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Why this was no ordinary division championship for the Celtics 04.19.12 at 10:19 am ET
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The Celtics have won the Atlantic Division in all five years of the new “Big 3″.

And it’s a well known fact that they don’t commemorate division titles with banners up above.

But when the Celtics clinched the division Wednesday with a 102-98 win over the Magic, there was reason to step back and take a bow.

It was how they got there that was impressive, especially to their coach Doc Rivers. He acknowledged the significance of the turnaround by the team, which played without the injured Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus.

“Yeah, it does, I mean [something],” Rivers said. “It’s funny we were kidding in the locker room because I really – I usually, honestly, don’t say much about it – I don’t know if I’ve ever congratulated the team for winning one,” But I did tell them, I said, ‘Guys, I know it’s not a big deal to us – and it isn’t because we’re not in this to win divisions – but, we were two games under .500 at All-Star break and the fact that you did it and did it this early I think is very impressive.’ And it was.”

Captain Paul Pierce led the Celtics Wednesday with 29 points and a career-high 14 assists. Pierce reminded everyone afterward of what the final goal is for the team, a team that was two games under .500 at the All-Star break.

“I’m not about to go pop champagne bottles or anything like that,” Pierce said. “I know they do in baseball. I mean, it is a good accomplishment. The guys should recognize where we came from to what we are today. It’s a good accomplishment I guess. But all we care about around here is a championship banner. I guess it’s just a step towards the journey we are trying to go towards.”

But Kevin Garnett took the chance to take a swipe at the naysayers who wrote the team off, giving them no chance of winning another division, let alone championship.

“You guys called us old, over,” Garnett said. “I heard some of your pathetic articles and some of your lousy announcers [predictions]. It’s a pity. Obviously you don’t know what drives us. We thank y’all for those articles, appreciate it because it lit a fire under. One of the hardest things I’ve always said in this league is to create chemistry.”

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Greg Stiemsma has ‘big plans’ for Celtics playoffs at 2:56 am ET
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Who would have thought Greg Stiemsma would play a key playoff role on this Celtics team? (AP)

When the Celtics reflect on their 2011-12 season — which saw them capture a fifth Atlantic Division crown Wednesday night despite a variety of injuries throughout the campaign — they might ask themselves, “How did we pull that off?”

Sure, they benefited from a renaissance season from Kevin Garnett, enjoyed Rajon Rondo‘s streak of 23 straight games with 10 or more assists and saw a rather unexpected growth from Avery Bradley. Then there’s the ascension of Greg Stiemsma.

Stiemsma didn’t begin seeing extended playing time until the second half of the season. In January, he was buried on Doc Rivers‘ bench and only averaged just over seven minutes. That number sky-rocketed to 18 minutes in March, and then 20 in April, due to season-ending injuries to Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal.

Still, despite the uneven playing time, Stiemsma is averaging 1.56 blocks per game this season, which ranks him 15th in the entire league, and second among all rookies (The seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, Bismack Biyombo, ranks first). Not bad for a training camp invitee.

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Doc Rivers pays tribute to Pat Summitt at 12:22 am ET
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The questions were over and Doc Rivers was putting the wraps on another postgame press conference when he decided he wanted to say one more thing. It was about Pat Summitt, the legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee who announced earlier in the day that she was retiring after 38 years.

Summitt, who compiled a record of 1,098-208 and won eight national championships was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease before the start of the season. “I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role,” Summitt said in a statement.

“I want to finish with Pat Summitt,” Rivers said as his voice faltered and his eyes became red and welled with tears. “She’s a neat lady. I got to know her a little bit and I just think it’s really sad in a lot of ways. Not basketball, but everything. So, I didn’t want to get emotional. I’m an emotional person and when you see a giant like that leave the game and leave the game because of health, it’s just sad. But she is responsible for women’s basketball. She’s not just a women’s basketball coach, she’s a great coach.

“The longer I’m in this I just realize how much coaching means to all of us. You think about it today. Pat Summitt is retiring at her age and Larry Brown is taking a job at his age. It just tells you how much it’s in your blood, how much you love it. For her not to be able to do it, to me is very sad.”

Summit is staying on at Tennessee as head coach emeritus and said she will be active in the fight against Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund.

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After a major scare, Brandon Bass is ‘more and more comfortable’ and it shows 04.12.12 at 11:28 am ET
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The irony of the situation was just too much for Brandon Bass to fully appreciate.

