Celtics

Celtics toe fine line between rest and clinching

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Celtics toe fine line between rest and clinching

BOSTON With three of their last four games at the TD Garden, the Boston Celtics will give their fans plenty to cheer about as the regular season winds down.

But with playoff races wrapping up, the Celtics are no different than most veteran, playoff-bound teams who start to sit their best players to give them added rest.

It's great for the players. Fans who come to see their favorite stars? Not so much.

"Obviously you would love to take care of the fans," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "But taking care of the fans is winning in the playoffs. That's the way I look at it; at least, that's how it is with our fans."

Prior to Boston's win at Charlotte on Sunday, Rivers decided to give Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett the night off, so they both stayed behind in New York -- the C's played at New Jersey on Saturday -- awaiting the C's to return from Charlotte for Tuesday's road game against the New York Knicks.

It was clear after the introductions of the starting lineup against the Bobcats on Sunday that the pro-Celtics crowd was noticeably disappointed that Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen (he was still out with an ankle injury) were not playing. And Rivers totally understands.

"For our fans," Rivers said, "at the end of the day . . . I think it sucks honestly to buy a ticket and the Big Three in Charlotte don't show, especially when 75 percent of the crowd was for Boston. Having said that, they want us to win, we did that; And secondly, they want to see us do well in the playoffs."

For that to happen, keeping guys healthy is essential.

As you canvass the NBA landscape, it's littered with teams that are resting players.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant. The Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade. The San Antonio Spurs and their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

All have missed games this month with the goal of being as healthy as possible when the playoffs begin in less than two weeks.

Throughout the season, Boston has had its share of health-related issues.

So it should come as no surprise that in these final days of the regular season, the Celtics are still grappling with lineup shuffling to accommodate the number of missing bodies.

Ray Allen's sore right ankle has kept him out for 11 games this season, including the last five.

And with the playoffs set to start soon, there are a number of Boston players with questionable health issues right now. Allen (ankle) and Mickael Pietrus (knee) both sat out Tuesday's loss at New York. Both are questionable for tonight's game against Orlando.

In addition, Rajon Rondo (back) and Paul Pierce (toe, thigh) suffered injuries against the Knicks on Tuesday which has cast some doubt on whether they'll play against the Magic who are playing without their best player, Dwight Howard (back).

That's why Rivers continues to stress that as much as the C's want to go into the playoffs playing well, keeping players healthy is more important.

Boston now needs one win to clinch the Atlantic Division and with it, no worse than a fourth seed for the playoffs.

Players acknowledge it's important, but not if it comes at the cost of having tired legs going into the postseason.

"At this point, it's a fine line (between) getting some rest and clinching the Atlantic Division," Pierce said. "The key for us at the end of the day, we want to be healthy going into the playoffs.We feel like we can win anywhere on the road. They key for us is being healthy."

WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

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Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Get it done. No excuses.
 
That has been how the Boston Celtics have played most of this season.
 
And if there’s one Celtics player who embodies that on this team, it’s Marcus Smart.
 
The fourth-year guard has struggled all season with his shot-making, but when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter you can count on Smart to be on the floor.

THE WINNING STREAK

He has been among the many reasons Boston has won 15 in a row, which is the fifth-longest winning streak in franchise history.
 
And Smart will be among the Celtics looking to keep it going tonight against the Dallas Mavericks.
 
Most likely, Smart will make an impact with his defense, which is among the best in the NBA.

How good?
 
Smart has a defensive rating of 93.4 (points allowed per 100 possessions) which is tops among all guards in the NBA, and ranks third among all players who have played in at least 10 games this season.
 
But in the 110-99 win over the Hawks, Smart knocked down a couple of 3-pointers which was a big deal considering how mightily he has struggled shooting the ball this season.
 
Smart is shooting 27.3 percent from the field as well as from 3-point range – both career lows.
 
However, he’s also averaging career highs in assists (4.5) and rebounds (5.1) this season.
 
And while he certainly doesn’t appear to be affected by the shooting struggles, he acknowledges that it is something that he can’t help but think about from time to time.
 
“It does affect you, especially if you’ve been working (on shooting) all summer,” Smart said. “At the same time, I don’t take as many shots. But like I said, we got other guys who are playing well. My job is to get them the ball and do whatever I can, go back down the floor, play defense and get the ball again.”

In Boston’s win over Atlanta, Smart spent a good amount of time defending Marco Belinelli who had four points on 2-for-10 shooting compared to 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting when these two teams met earlier this month.
 
Coach Brad Stevens pointed to the job Smart did on Belinelli, in addition to the clutch offensive rebound he was able to snag and quickly put back up and in that gave Boston a 103-95 game with about two minutes to play.
 
“He was really good,” Stevens said.
 
The same could be said for most of the Celtics of late.
 
Kyrie Irving is coming off his most efficient game of the season, tallying 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the field. Jayson Tatum had a rough start, but he came on strong as well with 14 points – all coming in the second half.
 
But the backbone of Boston’s success lies in what they’re able to get done defensively.
 
So far, Boston’s defense has been as strong as we’ve seen this early, in quite some time.
 
Boston, which has a league-best defensive rating of 95.9, has length, savvy and an overall total buy-in by the players on what Brad Stevens is looking for, from them.
 
Meanwhile, the Mavericks (3-14) are coming off their most impressive victory this season, a 111-79 win over Milwaukee.  Dennis Smith Jr. has been among the more talented rookies this season. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Dallas is indeed in a transition period where longtime superstar Dirk Nowitzki (10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) is gradually passing the torch to his younger teammates like Harrison Barnes (18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds) and Smith Jr.
 
Much like the Hawks game, the Celtics must approach this game with a focus on the opponent and not their record.
 
Because the Celtics are no longer just a good team on the schedule. They are a measuring stick for most to see how they stack up against the league’s best.
 
And the Celtics understand how their success has changed how teams see them.
 
“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.”

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