West will play Sunday; Shaq's status uncertain

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West will play Sunday; Shaq's status uncertain

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

BOSTON The playoffs begin this weekend for the Boston Celtics, and they're as close to being at full strength as we've seen all season.

The C's got a major scare on Monday when Delonte West re-aggravated a right ankle injury that sidelined him earlier this season.

Although he didn't play in Boston's 112-102 win over New York on Wednesday, coach Doc Rivers is very confident he'll have the 6-foot-3 guard available for Boston's first-round playoff series with the New York Knicks, which begins at the TD Garden on Sunday.

"Delonte will be playing for sure, from everything I hear," Rivers said.

The news isn't nearly as rosy or optimistic on the return of Shaquille O'Neal, who is still nursing a strained right calf injury suffered on April 3 against Detroit.

When asked when he would like to see O'Neal back in the Celtics lineup, Rivers responded, "Shaquille, I'd like to see him yesterday. We'll just have to wait and see."

Rivers' position on O'Neal is one that's cautiously optimistic.

He has been down this road too many times this season, thinking that he would have the 7-foot-1 center available only to learn at the last minute that he would remain sidelined.

Because the Knicks' lack of depth in the middle, there's a pretty good chance that O'Neal wouldn't play much even if he were fully healthy.

His injury, coupled with Jermaine O'Neal playing better than expected since returning on March 31 after having left knee surgery in February, gives the Celtics the option of continuing to bring Shaq back in the fold slowly.

When he does return, Rivers will have an interesting dilemma on his hands.

Which O'Neal will he start?

Both have shown the ability to play well with the starting unit this season.

And what does Shaq's return mean to Nenad Krstic's playing time?

Like Shaq, Krstic has had some strong outings with the first group as well. But Jermaine O'Neal is a better defender and Shaq has the kind of size that not only draws defenses near, but also frees up his teammates for relatively open shots from the perimeter. However, Krstic has the best shooting range of the three centers, which allows the Celtics to better space the floor offensively.

There's no doubt that the potential for this be problematic is alive and well.

But if you're Rivers, this is the kind of problem -- especially heading into the playoffs -- you'd love to have.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.