. Pierce and Anthony traded a series of baskets in the final minutes. The Knicks had the upper hand, 101-100, with just over 30 seconds left in regulation. Coming out of a timeout, Pierce slipped while driving to the basket, which forced Garnett to call a timeout to maintain possession. Undeterred, Doc Rivers called Pierce’s number once again, but Pierce couldn’t deliver. He missed an off-balance jumper, and the Celtics three-game winning streak seemed as if it was about to end.

“I got to a spot that I like to get the shot off from,” Pierce said. “Maybe I rushed it a little bit, but it felt good coming out of my hand. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. I had another opportunity and another crack at it. And you know the old saying: If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

Luckily for the Celtics, Pierce would get to try one more time. After Steve Novak buried two free throws, Rondo directed traffic just beyond half court to try to get one last good look at a 3-point shot. The Celtics had no more time outs left and had to operate on the fly. After a series of hand-offs, it seemed like a quality opportunity wasn’t going to open up. Pierce came up to help out by making himself available for the straightway 3-pointer. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I don’t know if that’s execution,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters after the game. “That’s having a horseshoe up your rear. That’s what Paul Pierce does.”

Paul Pierce, rainmaker? After an illustrious career that moniker probably doesn’t apply. Odd execution? Sure. But, in sports, all that matters is the Celtics earned a much-needed win to sustain their post All-Star break winning streak. That’s The Truth.

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Saturday practice notes: Rejuvenated Knicks, pressing issues & five for fighting 03.03.12 at 5:31 pm ET
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Doc Rivers said he noted Lin's effectiveness in the six minutes he played against the Celtics February 3rd. (AP)

It seems every time the Celtics and Knicks play one another this year each team is going through a tipping point of some kind. The Celtics dropped their first three games of the season beginning with a 106-104 loss on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden.

The next time the two Atlantic division foes met was early February at TD Garden Garden. The Celtics prevailed, 91-89, as they were amidst a streak that saw them win 10 of 12 games. Meanwhile, the loss was New York’s 11th in 13 games.

Then Jeremy Lin happened. The Harvard University standout invigorated the Knicks, while also seemingly taking over the entire sports landscape, leading New York to wins in 10 of their 13 games since their loss to the Celtics.

Doc Rivers, who said he had written in his game notes that he was impressed with Lin during his limited action in the Feb. 3 matchup, thinks the Cinderella story is good for the league.

“The kid has played terrific basketball,” Rivers said Saturday afternoon, following the Celtics walk-through. “He’s earned it. He’s clearly made them a better team.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Rajon Rondo brings back the headband 03.03.12 at 1:51 am ET
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Rajon Rondo busted out the headband against the Nets on Friday. (AP)

Maybe it was the trade rumors. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic. Or, maybe, he just wanted to blow up everyone’s Twitter feed and create some mayhem on a Friday night.

Whatever the reason, for the time since the Celtics played in the NBA Finals in two seasons ago, Rajon Rondo wore a headband while playing against the Nets.

“I just felt like a change,” Rondo said. “I just needed a change tonight. You may not ever see it again.”

For the majority of his six-year NBA career, Rondo wore a headband with the NBA logo facing upside down, but the league instituted a rule against wearing headbands inside out. After the 2009-10 season, the league instituted a policy outlawing Rondo’s inverted style. He hasn’t worn a headband in game-action since.

“I think it’s my statement — my signature statement when I won a championship,” Rondo said. “Who knows? People ask me all the time why I don’t wear it anymore. I tried to get a petition, but it didn’t go through.”

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Celtics if Rondo kept his retro-look en vogue. His line Friday night: 14 points, 13 assists and five steals. And even though he mentioned that he wore the headband on a whim and possibly not donning it again, Rondo wasn’t ruling anything out.

“I’m 1-0 in the headband this year,” he said. “So I might try to keep the streak alive Sunday.”

