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Fast Break: Rajon Rondo, Celtics stop Bucks season here 04.26.12 at 10:11 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Mickael Pietrus all returned to the lineup, and the Celtics cruised to an 87-74 victory against the Bucks in their regular-season finale.

The trio combined for just 13 points, but Rondo dished out 15 assists despite taking just one shot. Avery Bradley (14 points) and Paul Pierce (12 points) were the only Celtics to reach double digits, but the Celtics (39-27) cruised nonetheless.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Recovery act: At times, Rondo ran the floor like, well, a guy with a bad back, but it appeared more like an act than anything worth concern. He toyed with defenders at will, improving his streak of games with at least 10 assists to 24 by halftime. Meanwhile, Pietrus returned from his four-game absence to register nine points off the bench. Garnett only played 11 first-half minutes, but he showed no signs of the sore hip flexor that kept him out against the Heat. All in all, the trio of walking Celtics wounded appeared ready to go for the playoffs.

S’Moore: After totaling seven points and seven rebounds against the Heat on Tuesday night, rookie E’Twaun Moore put together another nice performance. At one point against the Bucks, he was a plus-18 in his time on the floor. Moore finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds.

Hollins of Fame: It took all of 51 seconds for Ryan Hollins to put together his most productive stretch of the season. He scored seven points in just under a minute, including a pair of dunks — one of which even came on a putback after a rebound — that helped the Celtics establish a double-digit advantage early in the second quarter. After a month of discouragement, Thursday night was an encouraging sign for Hollins.

WHAT WENT WRONG

My left big toe: Just minutes into the game, Pierce limped back to the Celtics locker room accompanied by team Dr. Brian McKeon — a scary sight for a Celtics team hobbled by injuries entering the playoffs. Scarier still was the Celtics diagnosis that Pierce had sprained his left big toe and was “probably not likely to return.” Naturally, the C’s captain returned before halftime, scoring seven of the team’s final 11 points before the break. The feet have been an issue for Pierce ever since his heel injury during training camp, but on a night he accept an Eastern Conference Player of the Month trophy, his injuries don’t appear too serious.

Ray of hope: While Rondo, Pietrus and Garnett all returned, Ray Allen missed his ninth consecutive game — and 15th in his last 20 — with bone spurs in his right ankle. Celtics coach Doc Rivers pronounced Allen “probable” to play Game 1 of the Hawks series, but even if he does play, there has to be some doubt about his effectiveness after such a long absence. As for Greg Stiemsma, his foot problems shouldn’t keep him from his first career playoff game, even if he missed a second straight game on Thursday.

On the road again: With the Hawks holding a 20-point lead midway through the fourth quarter against the Mavericks, they appeared well on their way to claiming home court advantage in their first-round series against the Celtics. The C’s will own the fourth seed as the Atlantic Division winners, but will have to travel to Atlanta for Game 1 (on Sunday). The Celtics finished 2-1 against the Hawks (1-1 in the ATL) this season, but 2-0 when they weren’t missing five of their top eight rotation players.

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Mickael Pietrus makes an unexpected return 04.12.12 at 2:37 am ET
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The Celtics had clawed back eight-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Rajon Rondo raced up the floor and spotted Mickael Pietrus just beyond the 3-point line. Marvin Williams raced to close out the open space, but Pietrus set his feet and drilled a 3-pointer to extend the lead.

As Hawks’ coach Larry Drew called a timeout, Pietrus turned to the Garden faithful, held up three fingers, and strutted back to the bench while the crowd cheered. Aided by Pietrus’ unexpected return to the court, the Celtics were able to beat the Hawks, 88-86 in overtime.

It was only 19 days ago that Pietrus lay motionless in Philadelphia after violently hitting the floor following a drive to the basket, resulting in a severe concussion. He was immobile for over 10 minutes and the Wells Fargo crowd grew increasingly somber as players from both teams surrounded the fallen player.

“I fell so hard, it felt like my brain was moving,” Pietrus said. “I didn’t feel good, I was throwing up.”

Over the next two weeks, the Celtics rallied around their various injuries and have made a significant push, peaking just before the start of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Pietrus watched from home, hoping to contribute once he was fully recovered.

“I was laid out for two weeks,” he said. “I couldn’t do much. I was trying to rest my brain. I could not watch TV. I could not do anything basically. It’s not like an injury that you hurt your knee, you hurt your ankle, it’s your brain. You’ve got to get your brain right.”

Still, as much as he wanted to be on the court again, Pietrus said he used to the time to reflect on how lucky he was that his injury was not more severe.

“I was thinking about my kids,” he said. “I was thinking about my life. That could have been a different story for me. Today, I’m young, I still got my smile. I enjoy life. When I fell I was thinking more about my kids.”

After participating in one-on-one drills yesterday in practice, team president Danny Ainge and the training staff worked Pietrus out this morning. Once he was cleared to play, Doc Rivers said he only expected to use him for five or 10 minutes Wednesday night. But with the roster shorthanded without Ray Allen — who missed the game because of his balky ankle — and the team engaged in an overtime thriller, Pietrus stepped up, logging 29 minutes for the C’s.

“He was great,” Rivers said. “Danny called me today and said they worked him out and he was tried after two minutes. We went in thinking four or five minutes and get him ready for the games coming up. Going into it that was our plan. He actually never looked over and said he was tired. Maybe he was working out on the sly and we didn’t know it.”

