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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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Irish Coffee: LeBron, Heat ‘never count Celtics out’ 04.02.12 at 2:57 pm ET
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Was Sunday’s Celtics blowout, as Chris Bosh suggested, “just a bad, sh#tty game” by his Heat, or was it a warning signal to potential playoff opponents flashed from Boston — one if by C’s, so to speak?

On their way to producing the NBA’s second-best record since the All-Star break, the Celtics have won five straight and seven of their last eight games, the most recent of which handed Miami its third loss in five contests. Over the past week, Doc Rivers & Co. have surged from the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed to within 1.5 games of Dwight Howard‘s Magic and the No. 3 slot. Count the Heat among those in the league taking notice.

“I’m going to say the same thing I said last year: We are one team and I am one guy that never counts the C’s out,” said NBA MVP favorite LeBron James. “I would never count them out. They’ve just got too many winners. They’ve got guys who have been in the moment before. Like I told you guys last year, when everyone was down on the C’s, I always said I’m not going to turn my back on those guys.”

Of course, those guys James referred to are Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, the latter of whom missed his sixth straight game on Sunday. Didn’t matter, thanks to Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass.

“It’s because we’re a great team,” said Garnett following their 91-72 win over the Heat on national television. “Our positions and personnel, it’s all about a system. You know your role in the system. You do what you’re told in the role. You carry out your role 100 percent wholeheartedly, and that’s your contribution to the team.”

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Watch the throne: C’s heat up as Sunday showdown nears 03.31.12 at 5:46 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo and LeBron James will face off again at TD Garden on Sunday. (AP)

The elation was reminiscent of a championship ceremony. The collective relief from the crowd, the exhaustive expressions of the victors and the sour disappointment of the losers were all palpable. The Heat had beaten the Celtics in five games … to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Re-watching the celebration unfold, it becomes extremely difficult to keep the moderate accomplishment in perspective. LeBron James began ”Tebowing” (before “Tebowing” was a thing), Dwayne Wade fell to the floor like Michael Jordan after he won his third NBA title in 1993, and Doc Rivers (who was rumored to be stepping away from coaching after the conclusion of the Celtics’ playoff run) wandered around the floor like a lost puppy.

Needless to say, it felt like something was happening. A coronation of some sort. Presumably, the hoary Celtics would no longer be a threat following the 2010-11 playoffs, and the manner in which James spoke about his adversary in the immediate aftermath was extremely deferential — almost like a eulogy.

“First of all, I want to give a lot of thanks to the Boston Celtics,” James said. “Doc Rivers, that coaching staff, them players — they make [you] fight for everything, you can never take your foot off the gas, you can never take a second off against that team, so a lot of respect for that team.”

However, as James was giving praise and soaking in the moment, Rivers was preparing for his post-game press conference, where he unexpectedly declared he was coming back to coach the next season and beyond.

The Heat would advance to the NBA finals, eventually losing to the Mavericks in six games. Rivers’ decision made ripples, putting a moratorium on the passing of the crown, but most likely flew under the radar in the Heat locker room since they had advanced and the Celtics were going home.

That playoff series featured emotions that seemed elevated beyond the stakes of the individual contest. Regardless of where the two teams stand in the conference rankings, there’s enough star power — one Big Three facing another — to make matchups between the teams an event. And that is part of the allure of the next meeting of the teams on Sunday, when the Heat come to TD Garden to face a Celtics team playing at its highest level this season.

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Celtics notebook: The lure of passing at 9:23 am ET
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Rajon Rondo and the Celtics have created a culture of passing. (AP)When Ryan Hollins arrived in Boston, he had something he wanted to tell coach Doc Rivers.

“I appreciate the way you guys play,” Hollins said. “It’s unselfish, no one cares about the points and you guys play to win. You don’t see that in the NBA. If Kevin [Garnett] has five points and 13 rebounds and we win, he’s excited. If [Rajon] Rondo has zero points and 15 assists, he’s excited. You don’t see that. I really appreciate that about the team.”

Hollins has already benefited from the passing culture. He and Rondo have hooked up for three alley-oops in the last two games and his eyes lit up when asked about playing with the point guard.

“I love playing with Rondo,” Hollins said. “The type of player I am, I’m going to complement Rondo and he’s going to complement me. If I can be at the rim, it opens up all the other shooters. The coaching staff is on me to dive and run in transition. It opens everything up.”

Hollins has played just 28 minutes in five games with the Celtics, but his testimonial lies at the heart of what has helped make the Celtics successful again. Their offensive problems have been well documented but here are the gritty numbers:

They rank 26th in points per 100 possessions, just ahead of New Orleans and just behind Toronto, 28th in free throw attempts and dead last in offensive rebounding. They’re ninth in 3-point shooting percentage, but just 23rd in attempts. While they have been making an effort to push the pace since the All-Star break, they do the majority of their scoring in the halfcourt via jump shots.

While Paul Pierce is still capable as a shot-creator and Rondo can open up space, the Celtics rely on passing and ball movement for open shots. More than 67 percent of their made baskets come off assists — the highest rate in the league — and while Rondo racks up assists, the commitment is team-wide. Pierce averages five assists per game and Garnett’s passing from the high and low post remains a unique facet of his game.

It’s a trait that’s not only contagious, it’s passed along to the new players.

“Great passer,” Avery Bradley said of Garnett. “He teaches Brandon [Bass]. When we’re watching film, passes that he makes. That just shows what kind of teammate Kevin is, because somebody could be like, nah I don’t want to tell him to help him get better, but Kevin is constantly trying to help everybody get better.”