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Chris Wilcox: Duracell Man 02.16.12 at 1:38 am ET
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Chris Wilcox has been making a positive contribution for the Celtics. (AP)

One of the biggest compliments a bench player can receive is being called an “energy guy.” Over the course of an NBA season starters go through lulls or, even worse, injuries. Reliable role players that bring energy to the table every night may not catch someone’s attention in the box score, but their ferocious and relentless style of play can change the outcome of games.

Exhibit A: Chris Wilcox‘s production the last three weeks.

After starting the season poorly due to injuries, Wilcox turned the corner while helping Boston during its comeback win on the road against Orlando.  The very next night he scored 14 points in a victory over the Pacers. A few days later, when the Celtics began a five game winning-streak, Wilcox began to flourish and Doc Rivers even attributed the dramatic 91-89 victory over the Knicks to his effort on the offensive boards. But the 6-foot-10 back-up center wasn’t scoring in bunches, or collecting every rebound in site. Instead, he was showing his worth with something intangible — his energy.

“He’s figured it out,” Rivers said. “I think this is how he should be every day in his career. I don’t think it should be inconsistent. I think this is who he is, this is a talent he has. Energy from a big is a talent. It’s who he should be every night. I tell him that all the time.”

The best part of Wilcox’s contributions over the period is the subtle way he tries to make a positive impact. Many bench players fall into the trap of pressing for more minutes. They may force shots or disrupt the flow of the offense to prove they belong on the floor. Wilcox has let the game come to him.

In the 12 games since his breakout performance against Orlando, Wilcox is only taking about four shots a game, but has shot an efficient 34-of-52 (65 percent) from the field. His focus has been largely predicated on the little things like boxing out, creating deflections on the defensive end and trying to get ahead of the pack to give the Celtics fast break opportunities.

“The fact that he runs the floor and he’s in front of everybody,” Rivers said. “And [Rajon] Rondo has trust that he can throw the ball up and he’ll go get it. Rondo made some tough passes tonight and Chris caught them and finished. No different than [Tom] Brady and [Rob Gronkowski]. You get confidence in certain guys.”

Wilcox has not only accepted the challenge of being a spot starter, but thrived in the role. On Sunday against the Bulls, he had 11 points (5-of-6 shooting) to go along with nine boards. Even though his role was enhanced, it was still an energy play which highlighted Wilcox’s performance. With the game still in the balance, JaJuan Johnson completed a thunderous dunk off a Rondo lob. After another Chicago turnover, Rondo pushed the ball forward and found Wilcox for yet another dunk. The crowd rose to their feet and the Celtics never looked back.

“I love playing with Chris,” Rondo said. “He’s probably one of the fastest bigs in the league. I tell him to get out there and run with me and he does a great job every night. We’re starting to get easy baskets in transition and that’s what we need offensively.”

Although the Celtics lost Wednesday night against the Pistons, Wilcox continued to impress in another spot-start performance scoring 17 points (8-of-12 shooting) and collecting nine rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes. The overall result wasn’t ideal for Boston, but Rivers and company know they got what they bargained for when they signed the veteran late in training camp.

“He’s giving us exactly what we hoped he’d give us when we signed him,” Rivers said. “Energy, athleticism, running the floor, finishing at the basket. If he can stay were he’s at right now, I’m very happy with that”.

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Celtics fail to execute down the stretch 02.10.12 at 1:42 am ET
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When the Celtics look back at their 88-87 overtime defeat to the Lakers, there will be plenty of missed opportunities to point to for the loss. Particularly frustrating was the execution during last play of regulation.

Tied with the Lakers at 82 with just under 10 seconds left in regulation, Doc Rivers called a timeout. In the Big Three era, Celtics fans have grown accustomed to seeing one of two plays in this situation: A Paul Pierce step back jumper from the elbow, or a set screen to spring Ray Allen open for a game-winning jump shot.

