Celtics

The hottest team in baseball is the...

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The hottest team in baseball is the...

From Comcast SportsNetCHICAGO (AP) -- The Tampa Bay Rays are making another run at the playoffs and Evan Longoria is leading the way -- again.The Chicago White Sox are slumping at the worst time.Longoria hit a tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning and Tampa Bay gained ground in the wild-card race with its eighth consecutive victory, handing the White Sox a 3-2 loss on Thursday night that damages Chicago's playoff hopes."The belief has never gone away. We've felt like we had a good chance to be a playoff team from the beginning of the year," Longoria said. "The pressure is not on us playing from behind. It's not ours to lose, it's ours to win. We're behind, but we're close enough."The Rays pulled within two games of Oakland for the second AL wild card, while the White Sox fell two games behind Detroit in the AL Central after their eighth loss in nine games. Tampa Bay and Chicago have six games to go, including three more against each other.The Athletics lost 9-7 to Texas and the Tigers beat Kansas City 5-4 earlier Thursday.The White Sox struggled to hit with runners on base, a recurring theme during their recent slide. They are hitting .123 with runners in scoring position over their last 10 games.They twice had the bases loaded and no outs Thursday night but managed just two runs. And then they failed to get down a bunt and made a major baserunning gaffe when they had the potential go-ahead run on base in the eighth."There ain't nobody to blame. I think everybody in here will take accountability for the way we've played," Chicago starter Jake Peavy said."We had it right there in front of us a lot tonight and throughout the last week and a half, just hadn't been able to capitalize on either side of the ball. We've tried to pitch well enough to give us a chance and just hadn't been able to do that quite enough and obviously offensively it's been frustrating here for the last little bit."Longoria's 14th homer came on the eve of the anniversary of his dramatic shot that beat the Yankees on the final day last season and gave the Rays the AL wild card. Now they're hoping for a repeat performance."It's one game. I hate to bring down the mood, but it doesn't put us ahead," Longoria said."It brings us a little bit closer, but it doesn't guarantee anything. It's a good moment for us, good moment for me, but bottom line is it's just one game."Joel Peralta (2-6) pitched an inning for the win and Fernando Rodney finished for his club-record 46th save in 48 chances. After giving up a two-out single to Kevin Youkilis, Rodney struck out Adam Dunn on a 3-2 pitch to end the game."We have to get back to our DNA, which we're starting to do," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who earned his 600th career win, including a 19-10 interim stint with the Angels in 1999. "Great pitching, not just good defense -- great defense. We have to be great on defense. The fortuitous hit, the clutch hit has to show up for us to get back there."Brett Myers (3-4) gave up Longoria's homer while pitching 1 2-3 innings. The right-hander has allowed a run in each of his last two outings after a run of six consecutive scoreless appearances.The White Sox wasted a handful of opportunities to grab control of the game.A.J. Pierzynski led off the eighth with a single. Pinch-hitter Dewayne Wise then struck out after failing out to get down a bunt and pinch-runner Jordan Danks was ruled out on a double play on Alexei Ramirez's fly ball when he failed to retouch second base on his way back to first. Chicago left 10 on base."We didn't do the little things. Tonight we had an opportunity to get a guy in scoring position and didn't do it," Chicago manager Robin Ventura said."Over the course of the last week or so, we're not doing small things to win games. We have bases loaded, we only get one. Over the course of time that just builds up and it's difficult on your pitching staff to do that over and over again."Paul Konerko hit into a double play with the bases loaded in the fifth, tying it at 2.Luke Scott started the fifth with a drive off Jake Peavy for his 14th homer, giving Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.Carlos Pena had a sacrifice fly for the Rays in the fourth, but the White Sox tied it in the bottom half when James Shields walked two and gave up a single to Alex Rios to load the bases with no outs. One out later, Shields hit Dayan Viciedo with a pitch to force in a run, then retired the next two batters to avert the big inning.Shields gave up six hits in 6 1-3 innings, throwing 117 pitches. He struck out six and walked four.Peavy went 7 1-3 innings, leaving after walking pinch-hitter Sam Fuld. He gave up four hits, struck out six and walked one.NOTES:The White Sox still have not named a starter for Sunday's series finale to oppose Rays ace David Price. Jeremy Hellickson (9-10) goes for Tampa Bay on Friday against Gavin Floyd (10-11) and Saturday it's Matt Moore (10-11) vs. Chicago's Chris Sale (17- 7). ... Rays C Jose Molina (right quad strain) missed a second straight game. Maddon said "he's doing better," but isn't sure when Molina will be able to return to action. ... Dan Johnson, who homered for Tampa Bay to tie the game with the Yankees on the final day last year, is now a reserve with the White Sox and lined out in the ninth Thursday night. "It's very strange that Danny's over there," Maddon said. "Great guy. He's a big part of Devil RayRay history. ... I know how calm he is in big moments."

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.”