Overall the performance was everything Rivers, Pietrus, and the Celtics could have hoped for. He gave the Celtics a few timely 3-pointers, solid defense, and a body to turn to off the depleted bench.  However, there were a few anxious moments when Pietrus hit the floor after a few diving lay-up attempts.

“That’s why they call me ‘Air France’, you know?” Pietrus said. “I got to take off, and I have to land.”

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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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The Celtics are in first place, can they stay there? 03.26.12 at 11:38 pm ET
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Kevin Garnett goes in for two of his 24 points against Charlotte, as the Celtics moved into a first-place tie with Philadelphia. (AP)

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.

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A tired Paul Pierce explains why Celtics can be a ‘tough team to beat’ in playoffs 03.25.12 at 10:06 pm ET
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As Paul Pierce was holding court after Boston’s 88-76 dispatching of the hapless Wizards Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs were doing the same to Philadelphia in the Lone Star state.

As a result, the Celtics find themselves just a half-game out of first in the Atlantic Division again, with a chance to make further hay when they take on the 7-39 Bobcats Monday night in Charlotte.

If the Celtics can take care of business, they could actually find themselves in the No. 4 seed in the East despite the mounting injuries to Ray Allen (ankle), Mickael Pietrus (concussion), Avery Bradley (ankle) and Greg Steimsma (both feet).

But for one night – against the 11-win Wizards – the Celtics looked re-energized if not refreshed after dropping their contest in Philly on Friday night.

“I was actually kind of tired to start the game,” said Paul Pierce, whose 21 points finished just behind Bradley’s game-high 23 points. “You know usually that first game is a rough one but you just try to get your body back adjusted to the time zone, to our home court. When you haven’t played on this court in two weeks it feels like an away game. But our crowd did a good job of keeping us in it, and we got off to a great start. That was the key, especially coming off such a big trip when you have a lot of let downs and lulls, but we responded well.”

As for Bradley, Pierce was grateful for the pick-me-up in the first half since he had just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half.

“It was great,” Pierce said. “He carried us in the first half. All the great teams and all the champions always have that player who can step up outside the stars and that’s what makes the team, even a better team. And each night we got to have guys, and tonight was Avery. And if that’s something we can have consistently throughout the rest of the year, no matter who it is we are going to be a tough team to beat come playoff time.”

Pierce wasn’t making excuses for beating an 11-win Washington team.

“This is definitely a game we were suppose to win,” Pierce said. “The Washington Wizards are in a rebuilding phase, they traded away a lot of their players, but its just nice to get a win, especially coming off a tough loss and losing Mickael Pietrus.”

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Beleaguered Celtics wait for word on Mickael Pietrus 03.24.12 at 12:50 am ET
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Mickael Pietrus was taken off in a stretcher against the 76ers. (AP)

UPDATE: Pietrus has been cleared to return to Boston, where he will be seen by the team’s medical staff.

Just when the Celtics were approaching some kind of normalcy, they had to watch in anguished anxiety as Mickael Pietrus hit the floor with a sudden thud. He lay on the ground for several minutes and left the game with the Sixers on Friday midway through the second quarter after he was loaded on to a stretcher.

There were few firm details on the nature of Pietrus’ injury, but he was taken to a Philadelphia hospital from the arena. In a bit of good news, Pietrus won’t have to spend the night in the hospital but he did remain in Philly for further tests.

Coach Doc Rivers told the media in Philadelphia that Pietrus had an X-ray and CT Scan and would also have an MRI. The official word is a “questionable closed head injury,” which could indicate a concussion.

“It’s just been a hell of a year right now,” Rivers said.

It was just over a year ago when Marquis Daniels suffered a spinal injury against the Magic that required surgery and put him out for the year. In December, the team voided the contract of Jeff Green after a physical revealed an aortic aneurysm that required surgery.

In February, Jermaine O’Neal aggravated a wrist injury that will require surgery to repair a chronic degenerative condition and will keep him out for the rest of the season. In March, tests revealed an aortic condition in forward Chris Wilcox, who will have heart surgery later this month and also be out for the season. The team requested waivers on Wilcox on Friday and signed free agent Ryan Hollins to help out with depth up front.

Without Pietrus, who was subbing for an injured Ray Allen (ankle sprain), and Avery Bradley, who sprained his ankle late in the second quarter, the Celtics didn’t have enough to stay with the 76ers in a 99-86 loss. They were outscored 37-17 in the third quarter, erasing what had been a strong first half in a game that could have vaulted them into first place in the Atlantic Division.

Still, considering all that has happened the last few weeks, their 4-4 road trip looks pretty good. They had one abysmal loss to the Kings last Friday, but otherwise had tough defeats against the Lakers and Nuggets. They beat the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back, executed late in wins over the Warriors and Hawks and enjoyed an impressive win over the Bucks that gave them the tiebreaker and some breathing room in the playoff race.

“We have a resilient group, though,” said Rivers. “I’m so proud of our team — we just keep sustaining injuries. But guys are just trying to play and win.”

The Celtics return home on Sunday to play the Wizards before heading back out for a back-to-back with the Bobcats on Monday. They have five remaining back-to-backs and one three-in-three, all on the road, in April. They will need to keep that resiliency to finish the regular season, but for now they are simply awaiting word on Pietrus.

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Fast Break: Kevin Garnett’s heroics slay Warriors 03.15.12 at 1:04 am ET
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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.

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