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NBA draft-day rumors: Josh Smith to Timberwolves for second-overall pick? 06.23.11 at 3:23 pm ET
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Josh Smith continues to jockey for the position of the MVP of the rumor mill.

The latest report, coming from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, has the Hawks trying to trade the high-flying forward to Minnesota for the second-overall pick in this year’s NBA draft. The Timberwolves were believed to be heavily considering Derrick Williams out of Arizona at that spot, and Wojnarowski didn’t mention the team as being interested in any deal involving Smith.

The Hawks would most likely take center Enes Kanter, who has drawn the eye of Hawks GM Rick Sund, with the second pick if they were able to acquire it.

Read More: 2011 NBA Draft, Atlanta Hawks, Josh Smith, Minnesota Timberwolves
Report: Josh Smith eyes Celtics as trade destination 06.21.11 at 9:00 am ET
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It’s splitsville for the Hawks and forward Josh Smith, or so Yahoo! Sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski suggested on Tuesday, but could the 2010 NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection find happiness in Boston?

According to Wojnarowski, both Smith and his hometown Hawks may actually prefer the Celtics as a potential suitor for the 2005 slam dunk champ’s services …

Smith hasn’€™t requested a trade, but has privately told league friends that the Boston Celtics, New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic are his preferred destinations should the Hawks decide to move him. …

Hawks GM Rick Sund has long coveted Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — two aging Celtics entering the final years of contracts — but Celtics GM Danny Ainge has yet to show an inclination to break up his core for next season.

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Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Josh Smith, Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce star in ‘True Grit’ – Celtics style 12.17.10 at 10:24 am ET
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John Wayne and Jeff Bridges have nothing on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Garnett inspired the weary and wounded Celtics with 17 points and 14 rebounds while Pierce restored order to the offense as Nate Robinson was finding his way. KG and Pierce were the two biggest reasons the Celtics ran their winning streak to 12 games in a 102-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks at TD Garden on Thursday night.

The 12-game run matches their longest since they set the franchise record of 19 back in the 2008-09 season. Glen Davis had 18 points off a shorthanded Celtics bench. How shorthanded?

The team found out just before the game they would be without Rajon Rondo for couple of weeks as GM Danny Ainge told WEEI that his sprained left ankle needed time to heal. Robinson started and – after a rocky first half – provided an emotional boost with 14 points and five assists in 41 minutes.

Shaquille O’Neal missed his fourth straight game with a strained right calf. Von Wafer came up with a sore back in the first half and was unavailable in the second half, giving the Celtics four healthy bench players. Semih Erden scored 10 points in 24 minutes, starting in place of O’Neal for the fourth straight game.

For the final 2:44 of the first quarter, Doc Rivers had Pierce on the court with Davis, Marquis Daniels, Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody.

‘€œWe were playing with Semih, two rooks, and then Von went down at halftime,” Garnett said. “So it’€™s not enough to say [gritty]. I mean, ‘€˜P’€™ said it before the game: This is going to me more mental than anything. I think everybody’€™s playing, is giving everything they have. And in order for us to win these games, we’€™re just going to have to grind it out.

“You know, until we get the guys back. We just got the news about Rondo; Shaq wasn’€™t available today. So what’€™re you going to do? You either quit, you put your clothes on and go home, but that ain’€™t the way we do things around here. We work. So that, pretty much ‘€“ gutsy is an understatement.’€

Playing on fumes for most of the first half after an emotional win in New York 24 hours earlier, the Celtics came alive late in the second quarter, going on a 10-2 run to take a 44-43 lead at halftime. They opened the second half with a 20-12 run to assume control of the game.

‘€œI don’€™t know if I’€™m surprised or not,” Rivers said of his team’s true grit. “I trust our guys. They just play well. They’€™re executing well. I thought ‘€“ second half was terrific for us. I thought the first half, it was a grind. I mean, you could just feel it, emotionally, too, probably, coming off of last night’€™s game. And then in the second half, you know, it was terrific ‘€“ we couldn’€™t get Ray [Allen] going in the first half, and so we just changed the passer and made it Paul.

While Garnett was providing his typical fire and inspiration, Pierce turned back the clock to 2006 and ran the offense as a point-forward in the second half, while Robinson found his bearings.

