W2W4: C's vs. Rockets (Game 45 of 82)

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
11:11
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The Boston Celtics (16-28, 9-13 home) host the Houston Rockets (32-14, 16-7 away) on Friday night at TD Garden (7:30 p.m., CSN). Here's what to watch for:

GAME PREVIEW (via STATS LLC)

The Houston Rockets are showing the ability to morph into a team with a functional bench to complement James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Lately, reserves have had to fill in entirely for Howard, who will miss a third straight game Friday night when the Rockets visit the Boston Celtics.

Houston's star center will reportedly miss at least the team's stops in Boston and Detroit before having his ailing right knee re-evaluated. After an MRI Wednesday, the team revealed via its official Twitter feed that Howard is suffering from edema in the knee, which is caused by fluid building up in body tissues.

His absence didn't keep the Rockets (32-14) from a third straight win Wednesday, defeating Dallas 99-94 with 47 points coming from reserves.

For the season, the Rockets rank near the bottom of the league with 27.2 bench points per game while shooting 40.4 percent, which is better than only Charlotte. In the last four, they've averaged 42.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting.

Part of that increased contribution Wednesday came from the return of Terrence Jones, who had 10 points in 21 minutes of his first appearance after missing 41 games due to nerve inflammation in his left leg.

Joey Dorsey has started at center and scored a total of four points in the past two, but reserve Josh Smith has helped make up for Howard's lost production. He's averaged 14.3 points while shooting 55.9 percent during this winning streak.

"I'm starting to find my way, starting to find spacing and other avenues to be productive and efficient," said Smith, who saw plenty of the Celtics (16-28) as a starter in the Eastern Conference but has been limited to 11.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting in his last two matchups.

Field-goal attempts were evenly distributed against the Mavericks, with Donatas Motiejunas taking a team-high 16, James Harden 14 and Smith and Corey Brewer 13. Harden averaged 20.0 shots in the previous 13 games Howard missed.

"We've got so many weapons now," said Harden, who averaged 37.0 points in his previous four before scoring 17 against Dallas. "We've got a lot of depth on this team, a lot of guys that can contribute. When we've got so many guys contributing -- six guys in double figures -- it's kind of hard to beat us."

Harden scored 26 against the Celtics in a 104-90 home win on Nov. 1, but he's been limited to 17.3 points on 37.8 percent in three career starts in Boston. Jones was healthy for the early-season meeting, scoring 25, and is averaging 20.3 points while shooting 66.7 percent in three games against Boston.

The Rockets have won three straight in the series while limiting the Celtics to an average of 89.0 points and 35.9 percent shooting, and Houston will be trying for its eighth win in 10 meetings.

The Celtics return from a 3-3 road trip against the West, though they're a bit down on its conclusion -- Wednesday's 110-98 loss at league-worst Minnesota.

"If you want to make it to where we're trying to make it, these games cannot happen," Jared Sullinger said after scoring 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting.

(Read full game preview)

Impatience masked by Even Stevens

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
9:45
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Brad StevensAP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
WALTHAM, Mass. -- One day after former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino praised Brad Stevens and cited his patience with the team's current rebuilding process, Stevens volleyed the admiration but playfully questioned the suggestion that he's forbearing.

"I don’t think patient would be the first word that anybody that knows me would describe me as," quipped Stevens, who acknowledged Thursday that his true emotions are often shielded by a stoic outward appearance. "But I think that’s anybody in competitive sports; I’m not unique in that regards."

Pitino showered Stevens with kind words after leading Louisville to an 81-72 win over Boston College in his first time coaching back in Boston since resigning as coach of the Celtics in 2001.

Stevens was flattered by Pitino's comments.

"I heard what he said, and it was really nice," Stevens said. "I think he’s a really good coach. I had a chance to coach against him twice and so I feel like he knows the game. He’s been through so much, both in the NBA and in the college game, so I really appreciated his perspective on things.

"When I first decided to come [to the NBA], I knew that there was going to be a building process; we talked about that. You can’t project a timeline and that’s the toughest [part]. But there are days like Thursday and Friday, back-to-back, that you sneak out those 1-point games and you just hope that, again, maybe that spearheads something. Maybe that gets you going in a good direction. That’s something that you can point to with young guys and maybe continue to grind, fight, and do tough things. I don’t know how patient anybody is in this business. But I do enjoy watching progress being made. I think that the focus, for me, has to be on continuing to coach this team as well as I possibly can every day and continue to coach the individuals as well as we can as a staff everyday. It is hard to keep that in mind when things don’t go your way. But you’ve got to do it."

