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Irish Coffee: How Celtics re-match up against Hawks 04.23.12 at 4:27 pm ET
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UPDATE: Since Al Horford‘s original claim that playing against the Celtics in their first-round series was unrealistic, the Hawks center has changed his tune. A consultation with his surgeon resulted in a prognosis that he could return to the court on Thursday in a limited role, according to the most recent Yahoo! Sports report.

“It remains to be seen what I can bring,” Horford told reporter Marc J. Spears. “But I hope to bring some scoring. They can’t expect a lot from me defensively because it’s been a while since I’ve even played. That’s one of the things that will hold me back, but scoring I can help. And also with presence with the team in general.”

It’s official. When the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs begin at month’s end, the Celtics will face the Hawks — the same team that in 2008 took them to seven games in the first round. That was then, when the championship nucleus of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen was just finding its groove. This is now, five years later.

The first four of this core’s 43 playoff wins came against Atlanta, but will its last also come against the Hawks?

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Irish Coffee: Avery Bradley ‘beautiful’ in Kevin Garnett’s eyes 04.19.12 at 2:10 pm ET
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Twice after their division-clinching victory against the Magic, Kevin Garnett made his case to the Celtics organization for rewarding Avery Bradley financially after his successful sophomore campaign.

“I love seeing young guys who work hard and it pays off,” said Garnett. “I love young guys who listen and actually put in the work. Just from seeing where he’s come from to where he’s at now is just beautiful, man. I hope they’re able to reward him with some longevity and some loyalty — something long-term. I’ve always said to him, ‘Continue to work, because that’s what’s got you here,’ so I’m happy for him.”

The problem is Bradley isn’t slated to become an unrestricted free agent until the 2015-16 NBA season. He’ll make $1.6 million next season, $2.5 million in 2013-14 and at least the qualifying offer of $3.6 million in 2014-15, facts that may have escaped Garnett, who has made at least $14 million in each of his last 14 seasons.

It’s a great problem for the Celtics, because Bradley has established himself as one of the best bargains in basketball. With Rajon Rondo also locked up through 2014-15 at an average of $12 million over the three years, the C’s have one of the youngest, most affordable starting backcourts and two of the best trade chips in the NBA.

“Avery’s emerging,” said Keyon Dooling, “so we might have to give him like a Big Five or something.”

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Why this was no ordinary division championship for the Celtics 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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Sean Grande: Not your Garden variety night for Celtics in New York 04.18.12 at 10:59 am ET
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Carmelo Anthony posted a triple-double against the Celtics on Tuesday night. (AP)

Editor’s note: This is a guest piece by Celtics radio play-by-play announcer Sean Grande. He wrote the story just before 3 a.m., after the Celtics’ 118-110 loss Tuesday night to the Knicks in New York.

You know what’s a bad idea?

Starting a blog at 3 a.m. But hey, doubling down on Carmelo Anthony and giving J.R. Smith and Steve Novak open looks at 3′s also is a bad idea.

So bad, in fact, it made history.

And that’s really what I’m doing here at 3 a.m., and what you’re doing there, likely early in the morning, maybe putting off the work that you left sitting in your cubicle when you went home last night. Because, hey, if it could wait overnight, it can wait another few minutes.

Besides, it’s going to be a long, long time before we see another one like that.

At 6 p.m., as the Celtics were preparing to leave their hotel in midtown Manhattan, an SUV pulled up in front of our bus. A few seconds later, from the back, emerged one William Martin Joel.

In New York, and the rest of the world, but really in New York, everyone calls him Billy.

He once said, in a song he considered a real next-level breakthrough for him, that it’s either sadness … or euphoria.

And it’s a shame that “It’s fantastic!” was just so darn catchy, because the NBA could have easily adopted that as its slogan instead.

It’s been a remarkable second half for the Celtics. Their 21-9 record is one of the NBA’s best, Wednesday night on their home floor they can clinch their fifth straight division title, the defense has been the league’s standard and they’ve put together a string of outstanding nights and quality wins that with the playoffs approaching have made people think about what’s still possible.

This … was not one of them.

Big picture, the 118-110 loss to the Knicks Tuesday night may end up just a footnote on a division championship season with the truly memorable moments still ahead in the playoffs.

But these were some remarkable footnotes.

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Kevin Garnett’s unusual shot patterns 04.11.12 at 3:27 pm ET
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Kevin Garnett's jumpshooting ability has helped the Celtics. (AP)

Everyone knows that Kevin Garnett is one of the best long-range shooting big men in the league. He’s made 48 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet this season, which is pretty much what he’s done every season since he’s been in Boston. Garnett ranks third in field goal percentage from that distance among power forwards (where he’s still listed on HoopData) behind only Dirk Nowitzki and teammate Brandon Bass.

Garnett’s not a power forward anymore, technically. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it perfectly when his team was in town last week. “You can pigeonhole him if you want to,” Popovich said. “He’s Kevin. He does what he does.”

With the emergence of Greg Stiemsma as a legitimate backup center, Garnett has been playing more four recently, but for all intents of purposes he’s a center now. Yet he hasn’t changed his game that much. He still guards fours and fives depending on the matchup and he’s still taking those jumpers.

