The defining stretch of the season

53089.jpg

The defining stretch of the season

By: Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

BOSTON It was the stretch that was supposed to define the Celtics regular season.

It was the closest Boston would come to playoff action until the real thing, and how they fared in their five games in 10 days against the Mavericks, Magic, (bobcats), Lakers and Heat was supposed to shape our perception of the final two months.

The results werent going to alter expectations, but the level of Celtics success would most certainly lingereither as the ultimate security blanket or a source of passive panicas the team played out the regular season.

Why?

Well, because at this point there are pretty much only seven teams with a shot (to varying degrees) of winning the 2011 title, and only against those other six teamsSan Antonio, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Orlandocan Celtics fans gain a true measure of what to expect in April.

Boston would faced four of those tests over the aforementioned 10 day stretch. Over the 59 days that followed (aka the extent of the season), theyd face three.

In fact, it would be another six and a half weeks before the Celtics played another legitimate contender (March 31, at San Antonio), and by the time the Cs visited Chicago on April 7 and Miami on April 10, who knew where the standings would be? Who knew what would matter?

For all we knew, this was it.

After the Celtics were finished (in terms of the big picture and barring some freak injury to one of the Big Four) the rest of the season wasnt supposed to matter quite as much. For better or worse, we were going to learn all there was about this years team.

Or so we thought.

In the end, the Celtics 2-3 journey through the NBA gauntlet did very little to kill or encourage hopes for this season. When healthy, they lost to the Mavericks and beat the Magic. While short-handed, they lost to the Lakers and beat the Heat. They did this... but. They did that but. Basically, after all's said and done, no ones rushing to book hotel rooms in LA for June. But no ones jumping off the Zakim.

In the end, THE stretch was sort of anti-climactic.

But for all the back and forth there were some certainties to emerge from last 10 days in Celtics Nation.

Here are five:

1. Home court isnt everything

Doc and the team have stressed the importance of home court all season. Theyve even used it as an excuse for why they blew Game 7 in LA. But the Celtics went 2-2 at home over this stretchhome court isnt everything. Is it an advantage? Yes. But if its a matter of over-extending yourself in the regular season, then home court just isnt worth it. Home court guarantees nothing.

This is an issue because while we spent the last few months saying things like, The Celtics will be fine if they can just STAY healthy, after the last five games its now The Celtics will be fine if they can just GET healthy.

They are no longer healthy; not even close. And until they are, the importance of seeding and standings and home court advantage is minimal. The half game lead on the Heat is nice, but killing yourself to keep pace with them is crazier than DeMarcus Cousins.

2. They need to find a small forward.

You never imagined the Celtics would be players at the deadline, and finding another small forward is much easier said than done, but Danny needs to make it happen. He needs to make some sort of move.

First of all, do you really believe Marquis Daniels will be back in time for the Playoffs? And if so, do you really think that hell be ready to just jump right back into playoff basketball?

This isnt a knock on Daniels. Its just the reality. Hes human. And its hard to predict how anyone would bounce back from something like that. Last year, the guy missed extended time with a thumb injury and never regained his rhythm or focus. This year, its an injury thats infinitely more serious. Im not saying that hell definitely be a non-factor, but are you comfortable just rolling the dice that he will be? Gun to your head: Do you think hell even be back at all?

This is a serious injury. Its related to another serious injury that he suffered last year. This isnt something that doctors are going to mess around with. Its not, OK, just go out and test that ankle and see what you can do. Its beyond that. Its beyond basketball.

And now, on top of that, youve got Paul Pierce, whos clearly struggling with an assortment of injuries; whos going in for an MRI on his left foot on Monday; who also recently sprained his hand; who needs to rest for the playoffs.

Maybe Von Wafer can fill in for the time beingand honestly, all things considered, he's been great. But when the Celtics are playing on the road in the post-season (and assuming Daniels wont be there) Von Wafer might now be enough. There needs to be someone else.

Obviously, there are about 15,000 hurdles standing between my words and reality.

Its not easy. But, just thinking out loud, why not see if you can find someone to take Nate Robinson. Youd like to keep him around for that potential spark off the bench, but if Delontes healthy, do you really NEED him? Is he more important than filling that huge void left by Marquis? Maybe Nate himself doesnt get you that guy, but if the Celtics have a plan in place, if they get wind of a potential buy out, or can find a legitimate swing man to target, then getting rid of Nate gives them some freedom.

