|The Celtics are in first place, can they stay there?||03.26.12 at 11:38 pm ET|
On Jan. 20, the Celtics scored 71 points in a home loss to Phoenix that put their record at 5-9. A month later, they capped off a road trip from hell with a 15-point loss to Oklahoma City that left this proud team talking about moral victories. That’s how sub .500 teams talk, which is what they were, lugging a 15-17 mark into the All-Star break.
A month after that, they’re in first place after beating the Bobcats, 102-95. The Sixers hold the tiebreaker, so technically the Celtics still have a game to make up on Philadelphia, but the accomplishment is still worth acknowledging. Did anyone really see this coming?
This is a team that showed up out of shape with a makeshift roster constructed for the main purpose of not being here after this season. They’ve had two five-game losing streaks ‘ the first time that’s ever happened in the Big 3 era — and they lost two crucial players to heart conditions, their starting center to season-ending wrist surgery and just had another get carted off the court in a stretcher.
The last two nights they have been without Ray Allen, as well as his primary backup and invaluable role player in Mickael Pietrus. Sure, they played the Wizards and Bobcats, the two worst teams in the league, but the victories all count the same and for the Celtics to remain in the mix for the division race, these are the game they have to win.
They are 8-14 against teams with winning records this season and more than a third of their 27 wins have come against four teams: Washington, Charlotte, Toronto and New Jersey.
In April, they play 15 games in 26 days with 12 of them against teams who are competing for the playoffs. The other three are on the road on back-to-back-to-back nights. Beginning on Sunday when they host Miami, the Celtics will play the following schedule in eleven days:
Miami, San Antonio, at Chicago, at Indiana, Philadelphia, at Miami (again) and Atlanta. Then they play Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte in consecutive days.
If they are still in first place after all that, then that will really be an accomplishment because winning the division — so often an afterthought over the last four years — takes on added importance this season. The reward is a fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The alternative will likely be the seventh seed and a first round matchup with the Heat.
Still, the Celtics have reason to feel good about themselves. They’ve won 12 of 17 games since the All-Star break and they continue to survive whatever obstacle is put in their way. Whether it was the loss of Chris Wilcox, the eight-game road trip, the trade deadline, the lack of big men depth without Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal and the frightening Pietrus incident, the Celtics have persevered.
Much of the credit belongs to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who have stepped forward in the second half of the season and carried the team. Pierce scored a season-high 36 points against the Bobcats and he’s been playing like the middle of the season Pierce again. In his last four games, he’s scored 102 points and grabbed 38 rebounds.
Garnett continues his amazing renaissance as the team’s center. He took 20 shots against Charlotte ‘ on the second night of a back-to-back ‘ and it’s suddenly not a stretch to think he could be the team’s center for the next two years if that’s what he wanted to do.
This season has not been about growth or cohesion. It’s been about survival and on March 27, they can finally look at the standings in their division and see their names on the top line. In many ways, the hard part is just beginning.
|Irish Coffee: Greg Stiemsma’s March to NBA legitimacy||at 1:55 pm ET|
As Austin Powers reminded us, the idiom of a steamroller as an overwhelming, irresistible force isn’t exactly an apt one. Rather, the plodding machine goes about its business, transforming a bumpy road into a smooth, consistent surface. And so goes the NBA life of Greg “The Stiemroller” Stiemsma.
Since amassing 13 points and seven rebounds during his first career start just six games into his rookie season, Stiemsma became somewhat of a cult hero in Boston — Brian Scalabrine 2.0, if you will — particularly after Tommy Heinsohn compared his shot-blocking prowess to the legendary Bill Russell.
Except, the “Scal-a-bri-ne” chants that so often enveloped the Garden came in the final moments of blowout victories by a championship-contending team, a Gino-esque symbol that signaled another opponent throwing in the proverbial white flag. The opposite is true for this group of Celtics, whose lack of depth in the frontcourt requires a nightly contribution from the 7-foot Stiemsma if they hope to accomplish anything in the playoffs.
“I don’t think there’s been one real moment that it kind of all clicked in, but this whole season has been about opportunities,” said Stiemsma. “Early on, even in the preseason and the training camp, I had certain opportunities, and I got to play well in those opportunities. So, I think early on it helped me establish just in my own head that, ‘All right, I can play at this level and proved that.’
“So, even if I have a bad game or have a bad possession, whatever it is, I can just get over it and not worry about the big picture of ‘Maybe I’m not cut out for this level,’” he added. “I think I’ve proved that I am.”
|Kevin Garnett: ‘I don’t make a lot of friends’||at 12:40 am ET|
What we knew: Ryan Hollins came highly recommended to Celtics president Danny Ainge from none other than Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce after the three of them played together in the Los Angeles area over the summer.
