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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.

Read More: Celtics, Preview, Timberwolves,
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.

Read More: Celtics, Fast Break, Glen Davis, Kevin Love
Preview: Celtics at Raptors, Game 32 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.

Read More: Celtics, Preview, Raptors,
Fast Break: Celtics pace themselves against Indiana 12.28.10 at 9:31 pm ET
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For the first 18 minutes of Tuesday night’s game with the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics played like a team that has been away from home for a week during the holidays. They were slow to rotate, hesitant to pass to the open man and generally looked like they’d rather be anywhere but Conesco Fieldhouse.

Then Paul Pierce started hitting jumpers and the Celtics got back in the game. They started the second half in much the same way, but rallied behind Marquis Daniels who took control after Nate Robinson banged heads with Mike Dunleavy and had to go back to the locker room.

The Celtics emerged with a 95-83 win in a game where they played well for maybe two quarters. Here’s how they did it:

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Marquis Daniels had a very Marquis Daniels-like game: The notion that a player’s contributions don’t show up in the box score is more often than not, ridiculous. Almost every thing an NBA player does in a game is recorded, tracked and committed to the stat sheet, so if a player has no stats it’s not usually because what he does is so sublime, it’s because he didn’t actually do anything.

Daniels is one of those rare players who can have a positive impact without accumulating stats. He handled the ball when it was necessary, but not so much that he would racked up a bunch of assists. He scored, but never forced. He found mismatches and exploited them. In short, Daniels did all the things the Celtics need him to do, and his stats were solid: 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and only two turnovers.

Paul Pierce arrived just in time: Pierce picked up two fouls in the first four minutes of the game, which sent him to the bench and took the rest of the Celtics offense with him. Without Pierce in the game, the Celtics 40 percent in the first quarter and trailed 26-19. By the time he heated up in the second quarter, the Celtics were down by 10 points, but he shot them back in the game.

Ray Allen did the rest: As Pierce tailed off in the second half, Ray Allen picked up the slack, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the final two quarters. The Celtics once again had great balance with four players in double figures and five players posting 10 or more shots.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Rajon Rondo didn’t play: The new timeline for Rondo’s return to the court is now Friday when the Celtics return home to play the Hornets on New Years Eve. (Coincidentally or not, that’s also just in time for a matchup with Chris Paul). The Celtics aren’t going to rush Rondo back, but his return can’t come soon enough.

Their offense, which once featured so much flow and ball movement, has devolved into a one-pass and shoot stagnant system. The Celtics are talented enough to get by like this for a while, but they are becoming very predictable and predictably easy to stop.

Foul trouble for Shaq again: Shaquille O’Neal didn’t get into foul trouble early this time, but he made up for lost time with a flurry of violations that had him setting on the bench with five fouls less than six minutes into the second half. Shaq was fined $35,000 for his comments after the Magic game, and like it or not, he’s becoming a target of the refs for his hard fouls.He lasted 16 minutes before fouling out for the second straight game.

Free throw shooting: The Celtics shot 15-for-22 and for a change, they can’t blame Shaq (or Rondo) for that sub-par number. Shaq made five of his six shots, which left the rest of the team 10-for-16 and that’s not good enough.

Read More: Celtics, Fast Break, Pacers,
Fast Break: The end of the streak 12.25.10 at 5:29 pm ET
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The end of the Celtics 14-game winning streak came inauspiciously. For 45 minutes, they had controlled their matchup with the Orlando Magic, and then in the final three minutes and 20 seconds, everything fell apart in an 86-78 loss. The Celtics were outscored 15-1 over that span as the absence of Rajon Rondo finally caught up to them.

Nate Robinson shot 2-for-15, Ray Allen shot 3-for-13, and Paul Pierce once again had to direct the offense instead of working into the flow. The Celtics have felt for weeks that they weren’t playing their best basketball, but still they found ways to win. It was only a matter of time until that run ended, but it was still something of a shock that it fell apart so quickly in game they seemingly had in their back pocket.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The limits of Nate Robinson as a point guard: It’s been said again and again that Robinson is not a true point guard, and he’s not. The Celtics have tried to figure out a way to play with Robinson in place of Rondo that allows him to be him, and also allows them to continue to function as a pass-first, unselfish unit.