Wait, no-pass Bass? Yes, no-pass Bass too. The shoot-first forward has a higher assist rate than at any other time in his career. (The Celtics are more than happy with Bass’ play, by the way. They want him to take his shots and he turns it over far less than the other starters, which shows a player who understands his game and his role.)

One of the primary appeals for the Celtics in free agency is the culture they’ve developed over the last five seasons that celebrates winning over individual numbers. That may not be enough to lure the top free agents, but it will surely attract some players.

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Kevin Garnett: ‘I have nothing positive to say’ about Minnesota Timberwolves 03.30.12 at 2:36 pm ET
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On Friday night, the Celtics are shooting for their fourth straight victory and a sixth win in their last seven games when they travel to Minneapolis, the city Kevin Garnett called home for his first 12 NBA seasons.

Loyalty means everything to Garnett, and as we learned following Wednesday’s defeat of the Jazz, that devotion moved to Boston from Minnesota when the Timberwolves sent him to the Celtics in 2007 for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, cash considerations, their 2009 first-round draft pick and Minnesota’s 2009 first-round pick that they had traded to Boston in the Ricky Davis-Wally Szczerbiak deal.

“It’s always special to come back to true fans and sort of your foundation, but as far as that franchise, I have nothing positive to say, so I’ll just let it be that,” said Garnett. “I think Kevin Love is playing at a high level. I think he’s rejuvenated the city as far as basketball goes. Other than that, nothing else.”

To say Love is playing at a high level might be an understatement, as he’s averaging 37.3 points and 16.3 rebounds over his last four games and playing himself into the MVP discussion. There’s been plenty of comparisons between Garnett vs. Love, but recently Garnett has guarded opposing centers, so it will be interesting to see if the two actually square off head-to-head in Friday night’s matchup.

Speaking of Garnett at the five position, as colleague Paul Flannery noted, he could be the perfect fill-in for the Celtics at center for the next two or three years. That would allow the Celtics to remain competitive with Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and whoever else while maintaining some flexibility for the next round of superstar free agents in two or three years, when the C’s could make a run at someone like — you guessed it — Love.

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Irish Coffee: Doc Rivers molds Celtics bench … again 03.29.12 at 2:23 pm ET
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This version of the Celtics bench is somewhere between Version 3.0 and 893.7. I know because I’ve written each time Doc Rivers molds a different group into form, only to have that unit dismantled by injuries.

At the start of training camp, most expected Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox to fill out the 2011-12 Celtics nine-man rotation. Along the way, injuries to Dooling (knee, hip), Green (heart), Wilcox (heart) and Jermaine O’Neal (knee, wrist) forced Bass into the starting lineup and left a rookie (Greg Stiemsma), a sophomore (Avery Bradley) and a guy who cleared waivers (Mickael Pietrus) to fill out the reserve unit.

Sprinkle in a way-past-his-prime Sasha Pavlovic, a guy coming off spinal surgery (Marquis Daniels), two more rookies (JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore) and a little bit of Ryan Hollins, and you’d expect a big old bowl of poop soup that might lead Padma Lakshmi to ask Danny Ainge to kindly, “Please pack your knives and go.”

Somehow, someway, Rivers & Co. are making it work … again. Of course, it helps the veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and — save for a pair of ankle sprains — Ray Allen has remained intact. Those guys can make a lot of players look better, but they also set an example that leads them to play better.

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Rajon Rondo: ‘I’m in a rhythm of finding guys’ at 11:17 am ET
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Take care of the rock.

It’s the simplest of principles in basketball yet sometimes the most challenging.

No one knows this more than Rajon Rondo.

His 14 assists Wednesday gave him double-digit assist totals for 11 straight games, the first player with such a string since Steve Nash went on his remarkable run in 2009. But in those 11 games, he’s committed six turnovers three times and four turnovers twice. Doc Rivers challenged him after the All-Star break to cut down on the turnovers and see what happens.

“Well it’s been down since All-Star break and we’ve had a couple of them, but overall our numbers are down and that’s huge,” Rivers said Wednesday. “We made some changes, which I probably should have made earlier in the year and since we’ve made those our turnovers have been way down.

“The only big we throw it to is [Kevin Garnett], above the elbow, basically its that simple,” Rivers added. “Before we were running all the elbow offense, but it was any big and we realized that maybe Kevin should be the only ball handler above the circle.”

And the change from Rondo?

“He’s probably talking about me,” Rondo said. “When I take care of the ball, we take care of the ball as a team so I try to go in with that focus. It starts with the point guard. I have the ball in my hands a lot of the time on the floor. So, if I can take care of the ball, we tend to follow.”

The turnover ratio can explain so much. It can explain why a team that has trouble taking care of the ball possession after possession allows its opponent to get easy buckets in transition.

In the college game, we’ve seen what the University of Kentucky has done turning teams over with its pressure defense. Close games become blowouts in the blink of an eye.

In the NBA this season, we’ve seen a Philadelphia team overachieve and lead its division for most of the season because they are hardly turning the ball over at all. They are on pace to commit fewer than 11 turnovers a game, breaking the previous record of the 2006 Detroit Pistons.

And now we’re seeing the benefit of taking care of the ball from Rondo and the Celtics.

The Celtics have been beaten on the glass by an average of 10 rebounds per game over a stretch in which they’ve gone 4-2. Why? Because they’re committing fewer and fewer turnovers. Take Wednesday night for example.

The rebounding tote board read 43-25 at one point in favor of Utah. But the Celtics committed just six turnovers three quarters while Utah had committed 13, leading to 18 Celtics points. The final numbers were 49-38 and 12-15, respectively.

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