What we didn’t know: Hollins and Garnett became fast friends.
‘I don’t make a lot of friends, but I can say I made one in him,’ said KG. ‘I like the way the kid approaches the game. He wants to be more than good. You see it in his face. You see it in his work ethic. I’m a big fan of his, so I’m glad he’s here. Like any of the other guys, whatever he wants to know, I’m here for him. So, I’m happy he’s a C.’
It might take a while before Hollins becomes ‘more than good,’ considering the 7-footer has totaled three points and one rebound in his two appearances for the Celtics — understandably appearing lost in the team’s sets on both ends of the floor.
Hollins plays with an encouraging energy, attempting to mimic Garnett’s approach.
‘I told him to be careful about my intensity,’ said KG. ‘It’ll get him kicked out of the league.’
After all, Hollins earned a technical foul 20 seconds into his Celtics debut against the 76ers on Friday night (along with a fine, according to KG) and a personal foul 10 seconds into Sunday night’s 88-76 loss to the Wizards.
‘You might want to be careful with that, you know?’ added Garnett. ‘This intensity comes with a sense of meditation and a sense of under control, but I love his intensity. The kid plays really, really hard.’
|Irish Coffee: Examining Celtics’ post-All-Star success||03.23.12 at 11:40 am ET|
A day after John Hollinger’s NBA playoff odds indicated the Celtics would be the odd team out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, the C’s are statistically entrenched in his top eight thanks to a 100-91 win over the Bucks in Milwaukee. Now, if only they could make the 76ers’ odds of winning the Atlantic Division similarly vanish.
The 76ers have an 80.6 percent chance of winning the division, according to Hollinger. The Celtics? 11.9 percent. That could change in Philadelphia on Friday as the C’s (25-21) trail the Sixers by just one game in the win column.
If history is any indication, Friday in Philly won’t be pretty. The Celtics are 0-6 when they have to travel for the second night of a back-to-back (they did beat the Clippers a night after losing to the Lakers in the same Los Angeles arena), including a 32-point loss to the 76ers earlier this month.
However, the Celtics are 10-4 since the All-Star Game, owners of the league’s second-best record since the break — behind only the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed Bulls (12-2) and one win better than the surging Lakers (9-4). Who would have seen that coming with eight straight away games spread out over 6,000 miles looming?
But the Celtics will emerge from the season’s longest road trip no worse than 4-4, including hard-fought losses to the Lakers and Nuggets (the Western Conference’s current third and seventh seeds, respectively).
|Brandon Bass is starting to get what it means to be a Celtic||03.15.12 at 10:48 pm ET|
OAKLAND — Forward Brandon Bass has been remarkably consistent for the Celtics this season. He averaged 11 points and six rebounds a game in January and February and even after moving into the starting lineup full-time just before the All-Star break, his minutes, shots, points and rebounds haven’t changed all that much.
Beneath that game in and game out consistency has been enormous growth, especially on the defensive end. More than that, Bass is truly coming to understand what it means to play for the Celtics, and play alongside Kevin Garnett.
“If you’re a big and you play on the same team as Kevin Garnett, you’re going to be a better defensive player,” coach Doc Rivers said after the Celtics beat Golden State. “He’s just going to talk you into it. He had one earlier in the game where he missed a rotation and you could see Kevin: He tells you. You may not like the way he delivers the message, but I think where Brandon has grown, he’s gotten over the MFs and [understanding] what he’s saying is really important.”
Bass acknowledged that it’s been a bit of a culture shock coming to Boston and yes, there are times when Garnett’s constant NSFW barking gets on his nerves. But he’s learned that he can also dish it right back and that’s OK.
“You know what? Man. I have problems with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett because they throw a lot of words out there and sometimes I want to throw them back,” Bass said with a bit of a grin. “At the end of the day I know they want to win. And at the end of the day I want to win. So if I throw it back, they don’t mind. It’s life. That’s also what’s made us closer. You can’t be close when everybody’s just being nice. Hey man, how you doing? You got to fight a little bit. Argue a little bit. That will make us closer and I think that will make us fight for each other on the court.”
The Celtics have won eight of their last 10 games and while the only constant thing has been change, they are finally starting to get into a groove since Bass replaced Jermaine O’Neal in the starting lineup. With a regular starting five and a bench rotation of Avery Bradley, Mickael Pietrus, Greg Stiemsma and Keyon Dooling the Celtics are finally approaching normalcy.
It’s also worth noting that while the core four All-Stars have remained intact, that nine-man rotation is entirely new except for Bradley who is getting the first consistent minutes of his short career.
