Can the Celtics count on Ray Allen this time around?

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Can the Celtics count on Ray Allen this time around?

BOSTON Tip-off is several hours away at the TD Garden, and things are quieter than usual.

There are a few ball boys getting up shots, but something's off.

No Ray Allen.

The clearest sign that Allen isn't right health-wise is the fact that he's nowhere to be found. He's not going through his pregame ritual that involves getting up shots - lots of shots - hours before the actual game starts.

Boston has found ways to make due without Allen all season, as evidenced by its 15-4 record in games in which he has not played.

But the C's know all too well that the playoffs are a different kind of animal. For the Celtics to have the kind of sustained playoff run they're hoping for, it becomes an all-hands-on-deck mission - Allen included.

Normally that wouldn't be an issue.

Throughout his 15-plus NBA seasons, there are few who have delivered in the clutch or stepped their game up as well as Allen.

In the eight seasons in which he has been in the playoffs, Allen's scoring average was better in the postseason five times. And of the three times he fell short, he was only off by 0.2 points or less per game.

But he's older now (he turns 37 in July) and has struggled for weeks with a right ankle injury that just won't seem to go away.

When you throw in the fact that he's now coming off the bench -- a role Allen isn't all that crazy about -- it raises lots of questions as to whether the C's can count on him the same way they have in past years . . . even if they themselves won't admit it.

"I don't ever worry about Ray," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "We know when he gets his opportunity, Ray will come through. He's been doing it his whole career. I don't expect that to change now."

But this is a different season, and Allen finds himself in a position unlike any he has been in throughout his Hall-of-Fame worthy career.

He is, like most NBA players, a creature of habit.

So, just like not being able to go through his usual pregame routine can throw him off rhythm-wise, you have to wonder if the whole concept of coming off the bench might derail his play some in the postseason.

Although he did approach coach Doc Rivers about coming off the bench, Allen is quick to clear up any ideas that being a sixth man was something he thought of on his own.

"I know it was being talked about a lot," Allen said of his being moved to a backup role. "I can't say that it was my idea. I don't ever want to come off the bench. If it can help the team, Rivers and I talked about it, I said if it can help the team, if that's what he needs me to do, I'll be all for it."

Allen has come off the bench four times this season, with Boston winning three of those four games.

Winning, more than anything else, is why the Celtics felt this move would work and why Allen has been willing to embrace his new role.

Allen's replacement, Avery Bradley, has given the team a defensive presence it simply lacked from Allen. And with Bradley's offensive game steadily improving, Bradley's defense and scoring contributions have come pretty darn close to filling the massive void left with Allen out of the lineup.

As for his play as a reserve, it's clear he becomes more of a focal point offensively with the second unit as opposed to being with the starters.

But statistically speaking, Allen's doing essentially the same things he did with the first unit.

For the season, he's averaging 14.2 points per game and gets 10.7 shot attempts. In the four games he came off the bench, he's averaging 14.3 points per game while averaging 11 shot attempts.

"At the end of the day, your minutes don't change," said Allen, who averaged 34 minutes as a starter, 31.8 coming off the bench. "That's one thing I'm very cognizant of when I'm out there on the floor. It's like an ego thing to start. My ego is not that big where I feel I need to start. But at the same time, I've done this for a long time and I prepared myself and I'd like to consider myself one of the best at what I do and give myself a chance and give the team a chance to win every night. So, it is tough. Avery's role out there, I try to prepare him the best I know how to kind of be on his toes and ready for whatever may happen. At the end of the day, this is Doc's ship. Whatever Doc wants and needs for us to do, we have to do it to try and win games."

But it remains to be seen if he'll physically be able to be one of those guys Rivers counts on in the playoffs to indeed help the Celtics advance past the Atlanta Hawks.

Rivers has maintained for weeks that he fully expects Allen to play in the postseason, shooting down any comparisons to the Shaquille O'Neal situation last season when O'Neal was limited to just 12 minutes in the playoffs because of an injury (calf) that never seemed to heal as well as it needed in order for him to play.

"I don't think it's quite the same, but there's a small similarity," C's president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, told CSNNE.com. "I think Shaq, in February of 2011, we thought he was going to be back. But in late March, we had serious doubts. We had hope, but we were still worried.

