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Race for top seed in Eastern Conference takes shape 03.22.11 at 2:34 pm ET
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A few weeks ago, the Celtics were in the driver’s seat for the best record in the Eastern Conference. After beating the Suns on March 2, their record stood at 44-15, three games ahead of the Bulls. Things changed quickly, as the Celtics went 3-4 over the next two weeks, while the Bulls reeled off eight straight wins to take a momentary lead.

The Celtics got themselves back on track with comeback wins against New Orleans and New York, and now with 13 games left in the regular season, the Celtics and Bulls are tied again at 50-9 heading into Chicago’s game with the Hawks on Tuesday night.

In examining the remaining schedule, the Celtics have a slightly tougher slate of games — but they own two tiebreakers. First, they have gone 2-1 against Chicago with the final matchup scheduled for April 7 at the United Center. If the Celtics win that game, they’ll own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even if they lose, they currently have a better conference record (33-6) than Chicago (30-9), which is the next tiebreaker.

The Celtics are on record as saying that health is their primary focus, not getting homecourt. Yet with 13 games left it remains a possibility and there is incentive. At stake is homecourt advantage as well as the benefit of playing a sub-500 team in the first round and avoiding a semifinal matchup with Miami.

Here’s how the schedule break down:

Record: 50-19 

Home: 6 (Memphis, Philadelphia, Toronto, Phoenix, Boston, New Jersey)

Road: 7 (Atlanta, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Orlando, New York)

Back-to-backs: 4 (Two second games at home against Toronto and New Jersey and two on the road against Milwaukee and Cleveland).

Playoff opponents: 6

Home: Memphis, Philadelphia, Boston

Road: Atlanta, Orlando, New York

Toughest stretch: After they play the Celtics on April 7, the Bulls have three games on the road against Cleveland, Orlando and New York before finishing the regular season at home against New Jersey. There are two back-to-backs against the Cavs and Nets.

RECORD: 50-19

Home: 6 (Memphis, Charlotte, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, New York)

Road: 7 (Minnesota, Indiana, San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami)

Back-to-backs: 4 (One second game at home against Washington and three on the road against Indiana, Atlanta and Washington).

Playoff opponents: 7

Home: Memphis, Philadelphia, New York

Road: San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami

Toughest stretch: There are actually two. The first is a four-game road trip that has two sets of back-t0-backs with Minnesota and Indiana followed by San Antonio and Atlanta. The second starts with the Bulls game and is followed by a back-to-back at home against Washington on Friday and then a trip to Miami for a Sunday afternoon game with yet another back-to-back against the Wizards, this time in Washington.

How many wins over the final 13 games will it take to clinch the East? Various projection models have it at 59, which would mean going 9-4 down the stretch. Justin Kubatko’s forecast at Basketball-Reference has the Bulls with a 57.4 percent probability of getting the top seed and he has the Celtics at 35.4 percent going into Tuesday night’s games. The Heat have a slim 7 percent chance. Based on the schedule, and also the Celtics stated intentions to not go all out for the top seed, the Bulls have to be considered the favorites but that can change in a week.

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Fast Break: Celtics outlast Knicks 03.21.11 at 10:08 pm ET
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For the second straight game the Celtics started poorly on the road and found their legs after halftime, and the result was another comeback win, as the Celtics rallied late to beat the Knicks, 96-86. The Celtics have been living dangerously, but perhaps they are proving something to themselves right now, as well. They can’t expect to play passively and win. Now they have to do it 48 minutes again.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Rondo rallies: The point guard has been showing signs of coming out of his funk, but on Monday, he has still not looked like the Rajon Rondo of old. In the first half he pulled off a trio of Rondo-esque moves that stood out as the only first-half highlight. He carried that momentum into the second half and finally recorded double-digits in assists (12), his first in eight games, and finished with 13 points on 15 shots. It was by far his most aggressive outing in weeks.

Kevin Garnett leads second-half surge: It didn’t take long for an indication that the Celtics were not going to roll over in the second half. Garnett made sure of that, scoring their first eight points of the third quarter and throwing down a vicious transition dunk on Ronny Turiaf. He made many big plays in this game, but perhaps his biggest came when he chased down a loose ball and dove into Amar’e Stoudemire to force a jump ball.

