Celtics-Wolves preview: Keep your eye on . . .

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Celtics-Wolves preview: Keep your eye on . . .

MINNEAPOLIS The Boston Celtics (28-22) are focused on winning as many games as possible to improve their playoff position. And while most players shrug off the notion that they're keeping tabs on what other team's are doing, once again we turn to Paul Pierce for - what else? - the Truth. He doesn't try to hide the fact that he knows the Celtics are in a back-and-forth tussle with Philadelphia for the best record in the Atlantic Division - and with it, home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Both are currently tied for the best record in the Atlantic Division.

"I follow it religiously," said Pierce, who added that he's constantly checking various websites for up-to-the-minute statistics and game accounts. "I'm always checking the scores, even during the games, in the middle, checking out who's winning. I'm just a basketball junkie; it's something I live, and I'm sure the other guys probably do the same things I do and are very aware of it."

Even if they don't want to admit to it!

And while much has been made of the C's playing tougher competition down the stretch than Philadelphia - tonight the C's face a playoff contender in Minnesota while the Sixers are on the road against a horrible Washington team - Boston refuses to put much stock into such talk.

"Every team's tough," C's coach Doc Rivers said. "The way we look at it, every team's a playoff team because we make them that or they are. So we just have to stay focused each game."

Maintaining that focus will certainly be put to the test tonight against a Minnesota squad that's fighting to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2004 - the longest postseason drought of any current NBA team.

Here are some of the keys to tonight's action.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR As much as rebounding is an issue for the Celtics, it won't do them much good if they do a good job on the boards and don't get out and take advantage of scoring opportunities in transition. The C's average 12.2 points per game in fast break points, which ranks 19th in the NBA. But in Minnesota, they're facing one of the most "fast-break friendly" teams in the NBA. Timberwolves opponents are averaging 16.2 fast-break points per game which ranks 29th in the NBA.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Kevin Garnett vs. Kevin Love: The face of franchise past meets the face of franchise present in this duel. The Love-for-league-MVP chatter might have seemed a pipe dream a couple weeks ago, but it isn't that big a stretch now. He's averaging 26.3 points and 13.9 rebounds, numbers the NBA hasn't seen since Moses Malone averaged 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds during the 1981-1982 season which, by the way, ended with Malone being named league MVP. Garnett, who has delivered strong play for the C's at both ends of the floor all season, recently talked about finding added motivation in facing superstars of the future. "Playing against younger talent that's supposed to be prolific and supposed to be above-average but I'm old though, you know?" said Garnett, who was speaking about talented, young players in general and not specifically Kevin Love. "It don't take much to motivate me."

PLAYER TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo has been quietly putting together one of the greatest seasons by a Celtics playmaker ever. He comes into tonight's game with double-digit assists in 11 straight games, a franchise record. He had a nine-game stretch last year. To put his numbers in perspective, no Celtics player prior to Rondo had ever had more than seven straight double-digit assist games.

STAT TO TRACK: Keeping the Timberwolves off the free throw line will be huge for the Celtics tonight. Minnesota averages 25.6 free throw attempts per game which ranks sixth in the league. And when you throw in the fact that they rank in the top 10 in free throw percentage (77.9 percent, ninth in the NBA), the C's can't bank on them missing too many.

Knicks' Noah suspended 20 games by NBA for drug policy violation

Knicks' Noah suspended 20 games by NBA for drug policy violation

NEW YORK - Joakim Noah of the New York Knicks has been suspended 20 games without pay for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

The NBA announced the suspension Saturday, saying Noah tested positive for Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator LGD-4033 – something that can be found in over-the-counter supplements.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports first reported the suspension.

Noah has not played since Feb. 4 and was likely to miss the Knicks’ final 10 games this season because of a knee injury. The NBA said Noah’s suspension will begin with the ”first NBA regular season or playoff game for which he is eligible and physically able to play.”

Noah is in the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract. He and the Knicks (27-45) have been a disappointment this season. He averaged 5.0 points and 8.7 rebounds in 46 games this season, and has been limited to 75 games over the past two seasons.

Haggerty: Legacies on the line at edge of another Bruins collapse

Haggerty: Legacies on the line at edge of another Bruins collapse

BRIGHTON, Mass – Let’s start with the straight fact that it’s asinine, apologist drivel to let the Bruins off the hook, and perpetuate an off-the-mark myth there isn’t enough talent on the B's roster to be a playoff hockey team.

They are middle-of-the-road in the talent department to be sure, and the roster depth clearly isn’t what it was in their elite years, as the Bruins balance an aging core group with an influx of youthful talent from the next generation. But this is also a proud, talented group with one of the best all-around centers in the NHL in Patrice Bergeron, a former Norris Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame defenseman in Zdeno Chara, a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate and in-his-prime All-Star left winger in Brad Marchand, an emerging 20-year-old offensive superstar in David Pastrnak and a former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender still in his prime in Tuukka Rask.

That doesn’t even mention high-end players David Krejci, David Backes and Torey Krug that are game-changing talents in their own right.

Combine that with the other players on the Bruins roster and this is a team interspersed with proud Stanley Cup winning players and enough talent to still take care of business in the final eight games and punch their playoff ticket. Winning a Cup in 2011 can never be taken away from Chara, Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Rask and Adam McQuaid, and neither can the seven straight seasons in the playoffs under Claude Julien.

But there’s a danger now of some late-in-the-game tarnish on Black and Gold legacies for some of those distinguished, proud players if they once again collapse down the stretch this season and miss the playoffs for the third year in a row with a late-season nosedive. Four consecutive regulation losses have cast doubt into everything for the Bruins and roused all the same old uncomfortable questions from the past three years.

Bergeron and Marchand need to find their best games and dominate the way elite players do in big-game situations like Saturday night vs. the Isles. Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo and Frank Vatrano need to show they're ready for the playoffs.Rask needs to finally show he's ready to shine as a No. 1 goalie and lead his team to victory in a big game rather than buckle under weighty pressure. 

“This is their legacy, those guys. They are Stanley Cup champions and they missed last year. Each year we talk about writing our own story, and I believe that because guys come and go,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “But generally there is a core group of guys and it’s their legacy. I’m sure they want to reach the playoffs and get back to being a Stanley Cup contender every year.

“That’s what they want and to a man I’m sure they would tell you that. I do believe that they believe it’s different [this season]. Until you change the course of your results, those questions are going to come. We have to change the results to make then go away. One week of not getting results that we want doesn’t mean we’re panicking, but we do understand what’s at stake. We want to be playing in April and May.”

If the Bruins can’t pull out a win on Saturday night against the Islanders, who just pushed even with them at 82 points on the season, then their playoff lives will no longer be under their own control anymore. It will become another late-season choke job by a team that will have its character and courage questioned. The highs of six years ago will be matched by the bitter lows of the past three seasons.

People won’t talk about a scrappy, little underdog Bruins team that just couldn’t get over the hump once again. Instead, they’ll lament a formerly proud, tough-minded group of hockey players that somehow turned into NHL tomato cans all too willing to play the victim once the going got tough late in the regular season.

That’s no way to go out if you’ve ever had your name etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the Bruins that know better should be taking that to heart right now.