“I knew I was going to have to be more of a play-maker,” Pierce said. “Truthfully, I really didn’€™t think like that. I just tried to feel the game out, and you know, try to give it what it needs. I didn’€™t need to try to have a great scoring night because of the guys we had going. I mean, Ray got it going in the second half, Baby was consistent all game, and Kevin set the tone. So, I just let the chips fall where they may, and the guys, they stepped up. And so, it sort of, kind of, ended up that way. And it played out perfectly. And if that’€™s what it’€™s going to take, that’€™s what it’€™s going to take. You know, a lot of guys out. Guys are going to be asked to play multiple roles. And that’€™s what we’€™ve got to do.’€

“Paul basically became the point forward in the second half,” Rivers added. “And it really worked out for us. I don’€™t know if we stumbled on it if we kind of were forced to do it. But it was terrific. And Paul enjoyed it, which is even better. And then our defense kicked in too.’€

And the defense will always be the true grit of this Celtics show.

Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Jeff Bridges, John Wayne
Doc Rivers to Nate Robinson: Don’t worry, you don’t suck at 12:34 am ET
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Doc Rivers could tell early on that Nate Robinson was having trouble getting into the flow of the game as he struggled with his passes and running the Celtics offense in the first half Thursday night against Atlanta.

There was a bullet pass from Robinson to Semih Erden in the low post that didn’t quite make it there as Josh Smith stepped into the lane for the easy steal. There was a pass intended for Ray Allen that sailed out of bounds later in the first half.

How bad was it? Even when Nate was hustling his rear off to grab a loose ball headed toward the Hawks basket, he flipped to the lane – expecting Kevin Garnett to catch and slam. But instead, the pass was picked off by Mike Bibby, who fed Jordan Collins for an open three, which Collins hit to add salt to the wound.

All of that added up to seven points, only two assists and four turnovers in the first half for the man who will be filling in for Rajon Rondo over the next two weeks as Rondo heals a sprained left ankle. Rivers said he had to have a heart-to-heart with Robinson, telling him to keep his head up and remind him that he didn’t think Robinson “sucked” just because he was having trouble finding his game.

“You know what I told Nate at halftime?” Rivers began. “I said, ‘€˜Nate, just a notice for you. You’€™re the starting point guard now, and I’€™m going to give you a lot of instruction. It’€™s not criticism.’€™ You know, and Nate tends to ‘€“ he gets coaching at times, he hangs his head, and it was at a point in the second quarter I couldn’€™t even give him a play because he thought I was going to tell him, ‘€˜Nate, you suck’€™ or something.”

Robinson seemed to take Rivers’ words to heart.

“Just keep playing, play through adversity,” Robinson said. “Just turn the page. I was being a little timid in first half. Second half, he told me to just be me. I think I did that.”

Rivers knew full well that he might be dealing with a point guard that was getting overwhelmed.

“I don’€™t know what he thought I was going to say,” Rivers said. “And he was great. He even started laughing at halftime. I thought that relaxed him, and allowed him to play a little bit more. But with Rondo, you know, I’€™m so used to telling him what I need everybody ‘€“ ‘€˜Rondo, tell Paul this.’€™ I was doing that with Nate and Nate was like, ‘€˜Enough! No more. I don’€™t want’€”’€™ and he finally got what I was doing. I guess he just has to get used to that.’€ Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett
Fast Break: Celtics win 12th straight 12.16.10 at 10:42 pm ET
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If you were expecting a letdown by the Celtics after a thrilling last-second victory against the Knicks in New York on Wednesday night — followed by the news that Rajon Rondo would miss the next two weeks — guess again.

The Celtics had six players score in double figures — including Semih Erden — as they stretched their NBA-best winning streak to 12 games by disposing of the Hawks, 102-90, at the Garden on Thursday night.

Kevin Garnett anchored the effort with 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Ray Allen and Glen Davis tied for the team lead with 18 points apiece.

Paul Pierce (15), Nate Robinson (14) and Erden (10) also reached double figures for the Celtics, who improved their Eastern Conference-leading record to 21-4.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Another KG double-double: Midway through the third quarter, Garnett had already notched his 14th double-double of the season. He entered the game tied with Amar’e Stoudemire for ninth in the NBA for double-doubles.

Garnett finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds on the night. On the other end, Garnett limited Josh Smith — who is a very, very good NBA player — to just one point and four rebounds. All in all, not a bad night for Garnett.

Pierce & Allen assist: With Rondo sitting out the first of what is expected to be at least two weeks of games, somebody had to make up for his 14 assists a night. Pierce and Allen exceeded that number.