“We had a bunch of new guys, especially myself,” Bass said. “Everybody was on me about this, about that. I’m finally getting it. I knew it was going to take some time. I guess all the guys knew it was going to take some time as well. We’re jelling and I just hope we can continue to do that.”
|Fast Break: Kevin Garnett’s heroics slay Warriors||at 1:04 am ET|
Unable to get a defensive stop down the stretch, tied 93-93 with the Warriors after old friend Nate Robinson tied the game on yet another drive to an open basket, the Celtics turned to Kevin Garnett, who sunk a 20-footer with 5.1 seconds remaining to help the C’s survive 105-103 and improve to 2-1 on the West Coast road trip.
Garnett finished with 24 points (12 in the fourth quarter), seven rebounds and five assists, as the Celtics (23-19) moved within 1.5 games of the 76ers in the Atlantic Division. Brandon Bass added 22 points and nine rebounds, Mickael Pietrus scored 15 points off the bench and Rajon Rondo dished out 14 assists.
Robinson totaled 20 points and 11 assists, Klay Thompson scored a career-high 26 points and David Lee had 22 points and eight rebounds for the Warriors in the losing effort.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Hanging tough: Playing their third game in four nights, 3,000 miles from home, the Celtics started slow (shooting just 8-of-21 from the floor in the first quarter), and watching Robinson get to the rim with regularity didn’t help matters. Still, the Celtics managed to stay within 25-21 after the first quarter — setting the tone for a tight game the remainder of the night.
The French quota: Just 3-of-18 from long distance in the month of March, Pietrus connected on his first four 3-pointers of the night and finished 5-of-6 from downtown, giving the Celtics some much needed offense (and minutes) off the bench. Whispers suggested his knee may be the reason for the recent struggles, but it didn’t seem to bother him in Oakland.
Full Stiem ahead: Without a trade deadline deal, the Celtics will rely more and more on Greg Stiemsma, and the former D-League Defensive Player of the Year responded with eight points and eight rebounds. He’s still got plenty of work to do, especially on the defensive end, but he’s already given the C’s more than they could’ve expected when they invited him to training camp in December.
Sharing is caring: Facing the younger, more athletic Warriors, the Celtics had to rely on ball movement and execution to keep up with them. Check and check. The C’s assisted on 32 of their 40 field goals, making the extra pass time and time again to get buckets down the stretch — with the exception of a possession that resulted in the classic Paul Pierce fadeaway elbow jumper with 36.7 seconds left.
|Kevin Garnett and Celtics respond to Doc Rivers and his bitter ‘beer face’||03.10.12 at 10:49 am ET|
Everyone associated with the Celtics – from players and coaches to support staff – was embarrassed by Wednesday’s 32-point loss to the Sixers Wednesday night.
“That didn’t sit well with anybody,” Kevin Garnett said after Friday’s 104-86 redemption at the hands of the Blazers. “Tough schedule. Philly, they kicked our ass, plain and simple. This was about getting on the right track, taking care of home, and more importantly, creating that momentum going on this long road trip.”
That’s why no one was particularly surprised to see Doc Rivers with a special edge Friday morning during the team’s shootaround.
“Doc comes in, and you can tell how he’s looking, like he’s had no sleep and his hair standing on top of his head and he has the beer face,” Garnett said. “What happened in Philly wasn’t us but it happens and we accept it.
“[Friday] was a defensive mindset all the way through. A team we’re going to see only once, it was important for us to start the game with a force. Paul kept saying in the huddle, before we went out [to start the game] that it was important that we get this game to start the road trip. I’ve always said for the momentum, you’ve got to get games like this. This is kind of like playing on the road because we are going to be away from home for a while so this game was very important.”
As for this eight-game haul, a haul that began early Saturday morning with a cross-country flight, and will include a walk-through when the team lands in LA, Garnett said it’s important not to be overwhelmed.
“One game at a time,” he began. “When you look at it, it’s actually kind of quite scary, just because of the lack of rest, the back-to-backs, the travel. But when you take it a game at a time… it’s still what it is, actually.
“I was going to dress that up like it was something else. Nah, it’s all messed up, it’s all messed up. It is. I want to use another word but I won’t. It’s difficult but we’re going to take it a game at a time. This is the longest I can remember.”
Certainly the longest in his head coach’s career as Rivers said he can never remember a trip like the one the Celtics are about to embark on.
‘In my career, I’ve been in the league for 26 years,” Rivers said, when asked if it’s the longest one in several years. “It’s a long road trip but I do think there’s rest in it. The first two games are tough because of the long flight, you play and then you play the next day. But then after that, there’s days off in between. I think the other one is the last, the Denver game before we go back East, that’s a hard game. Whenever you play Denver on a back-to-back, that’s a hard game because there’s no oxygen.’
The Celtics hope they aren’t grasping for too much air by the time they return home on March 25 to battle the Wizards.