(Read full post)

Practice: Thumbs up from Turner

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
8:45
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics starting point guard Evan Turner was one of five players whom coach Brad Stevens held out of the team's offday workout on Thursday, but Turner reaffirmed that a lingering right thumb injury shouldn't force him to miss any game action.

[+] EnlargeTurner
David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports
Turner originally sprained the thumb in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 14. Despite having it wrapped during recent games, the injury has been aggravated with Turner in apparent discomfort at times during Boston's recent road trip.

Turner wasn't wearing any sort of wrap as he meet with reporters after the team's workout Thursday and said of the thumb, "It's all right. It's getting better each day. It'll be fine... When it gets bent back, it kind of hurts a little bit. I'll be fine."

Turner is averaging 9.2 points, 4.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds over 25.3 minutes per game. Those numbers improve to 10.8 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds over 28.7 minutes in the 19 games he's played as a starter.

Stevens said any decision about whether Turner plays rests with the player and team trainer Ed Lacerte. "That's Evan and Ed's call," Stevens said. "I"m just a coach who -- if they say, 'Yes, he can play’ or ‘Yes, I am playing,’ then he plays. I don’t ask any questions beyond that. If he can’t play, he can’t play. If he doesn't feel comfortable playing, he’s not going to play. That hasn’t been the case thus far."

Stevens said the team held out Turner, Avery Bradley and Tayshaun Prince. Shavlik Randolph (hamstring) also sat out, while Kelly Olynyk remains sidelined by a right ankle injury.

No sleep 'til Houston

 
After concluding a season-long six-game road trip with a loss on Wednesday night in Minnesota, the Celtics arrived back in the Boston area around 2 a.m. on Thursday morning. Stevens elected to put the team through a light practice/walkthrough Thursday afternoon and the Celtics will skip their usual morning shootaround on Friday before hosting the Houston Rockets.

"I figured that, while we’re on a unique travel schedule and sleep schedule, we’ll stay on it as long as we can," Stevens said. "Most of those guys are fine. A couple of them are in the same situation as I am where, hey, no matter what time you get home, your kids get up at a certain time and you better be up. Most of these guys got to sleep in."

Dawkins drops in

 
Andre Dawkins, the D-League standout signed to a 10-day deal last week by the Celtics, joined his teammates for the first time Thursday after spending the start of his stint on assignment with the Maine Red Claws.

Dawkins got practice reps Thursday and spent time after the session getting up shots with Jae Crowder.

Said Stevens: "Another reason we practiced today was it was a good chance to get Andre with these guys for a day. I thought that was a good opportunity because Maine plays [Friday] and Saturday."

Dawkins was promptly reassigned to Maine after Thursday's practice.

Stevens recalled Dawkins from his Duke days and said, "He was certainly elite shooting the ball, that’s always stuck in my mind. I watched what he did in the D-League early on in the year, and so I was excited that we got a chance to sign him."

Asked about trying to avoid pressing while on a short-term deal, Dawkins said, "Just got to play basketball. They brought me in for a reason. They obviously saw something in me. Just got to keep doing whatever it is that got them interested in the first place."

Hop HERE for Dawkins' D-League game log. He set a team record with eight 3-pointers during a loss to his last team -- Sioux Falls -- on Saturday.
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics second-year big man Kelly Olynyk wore a protective boot over his sprained right ankle while meeting with reporters after Thursday's practice and said he's uncertain when he'll resume basketball activities while waiting for pain and swelling to subside.

Chris Forsberg/ESPN BostonKelly Olynyk sported a boot at Thursday's practice.
Olynyk injured the ankle when he landed awkwardly on the foot of Portland's Thomas Robinson chasing a rebound in last Thursday's win over the Trail Blazers. Olynyk returned home from the team's extended road trip for further testing and could be sidelined until late February, especially with an extended All-Star break looming next month.

"It’s tough with something like an ankle, everyone is different," Olynyk said. "It could be a week, it could be three weeks, it could be a month -- you never know. I'm just trying to get better and evaluate it each day and take the next step whenever it’s deemed necessary."