They entered the game averaging a combined 5.8 assists between them. Against the Hawks, Pierce doled out nine dimes and Allen contributed another six. Not to mention their combined 33 points.

Semih-automatic: Say what you will about Semih Erden, but he finishes around the rim. It’s his soft hands. Thursday night’s starting center finished with 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting — all within five feet of the basket.

His solid night even included a dunk over Smith, who is one of the top six shot blockers in the league. Still, Erden could work on his rebounding (he had zero as a 7-footer) and free-throw shooting (0-for-2).

WHAT WENT WRONG

Defending the point: The Hawks’ point guards — starter Mike Bibby and backup Jeff Teague — combined for 29 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds against Nate Robinson.

Meanwhile, Avery Bradley actually looked pretty sharp defensively in just four minutes on the floor. Offensively? Bradley was absent, and Robinson finished with 14 points (on 6-of-16 shooting) and four assists.

Cleaning the glass: Somehow, with Smith and Al Horford combining for just 11 rebounds (they average 18 between them), the Celtics still got out-rebounded by the Hawks, 37-34.

Atlanta also snatched 10 offensive rebounds (an ongoing issue for the C’s). Of course, it helps to shoot better than 50 percent — which the Celtics did … once again (53%).

All-Star absentees: First, it was Kevin Durant. Then, it was John Wall. Then, it was Carmelo Anthony. And Thursday it was former Celtics guard Joe Johnson. The list of NBA stars who have been relegated to the bench with injuries when they visited the Garden this season grew by two.

Johnson and 2010 Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford both sat out against the Celtics. On the Boston side, of course, Rondo and Shaquille O’Neal were in street clothes as well.

Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Josh Smith, Kevin Garnett
Irish Coffee: It’s matter over mind for Celtics 11.23.10 at 11:47 am ET
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Wake up with the Celtics and your daily dose of Irish Coffee ‘€¦

When these veteran Boston Celtics are resting their aching bodies and losing back-to-back games to the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers in April, remember this four-game stretch in November.

Pundits enjoy saying things like, “Games in November don’t matter much in the NBA,” but these Celtics are more mentally prepared only when the games matter — if that makes sense. And come playoff time, as we all know, every game means something.

Exhibit A: Last Wednesday’s 31-point blowout of the Washington Wizards. If the Celtics suffer letdowns against meaningless teams, why would they care about a Wizards team without John Wall, its newest star?

Because it mattered to Kevin Garnett, who was undressed last April to the tune of 31 points and 11 boards by Washington’s Andray Blatche.

“This is a team that gave us problems last year, and we haven’t forgotten that. I haven’t,” Garnett told reporters after the win. “Paul [Pierce] and I got here and could hear [Wizards assistant coach] Sam Cassell voice about how young they were and how they were going to come at us. We made note of it. We talked about it, you know, before the game and coming out here, taking care of business. I thought we stayed with that for 48 minutes.”

Exhibit B: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green‘s Oklahoma City Thunder came to town, only Durant and Green didn’t suit up. The Celtics had already quieted the Thunder with those guys in uniform, in their house, two weeks before. They’d already proven themselves against OKC. No urgency to do it again.

“I think we underestimated that team,” Shaquille O’Neal told the media following the loss. “Shot ourselves in the foot. It’s kind of hard in this league to get up for certain people. Tonight, we disrespected the basketball gods. We paid for it.”

Exhibit C: On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Celtics faced a Toronto Raptors club that was worse than usual, playing undermanned after a trade. The C’s thought a hard-fought first quarter and a solid six-minte stretch in the second half would be just enough effort to take care of Toronto. Think again.

Before the game, I tweeted, “Do you think a Celtics lineup of Delonte West, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis and Semih Erden could give the Raptors a game? I kinda do.”

I figured the home loss to OKC and a day off in between would fuel the Celtics to a blowout in Toronto.  I thought this team had learned something from playing to the level of their opponents last season, but perhaps what they learned is that they can play that way — and still be successful.

The guys over at Gino’s Jungle tweeted back, “I thought a lineup of KG, Pierce, Ray Allen, Shaq and Rajon Rondo could beat a Durant and Green-less OKC, so no game’s a gimme with this team.” And they were right.

“We’re a better team than those two teams,” Pierce told reporters after the defeat. “I know we are. Just mentally, I don’t think we have the right mindset coming into these games.”

Exhibit D: Monday night in Atlanta, the game once again had meaning to the Celtics, who got swept by the Hawks last season. That led to a 99-76 dominating victory against the Hawks in Atlanta.

