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Paul Pierce is playing his best basketball of the season 04.02.12 at 3:15 pm ET
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UPDATE: Just after this story was posted, Paul Pierce was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

Now that the Celtics have returned to the public conscious, the first thing everyone wants to know is when did they begin to turn it around? That one’s easy. It was the second half of the Oklahoma City game right before the All-Star break when Doc Rivers made a few decisions and the players made a vow to play better in the second half.

The Celtics have gone 15-5 since the All-Star break and have vaulted into first place in the Atlantic Division and re-emerged as the proverbial team no one wants to face in the playoffs.

There are many reasons for their turnaround, but two have been given the most attention. First, Rivers moved Kevin Garnett to center and inserted Brandon Bass into the starting lineup. Second, he decided to shorten the rotation, which essentially meant not playing rookies.

The first move worked flawlessly, the second move has required some adjusting on the fly. It’s important to remember that Greg Stiemsma wasn’t a part of the first nine-man system that Rivers employed. The role of first big off the bench belonged to Chris Wilcox and Stiemsma’s role only became more prominent after a physical turned up cardiac issues for Wilcox that required surgery. Additionally, Keyon Dooling has risen from the ashes to become an incredibly solid third guard at a time when they are without Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus.

There’s also been the play of Rajon Rondo, who has performed much better this March than last season. Like last year, Rondo has been shooting less in the second half of the season, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been as active. He has recorded double-digit assists in each of their last 13 games and cut his turnovers down dramatically. He also showed on Sunday that when the situation calls for it, he can elevate his game. That wasn’t always the case last season.

For all that, one of the biggest reasons for the Celtics’ turnaround remains largely ignored. Paul Pierce is playing his best basketball of the season.

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Irish Coffee: LeBron, Heat ‘never count Celtics out’ 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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Read More: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett
Watch the throne: C’s heat up as Sunday showdown nears 03.31.12 at 5:46 pm ET
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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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Read More: Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Miami Heat, Paul Pierce
The Celtics are in first place, can they stay there? 03.26.12 at 11:38 pm ET
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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.

Read More: Kevin Garnett, Mickael Pietrus, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen
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.

‘€œI 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.

‘€œThis 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.’€

Read More: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Mickael Pietrus, NBA
Irish Coffee: Examining Celtics’ post-All-Star success 03.23.12 at 11:40 am ET
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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).

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Philadelphia 76ers
Fast Break: Deer in the Celtics headlights 03.22.12 at 10:22 pm ET
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Based on ESPN.com writer/mathematician John Hollinger’s latest NBA playoff odds, the Celtics (25-21) are the odd team out in the Eastern Conference playoff race — behind the Knicks (23-24) and Bucks (21-25), winners of five and six straight, respectively. Of course, that projection jibes with the most recent Irish Coffee breakdown.

Regardless, Thursday night’s matchup between the seventh-seeded Celtics and ninth-place Bucks was the biggest thing to hit Milwaukee since the filming of “Bridesmaids.” But only the Celtics showed up, cruising 100-91.

Paul Pierce (25 points, 9 rebounds) led the charge. Rajon Rondo (10 points, 14 assists) Kevin Garnett (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Bass (12 points, 10 rebounds) all recorded double-doubles. And Greg Stiemsma (6 points, 5 blocks, 4 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists) filled up the stat sheet during his first NBA game in his home state.

The Celtics travel to Philadelphia on Friday night, trailing the 76ers by just 0.5 games for the Atlantic Division lead (and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference). But first, let’s get to the Fast Break.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Pushing for the cushion: The Celtics shot 58 percent from the field, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range, in the first quarter, taking an early 35-29 lead. Pierce scored 11 points in the frame, and Rondo added six. Whenever those two get involved early, good things happen for the C’s. At least for the first 12 minutes, they showed they could match Milwaukee’s newfound fast-paced offensive style of play. Obviously, it helps when the opposing team doesn’t play defense.

Oui, Oui, Oui: It’s no revelation at this point, but Mickael Pietrus‘ ability to make 3-pointers coming cold off the bench is remarkable. He knocked down a trio of triples in the first half, walking the walk after talking the talk. On top of his long-range shooting, a couple tough Pietrus (13 points) takes to the hoop in the fourth quarter helped the Celtics stretch their lead to double digits.

The Bucks stop here: On a nightly basis during this road trip, it seems Doc Rivers has said something to the tune of, “We’ve got to grind out games.” It didn’t appear Thursday night’s game would play out that way, as the two teams combined for 114 first-half points, but Stiemsma and Avery Bradley led an inspired defensive effort in the second half that turned the style-of-play tide in the Celtics favor.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Turkish terror: For the second straight meeting, Bucks 6-foot-10 power forward Ersan Ilyasova burned the Celtics, totaling 12 points and eight rebounds by halftime (he had 25 and 10 against the Celtics last month). Ilysasova (12 points, 14 rebounds) entered the game averaging 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in 27.0 minutes a night. For the record, he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season (cc: Danny Ainge).

Oh, shoot: It wasn’t Ray Allen‘s night. He finished just 1-of-8 from the field, including 1-of-5 from 3-point range. And it’s not like he wasn’t getting good looks. Even wide open attempts weren’t falling for Allen. Luckily, the C’s held Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings (12-of-32 combined field goals) relatively in check.

Paint by numbers: Despite matching the Bucks on the glass for much of the night, Milwaukee owned a decided advantage in points in the paint (50-36). And that was on a night that Drew Gooden played awful basketball. The Celtics can get themselves in trouble when they settle for jumpers while the other team gets to the bucket, but even that didn’t seem to matter in Beertown.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Ersan Ilyasova, Greg Stiemsma, Milwaukee Bucks
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