Great theater at the MSG: The Celtics have played two games in New York this season and both have been classics. While this one lacked the drama — and quality play — of the December matchup, it every bit as intense. Allen left the game after catching an elbow that drew blood. Later, Carmelo Anthony got busted up after colliding with Rondo in mid-air. The Celtics showed better poise and more toughness down the stretch, but if these two teams meet in the playoffs expect the drama to be thick.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Second-unit struggles: One game after using a tight eight-man rotation in a win over the Hornets, Rivers went back to a platoon-style lineup using five reserves to start the second quarter. Four minutes in, the five had not scored a point and the Knicks were on their way to building a double-digit lead. The reserves went 2-for-10 in the first half, and while the 51-37 halftime deficit wasn’t all on them, they started the downhill slide.

Glen Davis had one of those nights: This was the bad version of Big Baby for the first three quarters. The one that misses jump shots and then allows himself to get outworked and outhustled by the likes of Turiaf — another undersized post player who relies on toughness and energy. Davis’ night was summed up by the flop he took on a phantom elbow by Anthony. While Davis lay on the ground, the Knicks raced downcourt.

On nights when his shot doesn’t fall, he still has to bring defense and energy to the game and both were in short supply until the fourth quarter when he brought both. Not surprisingly, the Celtics played much better defense. Davis is not a luxury player anymore. He has to anchor their defense every night.

Ray Allen’s tough night: Allen had a rough night shooting (4-for-15) and he took an even rougher elbow to the head that drew blood and sent him back to the locker room. But Allen returned — without stitches — and capped the night off with a clinching layup.

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Fast Break: Back-to-back woes continue 03.14.11 at 9:17 pm ET
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The Celtics problems with back-to-backs have been well-documented this season, especially on the road where they were 2-7 on the second night heading into Monday’s game at New Jersey. True to form the Celtics played great in spurts, but looked tired and slow in others and lost, 88-79.

Like many of their losses in similar situations, this was a winnable game, but the Celtics didn’t make the plays. They have now lost the second game of back-to-backs five straight times on the road and with four more back-to-backs left this season and three of them on the road, they will be tested again.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Rajon Rondo continues to struggle: The last time Rondo played a truly great floor game was March 4 when he scored 16 points and had 15 assists in a win over the Suns. Since then he’s had a couple of so-so games mixed in with some complete bombs. Rondo went 0-for-6 in the first half with four turnovers, but things got worse for him and the Celtics when he left the game with a sprained ankle early in the third quarter. Rondo returned but committed a terrible foul on a 3-pointer late in the game and finished 1-for-10 from the floor.

Foul trouble: Less than two minutes after Rondo limped off, Paul Pierce walked off with his fourth foul. He was followed closely by Nenad Krstic, which upset the Celtics’ early second half momentum. The Celtics found themselves down by seven at the end of the third quarter and had to play from behind for the rest of the fourth.

Energy level low: The excuses are tired and so were the Celtics, but if they had played moderately better against New Jersey, Washington and Charlotte — to name three — in the back-to-backs, they would have a comfortable margin to play with down the stretch. It could ultimately cost them the top seed in the East.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Glen Davis is a difference-maker: There are times when Davis’ impact in the game can be readily seen in the box score, like Monday when he had 16 points and a season-high 14 rebounds. But when Davis is at his best, his game has more to do with charges, loose balls, long rebounds and all the kinds of things that save possessions. His absence was felt dramatically over the last week and a half.

Carlos Arroyo continues to impress: Delonte West is on course to return Wednesday when the Celtics host the Pacers, but West may have some competition for backup point guard duty. Arroyo had another strong game with four points, four rebounds, three assists and just one turnover in 16 minutes. Whatever happens with the position, Arroyo has proven to be more valuable than just an emergency fill-in.

Kevin Garnett is back in a groove: Garnett recently had a six-quarter shooting slump, which was magnified by the fact that the Celtics lost both games during his skid. But Garnett never stays cold for long and after going 9-for-14 against the Nets, that’s at least one small thing that was a positive Monday.

