Celtics

Celtics searching for late-game answers

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Celtics searching for late-game answers

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

SAN ANTONIO Near the end of games, opponents have no idea what to expect from the Boston Celtics.

Sadly, the C's play of late appears as though they're just as clueless.

When you look at the problems Boston has had lately down the stretch in close games, it's difficult to gauge whether it's confusion, choking, or a little bit of both right now.

Earlier this month, point guard Rajon Rondo pointed out how the Celtics don't have any go-to plays down the stretch.

Upon his return to the lineup in Monday night's loss at Indiana, after missing the previous game at Minnesota with a right pinkie finger injury, he reiterated that point.

"The past couple of years, we always had two or three plays we could call and get a . . . not necessarily make the shot, but get at least a decent shot in the possession," Rondo said.

He said he doesn't know why that hasn't been the case this season, but understands that it is a major problem for the Celtics as they limp toward the end of the regular season for the second year in a row.

"Right now," Rondo said. "We're a little bit all over the place."

Many will look at the late-game execution issues being a byproduct of Kendrick Perkins being traded last month, and that having so many new faces has impacted the team's ability to close out games.

If only it were that simple.

Boston's end-of-the-game lineup usually includes the Big 4 of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with Glen Davis or Jeff Green.

Folks tend to forget that even when Perkins was with the Celtics, Davis was often on the floor to finish games. And when Perkins was out at the beginning of the season while recovering from a torn MCL and PCL suffered last year in the NBA Finals, Davis was the fifth guy.

But you have to remember, players across the league have more bounce to their game in, say, November and December than they do in March and April.

The impact of not having Perkins is more apparent in the wear and tear that you're starting to see on both Garnett and Davis. Because those two, more than any other Celtics players, have had to pick up the slack that was left by Perkins in addition to all the slack left by a slew of injuries to Boston's big men.

"Kevin and Baby Davis most of the time, they've been without Boston's injured centers for most of the year," said Jermaine O'Neal, who was signed in the summer to be Boston's starting center but has been limited to just 17 games due to injuries. "You want to do whatever you can to give them a break."

Although Davis and Garnett won't acknowledge it, the pounding that their bodies take over the first three quarters of games, has affected their ability to play at a high level in the fourth. And with Nenad Krstic still learning how to mesh his game with their play, it adds another layer of difficulty to a team that's trying to jell on the fly.

With this team, all it takes is one player to be out of position or off his game, and the entire group suffers.

That's why having Jermaine O'Neal return to practice this week, is so important. He's targeting a return to the court on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs, but coach Doc Rivers isn't as optimistic.

"I doubt it," Rivers said when asked about O'Neal coming back so quickly. "There's a chance. The only way is if we had some type of other injury or something. Even then, I doubt I'd do it."

Boston would certainly benefit from the size and rebounding that O'Neal could bring to the floor. But maybe just as important, he's a big body with six fouls to give.

Having that extra body could come in handy, especially down the stretch of a close game.

Rondo would love for two or three plays to emerge that the Celtics could go to down the stretch, but he knows most games wouldn't come to that if the defense played better when the game was up for grabs.

"Regardless if we score," Rondo said, "the last five minutes of the game we have to find a way to get stops."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Hawks in Atlanta. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”