In the aftermath, one thing became clear: These Celtics will play hard when they want to play hard, regardless of how good of a motivational speech head coach Doc Rivers delivers before the game.

“I gave that up my first year coaching,” Rivers said postgame. “This group, that’s who they are. We’re going to have those poor nights. But I just thought the loss Sunday set the tone for us. You could feel it.”

The examples should have been evident right from the start, when the Celtics dominated the Miami Heat in Game 1 and then lost to a woeful Cleveland Cavaliers team in Game 2.

Remember all of this evidence when people are questioning how much the aged Celtics have left in the tank entering the NBA playoffs. When these C’s have something to play for, they are great — capable of wiping the floor with mere good teams like the Atlanta Hawks.

REACTIONS FROM ATLANTA

Yup, when these Celtics play hard, they can make any team question itself. And that’s exactly what the Hawks were doing on Monday night. Head coach Larry Drew thinks his team might have had a few too many Four Lokos the night before, and Mo Evans is asking, “Who am I?” like a heartbroken girl from a teenage drama.

  • “I told the guys I don’t know what you are doing the night before we play,” Drew told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t know what you are doing away from the floor. Something is going on that is not allowing us to play with an energy and passion that we should be playing with. As a head coach, I’ve got to find out what it is.”
  • “The Celtics know who they are,” Evans added. “We don’t have an identity, unless it’s when things go bad we go the other way. Maybe that’s our identity and we don’t know it.”

The AJC also caught up with Shaquille O’Neal, who said he picked the Celtics over the Hawks because Boston gave him a better shot at a title. And it sounds like the Hawks agree with him.

“They have a blend of veteran players with the core of their team, and it’s a lot easier to fit in a vet like Shaq,” Drew added. “If we brought him in here, it would be a little tougher. I don’t think his personality would have fit with our guys. It makes more sense to have veteran guys around him.”

DELONTE WEST DISHES ON HIS DISORDER

CBS Sports.com senior writer Ken Berger wrote a fantastic piece on Delonte West’s battle with bipolar disorder.

However irresponsible West’s actions were when he was arrested on multiple weapons charges a year ago, it’s impossible not to root for a guy who is working as hard as he is to overcome his issues.

Here are a few highlights:

  • “Bipolar is like, when things are bad to you, they seem worse and when things are good, they seem great,” West said. “I’m at a place where things are behind me and I’m focused on what I love to do.”
  • “When you’re thinking about, ‘Am I going to go to jail after the season?’ and going through a tough divorce during the season, those things can weigh on you sometimes,” West said. “When you’re a professional athlete, you’ve got to be a robot sometimes. You’ve got to check your emotions at the door. But we’re humans. You can’t say, ‘OK, I’m not going to think about this,’ when it’s something to really think about. … When things are up in the air and all people can say to you, the courts and the lawyers, is, ‘You’ve got to wait and see,’ there’s a lot of nights when you’re not sleeping.”
  • “There’s only one way it’s going to play out,” West said. “I want it to play out that way and it’s going to play out that way. And that’s holding the trophy at the end of June. Man, that’d be a strong chapter in the book or the movie I’m going to write one day.”

I love that last quote. It comes from a man who is taking hold of his own destiny.

West also sat down with Chris Tomasson at NBA FanHouse to discuss being a role model, Gloria James and the Von Wafer fight.

“You’ve got to remember, this is just a game,” West told Tomasson. “Some people are die-hard fans and they paint their face and it’s all great. But you got to do unto others as you have unto yourself. People say something about your mother and drag your mother through something like that and your family, you’d be ready to do something yourself. So it’s sad that happened. But, you know, they hated Jesus, too. You got to keep going. So I wish [LeBron James] much success down there [in Miami] with his family, and I got to keep going here.”

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Read More: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Delonte West, NBA
The NBA 30 on 30: Blogosphere Forecast (5 of 7) 10.26.10 at 12:13 pm ET
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NBA fans live a team’s ups and downs. They react to every draft pick, trade and free-agent signing. They debate the merits of the 15th man. They find significance in the most insignificant stats. They simply KNOW their team. So, too, do bloggers. That’s why we sought the opinion of the league’s best blogs — one for each of the 30 teams — to break down the team they cover and, of course, the Celtics.