People throw out names like Rip Hamilton and James Posey and it's often just laughed off as far fetched rumors and speculation. But the Celtics ability to stand pat went down with Marquis Daniels. Danny Ainge has had to get creative in the past and he needs to again. The Celtics needs reinforcements. Or at least one.

3. Glen Davis wont be getting a last minute invite to the Dunk Contest

Good Lord.

4. Kendrick Perkins CAN be counted on

For the first half of this season, there was one big question hanging over Kendrick Perkins rehab. Even if he comes back, will he be the same Perk? Will he need that extra time (that usually required readjustment period) to regain his confidence and comfort level on the court? Could this end up as a lost season?

Well, so far, its pretty much been the best-case scenario.

You already forget what it was like when Perk was gone. Hes slipped right back into his role, and while theres still room for improvementespecially in terms of conditioninghe can be counted on. He will make a difference down the stretch. And if by some chance, Shaq and Jermaine can follow suit, its scary to think about the kind of damage this front line can do in the postseason.

5. Rajon Rondo can take the team to new heights (except against LA)
He was fantastic against the Heat. Rondo willed us the game, said Doc Rivers. And he was right. Rondo threw the team on the back even if they werent entirely interested in a ride. Whether it was the triple-double, his defense on LeBron or that will Rondo was the difference. Same goes for last Sunday against Orlando, where he dominated in a different way, scoring a season-high 26 points, setting a season-high in free throws made and attempted. On that afternoon, for the first time in a long time, Rondo put the incessant over-passing on the backburner and just attacked. And the Celtics were better for it.

In a perfect world, the Celtics would get that every night, but its just not like that. Part of the reason is the beating he takes in the process. People joked about all the time Rondo spent on his backside during that Orlando game, but thats what happens when he attacks.

And if he did that every game, he wouldnt last.

Do you remember how worn down he was by the end of last season? The back and leg issues that plagued him against the Lakers? Thats what happens when Rondo gets too beat up. He knows he needs to save it for the post season. But against the Magic (and in spurts against the Heat), he showed us that when he wants to, he can still takeover. Rondos best two games of this stretch were Orlando and Miami, and not coincidentally, those were the two Boston won.

But as you saw (and I wrote), he still hasnt shown he can do it against the Lakers. He still hasnt found away to beat that defense. And ultimately, beating them might be the only thing that matters.

And with that, so ends the supposedly defining stretch of the Celtics regular season.

Could have been better. Could have been worse. We hoped that it would have provided more clarity, and put the C's on the fast track to April, but maybe that was asking too much. After all, there's still a lot of basketball to be played.

Even if the competition won't touch the last 10 days.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

penguins_guentzel_052917.jpg

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

bryce_harper_hunter_strickland_fight_052917.jpg

Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

SAN FRANCISCO  — As an irate Bryce Harper charged toward the mound, Buster Posey just stood and watched from behind home plate.

And when the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants cleared their benches Monday and punches flew both ways, the All-Star catcher did his best to remain just outside the fray.

Not where some expected to find the Giants team leader with his pitcher, Hunter Strickland, exchanging head shots with Harper.

“Posey did NOTHING to stop Harper from getting to his pitcher,” former major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis wrote on Twitter. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”

Posey declined to enter the fracas, instead remaining around its edges and watching as the players scuffled in “a pretty good pile,” as Giants manager Bruce Bochy called it.

Posey dealt with a concussion in April after being struck in the head by a pitch, but did not say he held back because of concerns related to that. He did say he was wary about the risk of injury.

“There were some big guys tumbling around out there,” Posey said. “You see Mike Morse and Jeff Samardzija are about as big as they come and he was getting knocked around like a pinball. So it was a little dangerous to get in there.”

Still, social media was abuzz at the sight of Posey not sticking up for his teammate.

“Strickland must have told @BusterPosey he was hitting him and let him come cause he didn’t even give a soft jog,” Willis wrote.

“Says all you need to know that Buster Posey didn’t bother to hold back Harper,” tweeted Fox broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt . “Let him go get his pitcher.”

Also absent from the fight: hard-nosed Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. As his teammates flew over the dugout railing, Bumgarner stayed put, perhaps because the left-hander is still recovering after injuring his pitching shoulder and ribs in a dirt biking accident in April.