"Ray is not quite there yet. I think he's going to be back. I think he's going to have a great playoff run. That's what I think and believe, but at the same time, until he's doing it, I'll be worried."

The trio of Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett have been praised for how they have stepped their game up after the All-Star break to propel the Celtics to a fifth straight Atlantic Division title.

But Ainge recalls how Allen carried the Celtics early in the year when no one other than Rondo was playing particularly well.

"We might not have won any games had Allen not been making shots," Ainge said. "He was shooting the best of his career through the first 25 games. The team wasn't playing great, so people forget the impact that Ray was having for us early in the year."

Even though his numbers have cooled down, he's still shooting a career-best 45.3 percent on 3s this season.

"Ray was the guy that carried us the first half of the year, shooting 55 percent for the longest time, carrying us with his 3-point shooting early in the season when KG wasn't playing very well and Paul was hurt and sort of out of shape, not playing well," Ainge said. "Now those guys have really stepped it up, Ray's hurt."

Regardless of how he has played of late and his injury status, Ainge has seen enough of Allen to know that it probably won't be too much longer before Allen is back on the floor, hours before tip-off at the Garden, taking shots and getting ready to make some playoff noise.

WATCH: Celtics vs. Thunder

WATCH: Celtics vs. Thunder

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Celtics-Thunder preview: Another chance against a top-tier team

Celtics-Thunder preview: Another chance against a top-tier team

Hosting the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 25, the Boston Celtics had the perennial title contenders on the ropes with the lead in the fourth quarter only to lose it and the game, 109-103.

On the road at Houston, one of the Western Conference’s top teams, the Celtics led in the fourth quarter and wound up losing their Dec. 5 matchup 107-106 as Al Horford missed what would have been a game-winning lay-up as time expired.

Boston played well in both games, but not well enough to win which unfortunately for the Green Team has been how things have gone when they’ve faced some of the better teams in the NBA this season.

They are hoping to break that trend tonight when they hit the road and face the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder (14-9) come in with a slightly better record than the Celtics (13-10).

Boston’s issue isn’t that they can’t play with the better teams.

It’s their finish that needs work.

Boston has lost five of its six games this season against teams that are currently among the top-4 in their respective conferences. 

Losses to San Antonio and Houston only highlight Boston not being able to make the late-game runs needed to win.

Even in their 101-94 loss to Toronto on Friday, it was the Raptors’ ability to make one clutch play after another when it mattered most, that proved to be what was needed to propel them to victory.

“That’s what good teams do; they execute at the end of the game,” said Celtics guard Avery Bradley. “We just have to execute better and get stops at the end of the game. That’s what it comes down to.”

And while the Celtics have a number of returners from last season, every season brings about a different team and with that, a need to learn how to collectively be successful especially down the stretch in close games.

“We’re learning,” Bradley said following the Raptors loss. “We’re moving on to the next game.”

And that would be the Thunder who come in having won six of their last seven games.

Of course when it comes to the Thunder, everything starts with Russell Westbrook who is on everyone’s short list for league MVP.

He is averaging a triple-double this season with 30.9 points, 11.3 assists and 10.8 rebounds per game.

“He’s amazing,” said Boston’s Terry Rozier who will likely spend some time defending Westbrook tonight. “He’s going to be aggressive. We have to try and find a way to stop that. He’s putting up video game stats. It’s tough but we gotta do something.”

The Celtics will likely lean heavily on Marcus Smart and Bradley, a first-team all-NBA defensive selection last season, when it comes to trying to slow down Westbrook.

“Russell’s a good player,” Bradley said. “I look forward to every matchup. If it’s him, whoever it is, I look forward to it. That’s what this league is about.”

It’s also about growth and development of franchises into title contenders, something the Celtics are eager to continue pushing towards tonight.

Horford spent the previous nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, advancing to the playoffs every season.

He saw first-hand how they went from a team that could barely get into the playoffs, into one that produced four all-stars in one season and had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Horford saw the loss to Toronto as an example of a really good team doing what great teams do and that’s finding a way to win regardless of how things are going most of the night.

“We made a run early (against Toronto), they stayed with it, didn’t rattle and eventually got over us,” Horford said. “We’re growing as a group.”