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Celtics fall apart down stretch without Isaiah Thomas, lose to 76ers as showdown with Wizards looms 03.19.17 at 3:57 pm ET
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Celtics forward Jaylen Brown soars for two against the Sixers on Sunday. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown soars for two against the Sixers on Sunday. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

Want to see what an NBA margin-for-error looks like? Pit the Celtics, without Isaiah Thomas, against the up-and-coming 76ers and then start the fourth quarter.

On Sunday, the Celtics once again found themselves running ragged without their All-Star point guard around to remind everyone what time it was with the game on the line, and the result was a disappointing 105-99 defeat.

In the process, they made the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference unnecessarily tight, with a showdown in Boston looming against the third-seeded Wizards on Monday night. It’s unclear if Thomas, who is nursing a bone bruise in his right knee, will be able to play.

Without him, the Celtics must determine a way to slow John Wall (25.6 points, 11.1 assists in his last 8 games) and Co., or they’ll be teetering on the precipice of falling to third in the conference.

After Washington threw away Saturday’s game against Charlotte, the Celtics looked to be in a good position to grow their 1 1/2-game lead. But Rookie of the Year favorite Dario Saric scored 20 points to lead the Sixers, who outscored the Celtics 14-8 over the final 3:41 to break a 91-91 tie.

Now, if Washington wins on Monday, it will close the gap to just one game in the loss column in the playoff race, which highlights what a missed opportunity Sunday represented. With Al Horford scoring a season-high 27 points and Terry Rozier (14 points, 10 rebounds) providing a nice lift off the bench, the Celtics appeared to be in the driver’s seat, but they imploded down the stretch on offense without Thomas to bail them out.

They blew leads of 13 in the third quarter and five in the fourth. In one stretch, Marcus Smart attempted a spin move in the lane, but left the basketball behind; Amir Johnson boxed around an entry pass; Jae Crowder clanged a 3. The Celtics lost what felt like 80 percent of the loose balls during this stretch, and the Sixers sealed it when Nik Stauskus made a 3-pointer from the right wing with 38.8 seconds remaining.

There will be no rest for the weary as the Celtics return home to face the Wizards in a game that could decide who finishes second in the East. Washington leads the season series, 2-1, so the Celtics will need this one to have any chance in any potential tie-breakers. As thing stand now, the second seed in the conference will get Miami in the first round (the Heat had won 23 of 28 entering Sunday), while the third seed will face Paul George and the Pacers.

Read More: 76ers, Celtics, NBA playoff standings, Wizards
Sorry Hoosiers, Brad Stevens isn’t going to coach Indiana University 03.18.17 at 11:26 am ET
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Brad Stevens (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports)

Brad Stevens (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports)

It was inevitable.

With the firing of Tom Creen, the rumors started swirling about Indiana native Brad Stevens jumping ship from the Celtics to go coach at his home state’s university.

According to Stevens, that’s not going to happen.

“I don’t speak to the rumor mill or anything else, but I’ve made it pretty clear I’m going to be here,” the Celtics coach told reporters. “I’ve been asked about that quite a bit and my answer will be the same — I’m going to be here until the Celtics decide they want to move in another direction.”

Stevens signed a six-year, $22 million deal to coach in Boston in 2013 and received a contract extension in 2016. The 40-year-old is currently 157-158 with the C’s, guiding his team to a 44-25 record to date this season.

“One thing about it — I grew up in that state and spend a lot of time down there. I certainly love the state of Indiana and what basketball means in that state,” said Stevens, who previously coached at Butler Univeristy. “IU means a lot to the people in that state. I was no different as a kid, but again, I’ll be here. Doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of the teams in the state — I root for one a heck of a lot more than the rest.”

Stevens grew up in Zionsville, Indiana, and regularly drove to Bloomington to watching Indiana games.

Celtics fill Jaylen Brown’s car with popcorn after argument with Marcus Smart 03.16.17 at 9:32 am ET
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Jaylen Brown didn't have a banner night Wednesday. (Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)

Jaylen Brown didn’t have a banner night Wednesday. (Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)

It wasn’t a banner night for Jaylen Brown. 

In the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ 117-104 win over the Timberwolves, the rookie forward was engaged in a heated spat with Marcus Smart on the sidelines. The argument appeared to stem from a play earlier in the period, when Brown prematurely drove to the hoop for a layup attempt instead of pitching the ball back to a wide-open Smart at the top of the perimeter. 

It only got worse for Brown after the game. His teammates filled his car with popcorn, drumming up an old NBA prank.  

But at least Brown seemed to have a sense of humor about the ordeal. He said on Instagram he needed the popcorn for a movie night, anyway. 

Read More: Boston Celtics, Jaylen Brown,
Al Horford drops 20 points in win over Timberwolves 03.15.17 at 10:55 pm ET
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Mar 15, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Al Horford (42) controls the ball during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at TD Garden.  The Boston Celtics won 117-104.  Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Al Horford took initiative on offense and finished 9-of-12 from the floor (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today)

For the first time since Jan. 25, Al Horford scored 20 points. 

Horford, who entered Wednesday night’s game averaging just under 14 points (13.9) a night, was not only his team’s second leading scorer but took some initiative on offense and turned in his best game as a member of the Celtics in a 117-104 win over the Timberwolves. 