But in order for that to work, Robinson has to make shots. The Magic laid off Robinson and let him fire away from the perimeter. He was 0-for-5 in the first half and 1-for-10 before he knocked down a wide-open 3-pointer. When Robinson did go to the bench, the Celtics went with Avery Bradley, which was more about defense than running the team.

The Celtics not only don’t have a point guard right now, they don’t have a backup either. That is took this long to catch up to them is a testament to all the other things they’ve done well, but it was only a matter of time.

J.J. Redick is Ray Allen’s Kyrptonite: Once again Allen had a dreadful time shooting the ball against Orlando, and once again Redick was with him every step of the way. It’s been like this since the 2009 playoffs and it’s well past time to give the former Duke sharpshooter his due. He’s become much more than just a jumpshooter, unfortunately for Allen.

Jermaine O’Neal will need some time: O’Neal’s return came at the perfect time with Semih Erden feeling ill, but it was clear watching him play that he’s going to need a few games (at least) to get his conditioning back. There’s no sugar-coating this: Jermaine O’Neal has been a huge disappointment so far this season.

However, there is ample time for him to save his career and salvage his reputation in Boston. If the Celtics are going to do what they want to do this season, they will need him and in order to get there he’s just going to have to burn minutes.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Even without Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics still had the right gameplan for Dwight Howard: Without Perk, the Celtics went on the offense to defend Howard. They did this by pounding the ball in to Shaquille O’Neal early in the game in the hopes of getting Howard in foul trouble. It worked as Howard picked up his second late in the first quarter and was in foul trouble again early in the third quarter.

Howard continued to be his own worst enemy, getting called for a 10-second violation on a free throw attempt and compounding that by getting a technical foul. He didn’t score his first basket until a minute into the fourth quarter. The Magic’s trades were all about helping Howard, but if he is going to ascend to true MVP-level, he still has to learn to help himself against teams like the Celtics.

Defense, defense, defense: The Magic shot less than 40 percent and Howard never got going. This loss was all about the offense. The defense was once again, dominant.

Paul Pierce as point forward: For one half anyway, Pierce was the best point guard on the floor, scoring 16 points and dishing out four assists as the Celtics took control. The Celtics are asking a lot from Pierce, and this time they may have asked too much because he wasn’t able to build on his first-half performance.

Read More: Celtics, Fast Break, Magic,
Preview: Celtics at Orlando, Game 28 12.24.10 at 5:33 pm ET
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For the last three years, the Celtics have kept one eye the Magic and the other on the Lakers. Truth be told, the Celtics always saw Orlando as their prime challenger in the Eastern Conference and that bore out in two rugged playoff series.

The 2009 Celtics took the Magic to seven games without Kevin Garnett. They were undone ultimately by Garnett’s injury, but also by a lack of size up front behind Kendrick Perkins. So, they went out and signed Rasheed Wallace. Say what you want about Sheed’s time in Boston, but he was a difference-maker last year against Orlando when the Celtics won in six games.

For their part, the Magic cut ties with Hedo Turkoglu and brought in Vince Carter to replace him. Carter was supposed to be able to create offense from the wing, especially against a team like the Celtics who were able to play Dwight Howard straight up, effectively negating their double-team kickout for open 3-pointers.

Unfortunately for the Magic, it didn’t work as planned and with the Celtics gathering strength and the Heat on the rise, Orlando general manager Otis Smith elected for the big shake-up, trading Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis, a draft pick and cash in exchange for Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, Earl Clark and Turkoglu.

The moves leave the Magic with an upgrade at the 2-guard spot (Richardson is simply much better than Carter at this stage of their careers) and woefully thin up front behind Howard. They also brought in two high-stakes gambles in Turkoglu and Arenas, who will either recapture part of their glory days or definitively prove that they are past their primes.