With just over a minute left in overtime Wednesday night, he had just tried to box out the Hawks for a rebound on one of the best rebounding nights of the season for the Celtics.

Bass went up under the basket and landed awkwardly, laying on the ground as the Celtics came rushing over to see how he was. Doc Rivers rolled his eyes to the heavens, pleading for good fortune. He and Bass got it as it was only a temporary injury to his right knee, and not the same knee that forced him to miss two weeks in February.

“I just hyperextended my knee but I’m alright,” Bass said after an 88-86 overtime win over the Hawks. “I was blocking out and I guess I tried to jump. I don’t know what I did to be honest with you.

“I felt like a little kid. I was just scared. I didn’t know what had happened. It was hurting so bad but I think it was because I was so tensed up. Once I breathed and relaxed, everything started calming down.”

Bass could appreciate his teammates like Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo giving him grief while he was on the ground, trying to keep him loose and relaxed.

“They said a bunch of things. Some said I was tired. Some said I was acting and had gone Hollywood. But man, I was scared and it was hurting, too. I wasn’t going to let the team down.”

Rivers was scared, too, as he had flashbacks to his own career-changing knee injury.

“Well I thought he was hurt,” Rivers said. “I’ve had that injury,” Rivers said of the dreaded ACL. “I don’t even like saying the word. And where he was grabbing. I didn’t think it was going to be a good thing, so that was great.

“The guys were laughing that he was exhausted and he needed some rest. I’m not sure what it was, actually. I’m not sure.”

Bass didn’t even miss a beat – or a play for that matter. He stayed in the game and finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in 42 massive minutes for the Celtics, who outrebounded the younger, more rested Hawks, 56-39.

“We needed a night like that to build on,” Bass said. “We had been struggling on the boards, and that’s an area we want to improve on, and we have been improving on and I just want to keep it going.”

Bass was a big reason the Celtics, playing 24 hours after an emotional battle in Miami, were able to overcome Atlanta in overtime.

“Doc just came in and laid it out and let us know, ‘No excuses tonight.’ It’s a back-to-back and everybody’s tired. He just told us to go out and fight and do what we do every night, and that’s grind,” Bass said.

Grinding is something that the Celtics loved about Bass when they traded Glen Davis to Orlando and got him in return over the summer. After 58 games this season, the Celtics are reaping the benefits of the man who has helped fill the void left by the injury to Jermaine O’Neal.

“I would say I’m getting comfortable,” Bass said. “Being with the guys, they talk to talk to me. Rondo’s out there to shoot the ball, telling me to be ready. Doc is calling plays and I feel like it’s for me. Every game I’m feeling better and more comfortable in the system. I just want to keep it going and build on it.”

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Irish Coffee: Do Celtics own NBA’s best defense? 04.09.12 at 2:03 pm ET
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Over their last five games, the Celtics have held the Heat, Spurs, Bulls, Pacers and 76ers — all likely playoff-bound teams — to just 80.6 points per game. That ridiculous stretch included the lowest scoring output of the Miami Thrice era and Indiana’s worst offensive game this season (both 72 points).

The point? A case can be made, rather easily, that the C’s now own the NBA’s best defense.

This recent run vaulted the Celtics to No. 1 in points allowed per 100 possessions (95.3). Their 89.3 points allowed per game still ranks third behind the only other teams that give up fewer than 90 points a night — the Sixers (88.5) and Bulls (88.9) — but that’s dropped to an NBA best 83.4 points surrendered over the past 10 games.

In fact, as colleague Paul Flannery noted, the Celtics have allowed 80 points or fewer in six of their last 12 games (including four of their last six), holding opponents to 40 percent shooting or worse in eight of those 12 contests.

For the season, the Celtics have held opponents to the league’s lowest field goal percentage (41.8%) and 3-point percentage (29.8%), both still tops in the NBA and even better over the past 10 games (38.7 FG%, 25.2 3P%). They make an offense’s life miserable everywhere on the court, ranking top-10 everywhere from at the rim (3rd) to 3-9 feet (8th) to 10-15 feet (1st) to 16-23 feet (7th) to 3-point range (1st).

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Doc Rivers: ‘Guys are locked in’ at 11:59 am ET
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Doc Rivers has preached it over and over.

The shots aren’t always going to fall but the defense will always be there.

Such was the case on Saturday night when they shot just 42 percent in Indianapolis.

