Celtics-Knicks: Chance to right the shipMORE: Pedro comes home

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Celtics-Knicks: Chance to right the shipMORE: Pedro comes home

In the two and a half weeks since the Celtics and Knicks last hooked up, things have gone really well and then horribly wrong for Boston. First, they followed up their emotional, part-of-your-balanced-breakfast brawl at MSG with three straight victories bringing their win streak to season-high six games. They followed that up with four straight losses; three of them against teams with a combined record of 41-86.

Along the way, the bench reclaimed its previous identity of not having an identity. Rajon Rondo's continued to fill the stat sheet with impressive yet empty numbers. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett hopped in the old Hot Tub Time Machine but set knob for 2018 instead of 2008. Avery Bradley got hurt again. Doc Rivers blew a gasket and delivered his now-infamous post-game rant: "Hide your kids. Hide your wives. Hide your husbands. Cuz we're tradin' everybody up in here!"

On the brightside, Jared Sullinger's been a revelation, at least relative to the nastiness that surrounds him. In fact, sources tell me that the Mayor's Office is already laying the groundwork on a 400-pound bronze sculpture of Sullinger's ass (aka The Widowmaker) for display on Causeway Street. Said Mayor Menino: "Jack Skullinger is a true hero, and will no doubt bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston. Oops, did you guys hear that? I got his name and the sport wrong. Oh man. I reeeeally hope this doesn't go viral . . ."

Anyway, the last two and half weeks haven't been all that sweet for the Knicks either. They're 2-3 since that wacky night at MSG, and neither of their wins (ironically, against the Pistons and Hornets) have inspired any confidence. On the other hand, their three losses have all come against fellow Eastern Conference contenders Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn. In all, the Knicks have lost their last five games against teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, thanks to their hot start, New York still sits atop the Atlantic Division, and only two games back of Miami for the No. 1 seed.

When the Celtics last saw the Knicks, Amare Stoudemire was less than a week removed from his season debut, and while he's managed to stay on the court in the days and weeks since, the jury's still out on how effective he'll be moving forward. At the very least, it's fair and equally depressing to say that we've seen the last of this guy:

But it's probably worth noting that Stoudemire arrives in Boston having posted season-highs (15 points, and then 17) in consecutive games.

The Knicks have also welcomed Iman Shumpert and his legendary fade back into mix. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-5 Shumpert is the closest thing New York has to Avery Bradley an amazing athlete, who's somewhat limited on offense but can dominate a game with his D. But lucky for the C's, Shumpert still isn't himself. Tonight will only be his third game of the season, and it takes longer than that to re-establish rhythm and confidence after missing nine months with a torn ACL.

But back to the Celtics. In a weird and frustrating way, there's something comforting about the fact that three of their last four losses have come against three of the worst teams in the league. Also, that their best performance, by far, came in their biggest test.

The truth is that if not for a bogus jump ball call, and a pair of unlikely last second shots by Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli, the Celtics would have beaten the Bulls last Friday, and our perception of everything would be very different. I know it's not that easy, but in many ways it is. I also know that, in a perfect world, you never want to excuse a team for "playing down to the competition," but this isn't the first time we've seen this from the Celtics. The names and faces around them may have changed, but the core of Rivers, Rondo, Pierce and KG is notorious for playing down to the competition. It's unfortunately part of who they are.

But it's something we're willing to tolerate as long as Boston still manages to bring its best against the best. And while the Knicks are far from perfect, they certainly qualify as that kind of opponent. When you factor in the division, the conference, the New YorkBoston rivalry and the Honey Nut insanity of the last time these teams played, the Celtics have an enormous opportunity to ease some tension and at least temporarily right the ship.

Or take the free fall to another level and leave Celtics Nation crying in their cereal.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

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At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

The Celtics are getting more than they bargained for against the Philadelphia 76ers who are once again, record-wise, among the worst teams in the NBA.

They didn’t look like it in the first half which ended with the Celtics trailing the Sixers 53-45.

Boston came into the game having won its last four road games. And they did so by playing solid defense, something that has been noticeably absent in the first half.

Philadelphia came into the game as one of the NBA’s better 3-point shooting teams and has lived up to the lofty ranking.

In the first half Philadelphia made nine of its 18 three-point attempts while the Celtics are way, way, way at the other end of the 3-point shooting spectrum while missing eight of their 11 3s with Isaiah Thomas making a pair with the lone other made 3-pointer coming from Marcus Smart.

The defense struggled, the offense never had any kind of flow and not surprisingly, the Celtics found themselves playing from behind most of the first half.

Here are the first half stars from Saturday’s game.

STARS

Sergio Rodriguez: His playmaking was solid as usual, but it was Rodriguez getting it going with his jumper that really produced surprisingly strong results for the Sixers. He had 11 points, four assists and a steal in the first half.

Isaiah Thomas: Playing his game which is shooting and attacking the rim, Thomas was Boston’s lone double-digit scorer in the first half with 15 points which is tops among all players.

STUDS

Dario Saric: It was a solid first half as Saric contributed both on the boards and the scoreboard. He had 10 points in the first half along with five rebounds.

Gerald Henderson: Henderson had one of those high efficiency-type games with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting.

DUDS

Celtics 3-point shooting: It was a miserable first half for a team that has been among the NBA’s leaders in 3-pointers made and taken this season. At the half, Boston has shot 2-for-10 on 3's.

Celtics defense: Boston has shown little to no signs of providing the kind of push-back they’ll need in order to leave Philly with a win. In addition to allowing Philadelphia to shoot 47.4 percent from the field, Boston also allowed the Sixers to knock down nine 3's.

Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

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Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

Isaiah Thomas has established himself as one of the NBA’s top players in the fourth quarter of games this season.

“I’d rather play that than any other quarter,” Thomas said.

But there will be times when the game’s flow or head coach Brad Stevens’ gut will tell him to go in a different direction with Thomas’ minutes which is something the two have had conversations about which has helped eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings.

“We’ve had player-coach talks, how he feels and how I feel,” Thomas said. “That’s the relationship we have. We changed it up a little bit (in the win over Sacramento) and I’m just happy we got the win.”

In that game, Thomas was replaced by Terry Rozier with 3:20 to play in the quarter and Boston trailing 66-63. He returned to the floor at the 8:31 mark and the Celtics were down 76-74.

“The key is, there are some times where you feel like those last few minutes of the third quarter will be real important moving forward,” Stevens told reporters prior to tonight’s game. “Especially based on how your team is playing. And you just have to make that decision. You have to make that decision, you take him out early in the third like we did (against Sacramento) and put him back in earlier; or play him through until the two or one-minute mark in the third, and then give him his rest up until the seven or six. Either way, we’ve talked about it like I do with all our guys, especially the guys that are playing and big in the rotation.

Stevens would love to come up with a game plan and stick to it with little to no changes being made.

But the NBA game is unpredictable and his job as the head coach is to make the necessary on-the-fly changes that best position the Celtics for victory.

“Ultimately there will be days that it will be very consistent and there might be a time or two where I’m gonna go with my gut,” Stevens said. “They know that and we’ve talked about it.”

And while Stevens’ decision may not sit well with some, players understand it’s all done to achieve one goal – win. 

“There’s a number of reasons why you make a decision to leave someone in or take someone out,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, we have to figure out game to game, moment to moment, what’s best for our team. That’s what I’m charged with. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. I’m not gonna act like that. Ultimately, those guys know I’m thinking about it all the time.”