Horford’s scoring has easily been the biggest knock about his game this year. It’s been five years since the Celtics’ four-year, $113 million man has averaged fewer than 15 points a night. But if Wednesday was an indication of what’s to come later on, the franchise’s biggest free-agent signing could pay off in the post season.

He finished 9-of-12 from the floor and was an immediate impact on offense from start to finish alongside Thomas as the C’s shot 54.4 percent and finished with 34 assists.

Isaiah Thomas (27) and Horford combined for 47 points. Horford, who flirted with a triple-double, led the Celtics in rebounding (9) and assists (8), Avery Bradley added 18 points and Marcus Smart (5 assists) and Kelly Olynyk each chipped in 10 points off the bench.

Ricky Rubio’s 23 points and 7 assists led the Timberwolves, Andrew Wiggins scored 18 points, Shabazz Muhammad led the bench with 21 and Karl-Anthony Towns notched a double-double (17 points, 14 rebounds).

For a complete recap of Wednesday’s win, click here.

In a seesaw, neck-and-neck entertaining first half, the Timberwolves grabbed control of the tempo by grabbing the first double-digit lead of the night halfway through the second quarter (46-36). That’s when the Celtics’ leading scorer took control of the offense.

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Two years later, Rajon Rondo trade goes down as one of Danny Ainge’s greatest deals 03.13.17 at 4:47 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo seems to be in the twilight of his career. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Rajon Rondo seems to be in the twilight of his career. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

When the Celtics finally traded Rajon Rondo in December 2014, his value was at a nadir. The mercurial point guard was in the final year of his contract and coming off a mysterious hand injury that took longer to heal than anticipated. With that in mind, Danny Ainge was lauded for extracting any value from the Mavericks in return for him. 

But as it turns out, the trade was a heist. 

The Mavericks’ package for Rondo centered around a 2016 first-round pick (Guerschon Yabusele), 2016 second-round selection (Demetrius Jackson) and a then-little-known forward named Jae Crowder. Though the picks received much of the attention at the time, Crowder has turned into perhaps the team’s best all-around players. This revelation is hardly breaking news, but it was especially on display Sunday, when Rondo spent the majority of the contest on the bench while the Celtics shellacked the Bulls. 

Despite only being 1.5 games out of the playoffs, the Bulls are preparing to rebuild. Maybe the most telling moment of their futile season came in late January, when Rondo called out his running mates, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. In an Instagram post, Rondo lambasted their leadership style after they had publicly called out some of their teammates. 

“My vets would never go to the media,” he wrote. “They would come to the team. My vets didn’t pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn’t take days off. My vets didn’t care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn’t blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn’t have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn’t change the plan because it didn’t work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can’t win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”

Playing for his fourth team in three seasons, the 31-year-old Rondo is far from being the max contract player he once thought he was. That was obvious Sunday. He logged just 18 mins in the Celtics’ 100-80 victory, scoring two points with six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Even though Rondo is healthy, he hasn’t started a game since Nov. 30. 

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge, Jae Crowder, Rajon Rondo
Were Celtics that good or Bulls that bad? Mike Petraglia, Josue Pavon discuss Sunday’s romp 03.12.17 at 7:19 pm ET
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Was Sunday more about the Celtics looting great or Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and the Bulls looking awful? Mike Petraglia and Josue Pavon discuss inside TD Garden.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Josue Pavon, Mike Petraglia
Blowout win against Bulls proves why the Celtics’ defense makes all the difference 03.12.17 at 5:46 pm ET
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Mar 12, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) smiles from the bench during the second half of the Boston Celtics 100-80 win over the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas smiles from the bench during the second half of the Boston Celtics 100-80 win over the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden. (Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

The Bulls needed the second quarter to reach double figures in points, the third quarter to score at least 30 and a miracle to close their deficit. 

The Celtics not only held Chicago to nine first-quarter points in Sunday’s 100-80 blowout victory, they also played with the kind of defensive intensity that should put them in great position to grab the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and hold onto it.

The Celtics’ defense set the tone early as the Bulls finished the first quarter 3-of-22 from the floor. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder were very physical with Chicago’s best scorers — Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade — and kept them in check throughout the afternoon. Wade (8 points) and Butler (5 points) combined for just 13 points on 6-of-22 shots.

The Bulls never led once.

Isaiah Thomas finished with a game-high 22 points, Bradley added 17 points, 6 rebounds and three steals and Al Horford chipped in 12 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Six Celtics players scored in double figures. 

For a complete recap of Sunday’s win, click here. 

Boston’s commitment on the defensive end disallowed the Bulls to find their offensive rhythm and much like we’ve seen throughout the regular season — the Celtics’ defensive stops catapulted their offense. But it wasn’t just a few guys creating stops, it was a group effort. 

Al Horford and Amir Johnson each finished with two blocks and a number of stops, while the Celtics bench — led by Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown — combined for 5 steals. The Celtics finished the night with 14 steals and coerced the Bulls to commit 17 turnovers.

With 15 games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics (42-25) are in a tie with the Wizards for second place but due to their relatively light schedule, have a great opportunity to head into the playoffs with the second best record in the east. This week, the C’s will take on the Timberwolves, Nets and 76ers — three of 11 below .500 teams that are left on their remaining schedule. 

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls,
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