What has changed is the opponents’ having to match up with two jump shooting bigs in Garnett and Bass. That draws the defense away from the basket and creates openings for Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce to work a pick and pops with Garnett and Bass, or allow Avery Bradley room to cut to the basket. Garnett, who is the second-best passer on the team after Rondo, has hooked up with Bradley on a number of occasions.

On his CourtVision blog, Kirk Goldsberry took the time to chart where Garnett actually shoots from and the data offers and interesting look into Garnett’s shot selection. For example, he’s more effective when shooting long range jumpers from the left side toward the basket, but he’s better everywhere else on the right side: deep corners, midrange and on the block. Against the Heat on Tuesday, he took seven shots shots from the right side, four from the left and three at the rim, while making 11-of-14.

Doc Rivers said after the game that his team was doing a good job of keeping things simple, but within that tight structure Garnett is free to move around from side to side and keep things fresh.

The Celtics have had trouble scoring points this season — they shot all the way to 26th in points per possession after dropping 115 on the Heat — but they have been in a decent rhythm lately. In six of their last nine games, they’ve scored at an above-average rate (at least for them ) and have recorded three of their most efficient games in that stretch against Minnesota, Philadelphia and Miami on Tuesday.

Garnett’s role in the offense is a piece of a larger whole, but it’s taken on an increased importance down the stretch. He’s averaging better than 15 shots per game over the last 10 and making better than 50 percent of them while taking on a larger work load. As the playoffs draw close, Garnett is adjusting quite well to his position change, and his increased role in the offense.

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Fast Break: Kevin Garnett, Celtics tame Heat again 04.10.12 at 9:48 pm ET
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On 60.6 percent shooting, led by Kevin Garnett (24 points, 9 rebounds), the Celtics defeated the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seeded Heat 115-107 for the second time in nine days, taking a 2-1 series lead with one matchup left between the possible playoff opponents in the penultimate game of the season.

The Celtics (33-24) won their third straight and eighth of their last 10 games, moving within two games of the idle Pacers for third in the Eastern Conference. Paul Pierce (26 points) and Rajon Rondo (18 points, 15 assists) helped the C’s set a new season high for points scored.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Opening statement: When the first quarter came to a close, the top six Celtics rotation players all had between 4-6 points, handing the Heat a 33-22 deficit. The C’s shot 61.1 percent (11-18 FG) offensively, holding Miami to 42.9 percent (9-21 FG) defensively. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Boston’s 13-5 rebounding advantage after the first 12 minutes.

Three party: Taking advantage of a Heat defense that entered the game ranked 28th in 3-point defense, the Celtics converted 7-of-10 treys in the first half (9-14 for the game), establishing a 65-57 lead at the break on 61.5 percent shooting as a team. Pierce and Sasha Pavlovic led the effort, each converting a pair of 3-pointers.

Two-guard duo: As for the Avery Bradley/Ray Allen shooting guard combination, the pair combined for 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including 10 points in a first quarter that saw both the defensive-first Bradley lineup and the offensively boosted Allen group. Not only that, but they frustrated Dwyane Wade to the tune of 20 points on 21 shots — lowlighted by a fourth-quarter technical foul after he fell for a Rondo fake 20 feet from the basket.

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Should the Heat be worried about the Celtics? at 2:14 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo is a matchup problem for the Heat. (AP)

As things sit currently in the jumbled Eastern Conference, the Celtics are holding the fourth seed, which would put them in the Bulls’ bracket. They have a three-game lead on Philadelphia and New York with 10 games to play and while nothing is assured for the Celtics, it’s looking like a safe bet that they will walk away with the Atlantic Division title for the fifth straight season, thus landing the fourth seed, as opposed to the seventh.

(Note: Winning the division does not guarantee homecourt advantage in the first round. The Celtics would still have to finish with a better record than the fifth seed and they enter play on Tuesday a game and a half behind Atlanta and Orlando.)

There’s a chance that Miami, which is just one game back in the loss column, could overtake Chicago for the top spot in the conference and set up a rematch of last season’s semifinal series that the Heat won rather convincingly, 4-1. The Celtics felt then — and feel now — that if not for a couple of bad breaks like Paul Pierce‘s dubious ejection in Game 1 and Rajon Rondo‘s elbow injury in Game 3, they could have made it a much tougher series. Still, four games to one speaks for itself.

And yet, there’s a feeling that the Heat should be afraid of the Celtics in the playoffs for the simple reason of matchups. Miami has no real answer for Rondo, who was brilliant in Boston’s 91-72 victory a week and a half ago when he went for 16 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists and was a plus-28.

Additionally, Pierce is one of the few small forwards in the league who can hope to guard LeBron James for 40 minutes and match his production, if not come out ahead. Pierce went for 23-7-3 in their last meeting, while LeBron posted a 24-4-0. It was James’ first assist-free game since 2009.

The real revelation in the April 1 meeting was the play of Avery Bradley, who held Dwyane Wade to 6-for-17 shooting, including a memorable block at the rim. Bradley also scored an efficient 13 points on 10 shots and presented a problem with his cuts to the basket.

There’s still one more reason why the Celtics matchup well with Miami. Let’s let Doug Collins tell it: Read the rest of this entry »

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