The play was unfolding in front of the Garden faithful as expected. Pierce dribbled to his right, and Allen was set free by a Kevin Garnett pick. The only problem was the pass never came. Pierce hesitated and picked up his dribble because he was unsure if Allen was free on the wing.

“We set a pick and roll there with me and Ray,” Pierce said. “Ray was the flare. I didn’t think he was open. I shouldn’t have picked up my dribble, and I just kind of broke up the play when I picked up my dribble.”

Once the play stalled, Pierce was forced to hand-off to Mickael Pietrus who attempted a wild shot well behind the 3-point arc. The low percentage shot left the Celtics scratching their heads, especially Allen.

“I’d like to look at it again,” Allen said. “I was wide open. As Paul started dribbling off, both of those guys stayed with him, and I was just sitting there wide open. As he was going, he didn’t want to throw the ball. He was kind of a in a bad position. It’s just the way he went off. If  he knew they were going to jump up so hard and double, I’m sure he would have veered off a little bit more so he could have had a better passing angle.”

More confounding to the Celtics was that they had an opportunity to close out the game just seconds earlier. After an Allen 3-pointer put Boston up 82-80, the Lakers answered with a Pau Gasol put-back off a Kobe Bryant miss. Pierce said Gasol and Andrew Bynum‘s length gave the Celtics problems all night. They combined for 11 offensive rebounds, none more crucial than Gasol’s game-tying basket.

After the Celtics failed to convert on the subsequent possession, the game went to overtime. Trailing 88-87, the Celtics were presented with yet another chance to win, but Gasol came to the rescue again, blocking Allen’s put back attempt off a Pierce miss which would have won the game.

“I was in a perfect situation,” Allen said. “And he came out of nowhere.”

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What to make of the Celtics after 24 games 02.09.12 at 11:31 am ET
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Paul Pierce and the Celtics have righted the ship after a tough beginning. (AP)

In order to resist the tidal wave of reactions in the midst of either winning streaks or stretches of tough losses players often offer hackneyed reminders that the season is a marathon not a sprint. However, what is so compelling about the shortened NBA season is that it is both a marathon and a sprint.

Incessant back-to-back games mean less time to recover from nicks and bruises, and virtually no time to practice. Teams can ill-afford to exaggerate the consequences of a hot or cold streak, mainly because as soon as players have digested one game, they find themselves in the lay-up line, 20 minutes away from their next contest.

Take the Celtics. They started their season losing three games in four days, all without Paul Pierce, who was sidelined by a right heel injury. Pierce returned to the lineup and the Celtics reeled off four straight wins. The ship seemed to be righted, but then the veteran squad dropped five consecutive games for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

Only 22 days into the season, with a woeful record of 4-8, rumors of blowing up the team percolated. The situation was further soured when Rajon Rondo suffered a wrist injury against the Raptors that would keep him out for two weeks. Little did anyone know, after the next 22 days, the Celtics would be one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 out of their last 12 games since the five-game losing streak.

The ascent didn’t seem probable.  After all, through 24 games, Doc Rivers has had to deal with four of his starters missing a combined 19 games. Additionally, Brandon Bass, Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling were all newcomers expected to contribute off the bench, but there was a brewing sense that the shortened training camp did not provide enough time for the team to gain chemistry. Moreover, the aforementioned injuries thwarted any opportunity to set consistent rotations.

But, through the roster chaos, the Celtics did not make excuses. Kevin Garnett and Pierce acknowledged positive periods of play, but were ultimately accountable, saying that results were the only thing that mattered.

Now results are coming, injuries are subsiding and the Celtics appear to be clicking. Even though the team’s momentum may have changed, the same even keel attitude is evident and consistency is the goal.

“It’s that point in the season when we have to start playing some basketball,” Pierce said last Friday night after Boston’s 91-89 victory against the Knicks. “Being more consistent in everything we do. We are starting to feel like we’re getting better game-in and game out, week by week. We’re starting to get healthy.” Read the rest of this entry »

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