But they held the Pacers to 35 percent in an 86-72 win. Sunday night, they followed that up by holding the Sixers to 38 percent in a 103-79 romp that put them on the brink of their fifth straight Atlantic Division title.

How appropriate since defense has been the backbone of everything in the Doc Rivers “Big 3″ plus Rajon Rondo era.

Sunday, the Celtics held the Sixers to 6-of-22 shooting the second quarter to take command of the game.

“The defense is really good; guys are locked in,” Rivers said after Sunday’s game that improved the Celtics to 32-24 on the season. “Your offense will fail you, you know that guys; I don’t care how well you play, your offense is going to fail you sometimes. But if you come with the right mindset your defense never should. And it’ll always give you a chance to win a game.”

Even two weeks ago it would’ve seemed far fetched that Avery Bradley would succeed Ray Allen as the starting off guard next to Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. But combine his newfound ability to cut the basket with his shutdown defense and he’s become too valuable not to start. He has seen success defensively from both sides now.

“Its very important for the bench to come in and bring the intensity,” Bradley said. “That’s something that Doc always, we take pride in as a team so we want to come in and bring the intensity and play hard on the defensive end and that’s what we did in the second quarter.

“It was very important for us to win this game. We want to come out and play hard and ya know coming in the second half we wanted to come out in the third quarter and we wanted to bring our intensity up even higher. That’s what Doc told us, he told us to come in the third quarter and play hard and we were making shots and we just continued to make the lead even higher.”

Part of defense is rebounding and with Paul Pierce staying home and crashing the boards, like his six first-quarter rebounds Wednesday against the Spurs, the Celtics are not giving up as many second and third-chance points. Even Sasha Pavlovic has bought in. He had four rebounds in the first half Sunday, including three in seven minutes in the second quarter.

“Well it’s a combination of things,” Pierce said. “We got to take care of the ball definitely, but we got to rebound the ball and I thought we did a better job competing on the rebounds, especially at the guard level myself, Avery, Sasha, Rondo getting in there rebounding the ball. So its going to be important for us as we wind down the season and in playoffs, that’s what our one true weakness is and if we can address that down the stretch we will be a tough team to beat.”

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Rajon Rondo proves again: ‘It starts with me’ at 11:08 am ET
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Rajon Rondo has put up numbers this season that are pretty unreal.

At halftime Sunday night, his numbers were again staggering, but for a far different reason – five turnovers to go with six assists – and still the Celtics were cruising by 14 over the fading 76ers.

In his streak of 17 games of double-digit assist totals, Rondo has also prided himself on taking care of the ball. The first half Sunday night made Rondo really, really upset.

“He was really upset at halftime because he had the five turnovers,” Doc Rivers said. “I think he had a bet – not real money – with [assistant coach Ty Lue] that he’d have zero turnovers in the second half.”

Well, Rondo played the odds well because Rondo had the perfect second half, including nine third-quarter dimes without a turnover, and played 12 minutes in the second half without a miscue. He played so well that he got the entire fourth quarter off as the Celtics rolled, 103-79.

He finished with 15 assists but it was the zero turnovers in the second half that meant the most to Rondo after the game.

“The second half I just tried to keep it simple,” Rondo said. “We ran particular play the entire third quarter and it was good for myself and the team. It’s a good win for us. Guys got some rest for Miami.”

So how did the Celtics double their lead from 14 to 28 in the first nine minutes of the third?

“It starts with me,” Rondo said. “I had five [turnovers] in the first half. I played 12 minutes in the third and I didn’t have any turnovers and I think that’s why we were able to open up the lead on Philly and blow this game out.”

Rivers was certainly on board with Rondo’s approach, as he watched his point guard simply things.

“Keeping it simple,” Rivers said. “As simple as Rondo can.”

That doesn’t mean Rondo won’t pull of the spectacular – like when he hit a turnaround, fadeaway baseline jumper as the shot clock was expiring midway through the third.

But Rivers realizes, turnovers or not, put the ball in Rondo’s hands when he’s pushing the ball up the court and good things almost always happen.

“Guys do a great job, they know when Rondo is pushing the ball up,” Rivers said. “We’ve changed a little bit. Early in the year, we were always running toward Rondo to set a pick for him. Now we’re running away from Rondo and setting a pick on everybody else. And it’s been a good move by us and [the picks] are getting guys open.”

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