We’ll move to the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division with the fifth of a seven-part  series (Don’t forget to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) …


ATLANTA HAWKS
by Jason Walker, Peachtree Hoops

ON THE HAWKS: The Hawks spent the summer, once again, reinvesting in the status quo (see Johnson, Joe), which has seen them improve on their record every season since their 13-win nadir in 2004-05.

The major changes were on the bench, where the team replaced Mike Woodson with longtime assistant Larry Drew. Gone are the constant switching defensively and the heavy reliance on iso-sets offensively in favor of a motion offense and playing it straight defensively.

Such change should result in a rise in turnovers, a stat that has always kept the Hawks’ offensive efficiency near the top of the NBA but also kept their best defenders, Josh Smith and Al Horford, in better positions to help the team defensively.

The Hawks were also very fortunate last year in terms of injuries, so their lack of depth didn’t harm them in terms of their regular-season record.

Between the adjustment to new schemes and a likely injury or two to the main core, the Hawks should see the end of their annual increase in win total, but the continued improvement in their younger players (Smith, Horford, Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague) should help balance that somewhat, giving them another 50-win season, fourth in the conference — and getting bounced again in the second round of the playoffs.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics have a good thing going … and going … and going with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, led by one of the most exciting players in basketball in Rajon Rondo.

The true test of whether your franchise is a contender is when the regular season predictions don’t mean jack squat, and the C’s have been in that neighborhood ever since acquiring KG and Ray. It’s a great place to be, and this season is no different.

With a plethora of big men (Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Glen Davis) to supplement the core roster in case of any injury up front due to age (and there is considerable age there), Boston should be able to capture home-court again, which makes them a very tough out come postseason time, as they proved so well last season.

I believe they’re a lock for the Eastern Conference Finals.


CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
by David Arnott, Rufus on Fire

ON THE BOBCATS: The Bobcats will have a huge hurdle to overcome this season, having lost their starting point guard and starting center (Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler).

Barring a trade, they’re looking to replace them with D.J. Augustin, a young player Larry Brown seems to despise, and Nazr Mohammed, a center whose sell-by date is long-since passed (last season’s career year notwithstanding).

Even if Gerald Wallace remains an All-Star, and Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas continue playing as well as they did last season for the Cats, they’re going to struggle to get to 40 wins — and could easily finish with near 30 wins.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics’ window could be closed this season, given the likely continued decline of Pierce, Garnett and Allen.

There’s also no telling, really, how much Tom Thibodeau meant to the Celtics’ defensive excellence the past few years, and any kind of decline on that end of the floor might be the death knell for them as true title contenders, since no one on the team is a killer offensive threat.

So, give them 50 wins again.


MIAMI HEAT
by Benny Vargas, All U Can Heat

ON THE HEAT: After a much ballyhooed offseason, the Heat enter the 2010-11 season as legitimate title contenders.

The additions of Chris Bosh and LeBron James along with the re-signing of Dwyane Wade has caused a seismic wave throughout the league, which could signal the beginning of a new NBA dynasty on South Beach.

Miami will have to battle through glaring holes at the 1 and 5 spots, despite their newly assembled constellation of stars.

The Heat must find a way to become a cohesive unit, within an 82-game span, leading into the playoffs. Once the postseason gets underway, expect Miami to face difficult obstacles in Boston and Orlando. Both teams have been together longer and have big edges at the center and point guard positions.

Predicting Miami’s season is difficult, because so many factors come into play. Look for the Heat to make the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston and for the series to go seven games with the decisive contest being held in Miami.

The Heat will have a stellar regular season, earning the top seed in the East, but don’t expect them to match the record-setting 72 wins that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls managed to get.

ON THE CELTICS: While Vegas odds-makers have listed the flashy names on the Heat lineup as favorites to win the Eastern Conference, one has to love the Celtics’ chances.

Boston solidified their roster this offseason with several free-agent signings. The additions only help to strengthen a team that was a Kendrick Perkins injury or a few more key rebounds away from winning an NBA title.

Boston has All-Stars at every position on the floor. While Allen declined a bit last year, Rondo’s emergence as an elite NBA player compensated for the slip in Allen’s game. KG and Shaq must be held back a bit during the regular season, so they can be healthy and rested for the playoffs.

Expect to see Boston easily win the Atlantic Division but to finish with the third seed for the playoffs. The Celtics showed last year that they don’t need to overexert themselves for 82 games in order to have postseason success.

No matter their seeding, the Celtics should be considered the Eastern Conference favorites once the playoffs begin. In the end, it will be Boston and Miami squaring off for a chance to dethrone the Lakers.