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Talking Hoops, Episode V with Kelly Dwyer at 4:44 pm ET
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In the latest edition of Talking Hoops with Paul Flannery we talked with Kelly Dwyer, editor of Yahoo! Sports Ball Don’t Lie. Few people know the Bulls as well as Dwyer, so we went in-depth on Chicago’s rise from talented als0-ran to legitimate championship contender. Then we talked about the Celtics and what we can expect from their new additions and later, we ran through the sleepers in the Eastern Conference.

We also reminisced about the Fab 5, Rodrick Rhodes and Dwyer tries to convince me to listen to ELO.

LISTEN HERE: Talking Hoops, Episode V

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Fast Break: Celtics get Clipped 03.09.11 at 10:04 pm ET
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At the start of the second quarter the following players were on the floor for the Celtics: Carlos Arroyo, Sasha Pavlovic, Jeff Green, Troy Murphy and Nenad Krstic. If that wasn’t strange enough, the Celtics were trailing by 13 points. Against the Clippers. This is the situation that they are facing for the next few games with five injured players out of the lineup.

The Celtics tried to make a game of it and got within three points in the fourth quarter, but they didn’t have enough left to finish the comeback in a 108-103 loss, which snapped their five-game winning streak and brought the Bulls within a game and a half of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Bad start from the starters: No, the Celtics didn’t have any depth and yes, they were playing with half of a new team, but the starters put them in a hole that they fought to escape from the entire game. The Clippers jumped out to a 26-13 lead and the game resembled a layup line as they cruised through the paint for dunks.

Speaking of the offense: The Celtics shot 44 percent for the game — aided by a hot fourth quarter — and seemed to be fighting themselves. Kevin Garnett in particular had a rough night making just 5-of-19 shots. Some nights the shots just don’t fall. This was one of them. With the Clippers making everything in sight, it wasn’t a good combination.

Troy Murphy’s struggles continue: Murphy played just five minutes and missed his only shot. He is now 0-for-10 from the floor in four games and 46 minutes for the Celtics. On a night when they needed offense from somewhere, Murphy couldn’t provide any. With Murphy and Sasha Pavlovic (eight minutes) not getting much run and Rivers keeping Avery Bradley in reserve, the Celtics essentially had seven players, which meant more time for Rajon Rondo (44 minutes), Paul Pierce (38) and Ray Allen (37).

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Fourth quarter comeback: With 2:28 left in the third quarter, the Celtics were down by 16 points. A late surge brought them within 10 to start the fourth and they got as close as three points before running out of steam. While this will go down as a bad loss, it does indicate that they won’t concede games down the stretch.

Carlos Arroyo can help: On the surface, four points and two assists in 16 minutes doesn’t scream difference-maker, but Arroyo showed nice quickness in getting past his man and solid vision. He was easily the best reserve on a thin bench. It’s been a long time since the Celtics had a reliable backup point guard and the first indication is that they have finally found one.

Paul Pierce, dunking machine: It seems strange in a game that featured Blake Griffin (and a bevy of monster dunks from DeAndre Jordan) that Pierce would have the top highlight-reel jam of the night. But that’s what happened when he took off from just inside the free throw line and threw down a two-handed stuff on half the Clippers’ team who watched him with little intent of trying to stop it. Pierce’s ability to finish inside is a telltale sign that he is healthier this season than last, and that’s a very good thing for the Celtics.

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Fast Break: Celtics go Buck-hunting 03.06.11 at 11:39 pm ET
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The Celtics have reached the non-glamorous portion of their schedule, but the games with the Bucks cont just the same as their network showdowns with the Lakers, Heat and Magic. With 21 games left, the Celtics have two goals: Integrate their new players into something that resembles a workable rotation and try to get the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Winning road games against teams like Milwaukee — who play good defense and make you grind it out — and with only nine players is what great NBA teams do. The Celtics escaped with an 89-83 victory thanks to clutch play from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and took another step toward achieving their season-long goal.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Paul Pierce comes up big: With Rajon Rondo (eight turnovers) and Ray Allen both struggling, Pierce picked up the slack and scored 23 points to go with five rebounds and four assists. Pierce was the best player on the floor for the Celtics.

Kevin Garnett, clutch defensively: With time running out and the Celtics clinging to a three-point lead, Garnett stopped the Bucks dead with a huge blocked shot. On the previous possession, Garnett knocked down a 15 foot jumper that gave the Celtics a four-point lead.

