Blakely's Celtics-Sixers preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Sixers preview

BOSTON Win or lose tonight, the Celtics (31-24) will leave the TD Garden still in first place in the Atlantic Division.

Finishing on top of the division for a fifth straight season has great value for the Celtics, especially when you consider how far they have come this season and all the setbacks they have had to endure.

However, finishing these final 11 regular season games playing well and staying healthy remain Boston's top two priorities now.

At times, those two things may seem to be at odds with one another.

Sitting players occasionally to keep them healthy might detract from the team's chances of winning. On the other hand, by playing most of their regulars down the stretch may increase the likelihood of victory, but it may impact how healthy and fresh players are during the postseason.

For Paul Pierce, the two go hand-in-hand.

"Finishing strong is getting ready for the postseason," he said. "When you're playing well, you're prepping for the long run, for what playoff basketball is all about. It comes down to the execution; it comes down to discipline on defense; all those little things help you play well in preparation for that."

The C's won't have much time to prepare for the Sixers.

But having lost the first two meetings to Philadelphia this season, the Celtics have a pretty good idea of what they need to improve upon in order to avoid getting swept by the Sixers this season. Here are a few keys to consider as the Celtics try to increase their lead over Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, to three games.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Bench play is always important, but you have to wonder how will Boston's second unit respond to facing a Sixers team whose backups have collectively been one of the most productive groups in the NBA this season. Ray Allen has come off the C's bench the last two games, and isn't likely to return to the starting lineup. That gives the C's a prolific scoring threat off the bench, coupled with the steadily improving play of Greg Stiemsma. Celtics veteran Sasha Pavlovic was the C's eighth man on Saturday and responded with an eight-point game in just over 14 minutes of action. Philadelphia is getting 40.3 points per game off its bench, the third-highest scoring bench in the NBA. Keeping them at or below their average will be critical for Boston to win.

MATCHUP TO WATCH Ray Allen vs. Lou Williams: It's not often that you have as much star power as tonight's game has, and the key matchup involves a pair of non-starters. But Allen and Williams are not your typical backups. Allen is the NBA's all-time leader in 3-pointers made and is the C's third-leading scorer. Williams is the Sixers' top scorer, and is on track to become the first player since Dell Curry in 1993-1994 with Charlotte, to lead his team in scoring without making a single start.

PLAYER TO WATCH Brandon Bass is coming off arguably his worst shooting performance for the Celtics. A double-digit scorer most nights, Bass missed all six of his shots from the field against the Pacers and finished with two points. It was the first time since being traded to the C's, that Bass played a game and missed every shot from the field.

STAT TO TRACK Both Boston and Philadelphia will look to get out and run when the opportunity presents itself. Good luck with that. Tonight's game features two of the league's best at limiting fast-break points, a credit to both teams placing a strong emphasis on getting back in transition defensively after as many made and missed shots, as possible. Boston has been strong in this area, giving up just 12 points per game which ranks sixth in the NBA. The Sixers? Even better. Teams are getting a league-low 9.9 fast-break points against Philadelphia this season.

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady can be his own worst critic. That's why last week, after beating the Texans in the Divisional Round to move on to the AFC title game, he wasn't thrilled. He didn't play up to his standards. The offense struggled at points. He wore his frustration like a five o'clock shadow.

Winning is not everything for Brady, most weeks. He has an idea of how he should perform, how the Patriots offense should perform, and when those ideals aren't met, he's generally displeased. 

PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17

On Sunday, after beating up on the Steelers, 36-17, that wasn't the case. It was a sound performance, but it wasn't perfect. It was explosive at times, but it shined a light on areas where the Patriots will need to continue to improve. 

Despite its imperfections, Sunday was no time to brood about plays missed or lessons learned the hard way. Screw it, Brady seemed to say. They were going to the Super Bowl. It was OK to smile.  

"It was a good day," Brady said. "I mean, we're going to the Super Bowl, man. [Expletive], you've got to be happy now."

The Super Bowl berth is the ninth in franchise history -- more than any other club -- and the seventh with Brady and coach Bill Belichick. By throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-42 passing, Brady tied Joe Montana for the most postseason games (nine) with three touchdown passes. 

Brady will also claim the record for Super Bowls played when he and the Patriots head to Houston. And if they win, he'll tie Charles Haley for most Super Bowl wins for a player (five).

Those are lofty numbers made even more significant, perhaps, due to the fact that Brady wasn't allowed to start this season as his team's quarterback. He was asked during Sunday's postgame press conference if it was personally satisfying to get back to the Super Bowl despite having to serve a four-game suspension due to Deflategate.

"Well, that's because of the hard work of a lot of people from my coaches to my teammates to our families that support us," he said. "It takes a lot of people, a lot of hard work and a lot of effort over the course of many months. This didn't start at 6:40 tonight.

"This thing started in April. It really started before that in free-agency when we were picking up guys like [Chris] Hogan and drafting guys like Malcolm Mitchell and guy who were in rehab like [LeGarrette Blount] and [Dion Lewis] and [James Develin] and Nate [Solder]. It's a lot of hard work. There are only two teams left standing, and I'm happy we're one of them."

They're going to the Super Bowl. He has to be happy now.