ORLANDO MAGIC
by Evan Dunlap, Orlando Pinstriped Post

ON THE MAGIC: I’m expecting bounce-back seasons from Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson, as well as another year of improvement for Dwight Howard.

I’ve pegged them for 62 wins, because although the East got stronger this offseason, the Magic certainly didn’t decline in talent level from the last two seasons, when they won 59 games apiece.

Carter worked hard on his body this offseason and appears to be much more comfortable on the floor. His jumper has rarely even caught the rim in preseason, as he’s getting his body square and legs into the shot before firing away.

Orlando brought Quentin Richardson aboard, largely due to his 3-point shooting, which will force the Celtics to think twice about leaving him open. The Celtics exposed Orlando in the conference finals last season by utterly ignoring Matt Barnes on the perimeter, due to his unreliable outside shot, which freed them to pack the paint, stymieing Howard inside and shutting down driving lanes for Carter and Nelson. Clearly, Richardson will be one key against Boston.

Orlando will likely win far more games than the Celtics do this season, but don’t let that disparity fool you: If these teams meet for the third consecutive postseason, it’ll be anyone’s series.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics proved last season that they’re a tough team to peg, at least until the playoffs roll around.

Given the continuity in Boston’s locker room, at least as far as leadership is concerned, I expect another season of Doc Rivers managing his players’ minutes closely, and the players conserving their energy.

This approach worked to great effect last year, as they took the defending champion Lakers to the brink in the Finals after most basketball observers counted them out, first against the Cavaliers and then against the Magic.

Overall, I’ve pegged the Celtics for a win total in the mid-40s, likely 46-36. If that seems low, or insulting, to the Boston faithful, I think it’s instructive to point out the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot to this team.

While I’m dubious that the Celtics can flip the switch again, so to speak, Rivers will keep that possibility open so long as he’s able to keep the veteran core fresh. And regardless of their health or engagement level, they’ll always be a tough matchup for the Magic.

The cost-effective additions of Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal — along with Perkins — give Boston three of the top five Dwight Howard defenders in the league.


WASHINGTON WIZARDS
by Beckley Mason, Truth About It

ON THE WIZARDS: The Wizards enter the 2010-11 season with positive energy flowing out their ears.

John Wall has already proven to be a man-child not only as an ankle-breaking wunderkind, but as a steady-handed floor marshal — unafraid to put veterans in their place, literally, on the basketball court.

But however solid Wall may be this year, the squad as a whole is perforated with imperfections. Gilbert Arenas can’t guard anyone, only a couple players can hit 3s and the Wizards’ young posts have a history of weak rebounding and late help defense.

See, this is a team full of “you know, if…”s. Because, you know, if Gilbert stays healthy and embraces the off-ball responsibilities like he did in the preseason, if 30-year-old Josh Howard returns to his near All-Star levels of play, if JaVale McGee builds on his breakout summer, if Andray Blatche plays like he did down the stretch last year (21 points a game from January to March), and if Al Thornton eschews the mid-range game and focuses on becoming Count Dunkula, this could be a pretty good team.

That’s far too many ifs for the irresponsible optimism that pervades D.C. hoops fans — but an appropriate amount for a team heading into a 35-47 season.

ON THE CELTICS: Was the Celtics’ run to last year’s Finals the last violent spasm of a dying monster, or simply proof that the beast was slumbering throughout the regular season?

Rondo is superb (Hubie Brown voice) and the East’s best point guard, but the rest of the Celtics’ starting five is declining — that is, unless The Big Ticket really is bouncing back on that right knee.

Boston’s pride won 50 games last year and is replacing Perkins with the chalk outlines of the O’Neals, a significant downgrade defensively and offensively (KP is the best screener in the league). The frontcourt is deeper, but also less effective until Perk returns, and then at what level will he play?

The Celtics should also be concerned after losing Tony Allen, the East’s best perimeter defender and resident LeBron/Wade specialist. Who fills that void? Ray, Pierce, Nate Robinson, Delonte West all fall well short defensively.

On any other team, these concerns would lead one to declare, “They will be worse than last year.” But this is the Celtics, who, like the Spurs in the West, must be taken seriously until emphatically proven otherwise. Most of the East sucks yet again, so 50-plus should be in the cards once more — 55-plus if Garnett is truly “back.”

Stay tuned for Part 6 of this seven-part series: the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.

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