The results so far have been mixed. The Magic dropped games to Atlanta and Dallas, but they recovered in a big way Thursday with a blowout win over the Spurs. “We certainly have a great deal of respect for the old Orlando team,” Danny Ainge told The Big Show on Thursday. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with this new Orlando team. On paper they’re still a great basketball team. I just don’t know what to expect.”

CELTICS (23-4, 10-0 last 10, 14-game winning streak)

Offensive Rating: 109.4 (Points per 100 possessions, 10th)

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

Pace: 91.0 (20th)

Likely Starters: Nate Robinson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal

Rotation: Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden, Jermaine O’Neal

Injuries: Jermaine O’Neal (Knee, probable), Rajon Rondo (Ankle, doubtful), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

MAGIC (17-12, 2-8 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 106.1 (16th)

Defensive Rating: 102.2 (6th)

Pace: 91.4 (19th)

Likely Starters: Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass, Dwight Howard

Rotation: Gilbert Arenas, J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson, Quentin Richardson

Injuries: Malik Allen (Ankle, questionable), Daniel Orton (Knee, out). Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Celtics, Magic, Preview,
Preview: Philadelphia at Boston, Game 27 12.22.10 at 10:35 am ET
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Up until Tuesday night, the Philadelphia 76ers were cruising right along with a nice little winning run at their backs. They had gone 8-3 in their last 11 games and taken four of the last five. Then, the Bulls happened. The Sixers lost by an astounding 45 points and allowed the Bulls to shoot 65 percent.

In Kate Fagan’s piece in the Inquirer, Andre Iguodala said it was a wake-up call, while coach Doug Collins called it one of those nights. Both of them have a point.

The truth is, the Sixers are not a bad basketball team. They might even wind up being quite good by the end of the season. For now, they have rebounded from a terrible start to become merely decent, which in the top-heavy Eastern Conference is good enough to be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

This has been quite a turnaround since starting the season by winning three of their first 16 games. It’s not hard to see Collins’ imprint all over this team. The key has been defense where the Sixers rank fifth (down from second after Tuesday’s debacle) in effective field goal percentage defense, a stat which accounts for the difference between two and 3-point shots.

The Sixers are not a very good offensive team, but they don’t turn the ball over and there is evidence that they are playing smarter: Thaddeus Young has almost completely cut out his penchant for taking (and missing) 3-pointers, for example.

In addition, Collins seems to have defined roles for his collection of young talent. He turned the team over to second-year point guard Jrue Holiday, who is learning on the job but showing good signs of development, and moved Lou Williams to the bench, where he can create offense for the second unit and provide a nice reserve combination along with Young.

Collins also took No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner out of the starting lineup, where he was horribly overmatched, and replaced him with Jodie Meeks, a 3-point shooter. The Sixers responded by going 6-2 and Meeks immediately went on a tremendous hot streak making, making 15-of-23 from beyond the arc, but he has since cooled hitting just four of his last 25 attempts.

But by far the biggest change for the Sixers has come from Elton Brand. He may never justify the ridiculous five-year, $80 million contract Ed Stefanski gave him after missing almost an entire season because of an Achilles injury — oddly enough, Brand proceeded to miss 53 games in the first of his new deal — but he has played well this season, averaging better than 15 points and eight rebounds a game.

That’s a far cry from Brand’s salad days with the Clippers where he put up almost 25 points and 10 rebounds in 2006, but five years ago Kevin Garnett was still in Minnesota and Ray Allen was still a Sonic. There were still Sonics, period. Times change.

The Sixers are still in the discovery stage. To Iguodala’s point, they managed to beat a handful of decent, but not great, teams during their streak in Portland, New Orleans and the trade-depleted Orlando Magic. Their losses came by eight points against the Lakers, one point against the Celtics and five at Atlanta, so they were playing competitively against the better teams. But mainly they’ve fattened up on so-so competition.

Still, Collins said when he took the job that his goal was to get the Sixers heading in the right direction and he is off to a solid start. Read the rest of this entry »

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