Well-rested Pierce key to a Celtics second-half run

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Well-rested Pierce key to a Celtics second-half run

DENVER The stretch run is here and Paul Pierce finds himself in an unfamiliar place right now - well rested.

Pierce's strong play which catapulted the C's to victory in eight of the last nine games, came too late for it to affect the voting by the league's coaches for All-Star reserves.

So instead he rested up for what he anticipates will be a tough road ahead with nine of the C's next 11 games away from the Garden.

For Boston to make the kind of second-half surge that we saw last season, they will once again need big-game performances from Pierce.

And that's why him not being selected might actually be a blessing in disguise for both him and the Celtics.

"When you play so many games, sometimes mentally and physically you get fatigued," Pierce said. "But with the way we were playing, who knows? Maybe the guys wanted to keep going. But I felt at this point in the season, my body needed, our minds needed ... there's so much we've been going through with the injuries. The last one with Barbosa, it really took a toll on us mentally even more."

Barbosa suffered a torn left ACL and sprained MCL in Boston's 94-91 loss to Charlotte on Feb. 11. Prior to his injury, Rajon Rondo suffered a torn right ACL injury and was lost for the season. Sandwiched between the two injuries is Jared Sullinger who underwent back surgery that will keep him sidelined for the rest of the season.

But the Celtics as they have done throughout their recent string of success, spend little time thinking or talking about players who are unable to perform.

Their success hinges heavily on how well they can re-create the consistent play they enjoyed leading up to the break.

Things certainly broke right for the Celtics during the lockout-shortened season of 2012. At the break last season, the Celtics were 15-17 with 17 teams having had more victories at that point. But after the break, the C's became a dominate team, racking up more wins after the all-star break than all but two teams (San Antonio and Chicago).

It should come as no surprise that the lift Boston saw in terms of wins coincided with Pierce playing some of his basketball of the season.

Prior to the break last season, Pierce averaged 17.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.

Those are decent numbers, but sitting on a 15-17 record certainly did not do much to give anyone outside of the Celtics locker room much hope that things would turn around.

Did they ever.

The C's turn-around was fueled in large part by Pierce's ability to take over games more consistently.

Pierce's numbers after last year's All-Star break were an impressive 20.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

And while this team is completely different than last season's club, the keys to success then aren't all that different today.

"We just have to play our game, and that's defend, make it tough as we can on teams," C's Avery Bradley told CSNNE.com. "We don't care that much about what other teams are doing. We care more about what we have to do, in order to win. That's the way we played before the break and that's the way we have to play now that it's over."

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.”