Nenad Krstic in the low post: The Celtics knew what they were getting when the traded for Krstic — a dependable 7-footer with decent shooting range. But what they didn’t know is that he also has a very good back to the basket game. That’s because the Thunder just didn’t have any use for it. But Krstic is not only a good shooter — he made his first six shots — he’s a solid passer. The Celtics have been looking for a low-post presence for years and while Krstic lacks the brute force of Shaquille O’Neal, he is capable of providing offense.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Injury delay for Shaq: A few days have stretched into a few weeks and now we are working on a few months before Shaquille O’Neal returns to the team. Doc Rivers told reporters in Milwaukee that Shaq would probably not return against the Clippers on Wednesday as planned and his return date is still anyone’s guess. It’s beginning to look like it might be a race between Shaq and Jermaine to see which O’Neal will get back on the court first.

Offensive rebounds and turnovers: The Celtics old problems didn’t go away with their new cast of characters. The Bucks destroyed them on the glass for the first half with 10 offensive rebounds and the Celtics hurt their own cause with 17 turnovers (eight by Rondo).

Bench issues: With Carlos Arroyo on his way to Boston and the O’Neals, Delonte West, Von Wafer and Glen Davis all out with injuries, the Celtics had just nine players and their second unit consisted of Avery Bradley and three guys who have been with the team for about 10 days. While Jeff Green continues to find his way, Troy Murphy still has not made a shot and Sasha Pavlovic threw up an airball on his first attempt. The bench played better in the second half, maintaining a slim lead before turning it back over to the starters.

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Fast Break: Celtics escape, but continue to progress 03.04.11 at 10:00 pm ET
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With each passing day, the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson begins to look a little better from the Celtics’ perspective. Word came down today that Robinson had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and will be out 4-6 weeks. Considering the fact that the Celtics traded four players who are injured (including Marquis Daniels and Semih Erden) and replaced them with healthy players, that’s already a net positive.

But what about the on-court results? New center Nenad Krstic has already shown his value as an offensive threat and against the Warriors on Friday night, Jeff Green had his coming out party. Green, who had scored just 18 points in his first three games, erupted for 13 in the first half and finished with 21 points in 28 minutes.

Despite some anxious moments at the end, the Celtics have now won four games in a row after their 107-103 win (recap) and while they would certainly like to close games out better, they’ll gladly take the wins while sorting things out.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Ray Allen should take more days off: The veteran sharpshooter took Thursday off from practice as a precaution. Doc Rivers said that Allen told him his legs were feeling a little sore so Rivers told him to hit some golf balls. Allen showed up for Friday’s game wearing a compression sleeve on his right leg, but any concerns soon evaporated as he made his first seven shots and finished 9-for-13 with 27 points.

A glimpse of what Green can do: The problem for the Celtics and their new forward is simply one of opportunity. Beyond playing the minutes behind Paul Pierce, what else can they do with him? That’s a question Rivers raised Thursday at practice and really, there isn’t a good answer.

But with Glen Davis out for a few days with a strained knee, Rivers used Green with the starters and it resulted in unreal production. Of all the things Green provides, the ability to get out on the break with Rajon Rondo is the most appealing and the two connected for a series of highlight-worthy plays. Unlocking Green’s potential is one of the priorities of the last six weeks and Friday night was a positive step.

Paul Pierce’s quiet excellence: Just another 27-point, seven-rebound night for Pierce, who is the glue that holds everything together.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Troy Murphy will need some time: Murphy has now played 26 minutes and missed all seven shots that he’s attempted. Rivers said he wanted to run him until he dropped and he’ll have to keep giving him minutes while he figures things out on the fly.

Von Wafer strains his right calf: It never ends for the Celtics. After dropping seven points in just six minutes, Von Wafer limped off the court with what the team called a strained right calf. There was no immediate update on how long Wafer will be out, but he did not return to the game. That’s a tough blow for Wafer, who has played well in limited opportunities this season.

Second half fades: It happened late in the third quarter against the Suns, but this time the culprits were the starters as they allowed the Warriors to almost erase a huge lead late in the game. Monta Ellis scored 41 points, tying the mark set by Kobe Bryant for most against the Celtics this season. The Celtics escaped, but this late-game trend needs to stop.

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