Olynyk said he has immersed himself in treatment.

"Lots of stuff -- you’d probably have to talk to [team physical therapist] Todd [Campbell] or [team trainer] Ed [Lacerte], they can tell you better," Olynyk said. "It’s almost treatment overload, just trying to do whatever you can to keep that swelling down, get the pain out of there and try to get it moving as best we can."

Olynyk admitted the injury was "pretty painful" and he realized soon after landing that he couldn't put any pressure on it as he limped off the floor. Pain lingered into this week, but Olynyk believes he is progressing.

The 23-year-old Olynyk was recently voted into the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend, earning a spot on the World roster in the league's modified rookie/sophomore showcase. The Canada native said he'll wait to see how he progresses before deciding if he can participate in the event and said he hasn't considered whether he'll attend All-Star weekend in New York if he's unable to get on the court.

Olynyk, who played in the Rising Stars game last year as a rookie, said he was honored to be voted in again by the league's assistant coaches given the surfeit of young talent in the league.

Olynyk is averaging 11.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1 steal over 24.5 minutes per game in 40 appearances this season. He missed 10 games last year with an ankle sprain and said that process will help him gauge when he's ready to return to action this time around.

Pitino thinks Stevens is 'tremendous'

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
1:07
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If this whole NBA head coach thing doesn’t work out for Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach can take solace in knowing he still has advocates in the college ranks.

Rick Pitino is one.

Pitino, who piled up a 102-146 record in three-plus seasons with the Celtics, received a smattering of boos Wednesday night when introduced pregame for his first game coaching back in Boston since 2000-01. And after he led his No. 10 Louisville Cardinals past Boston College 81-72, he was asked about the job Stevens is doing on Causeway Street so far.

“Way before he came here, I said to my AD and staff, ‘When I retire, go after that guy,’ ” Pitino said. “He was at Butler at the time. I said, ‘Whatever it costs, get that guy.’ ”

Tom Jurich probably appreciated the suggestion, but is no doubt happy with his current coach for now.

The Louisville coach was nothing but complimentary of Stevens and Celtics president Danny Ainge.

“It’s tough,” Pitino said. “When I took over, they won -- I don’t know -- 14, 15 games. And [Stevens has] taken over the same type of situation except he has a lot of patience and I had very little.

“He’s gonna do a fabulous job because it’s not gonna get to him, the losing. He understands the journey. He understands it. He’s gonna do a great job. They play competitive, they’re gonna get better, and better, and better.”

“They got themselves, I thought, one of the top three coaches at any level,” Pitino said. “I thought he was always tremendous.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.

No charity for Celtics at stripe

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
1:35
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The free-throw disparity that the Boston Celtics endured during Wednesday's 110-98 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves might have been more alarming if it didn't feel like the norm.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bass
AP Photo/Ben Margot
The Celtics attempted a mere nine free throws while drawing just six shooting fouls while Minnesota generated 32 free throws while registering 11 shooting fouls.

You can chalk some of that disparity up to Boston playing its sixth road game in 10 nights to close out its longest trip of the season. It seems fair to assume that Boston's legs were a bit weary and the Celtics were content to settle for perimeter jumpers (49 of Boston's 91 shots came from beyond 16 feet) rather than attack the basket.

But a lack of free throws isn't a new issue for Boston. The Celtics rank 27th in free throws attempts per game this season, the same spot they occupied last season. The Celtics have ranked in the bottom third of the league in free throw attempts per game each of the past five seasons and you'd have to go back to the 2009-10 campaign to find them at the opposite end of the spectrum (10th overall that year).

In a way, the Celtics seem resigned to their lack of free-throw generation. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has expressed a desire to drive up the team's attempt rate, but also acknowledged that his squad, as currently constituted, is built to generate points in other ways. Boston guards, as a whole, don't create a lot of dribble penetration, a problem that's long been lamented, even when Rajon Rondo was still here and seemed reluctant to draw fouls going at the basket.

To be certain, there is no obvious link between free throw attempt rate and success. As an example, the Sacramento Kings are far and away the leader in the NBA in free throw attempt rate (the ratio of free throws generated compared to field goal attempts) at .372 this season and the Kings own the same exact 16-28 record as Boston.

The Celtics FTA rate is a meager.224, ranking them 29th overall (only the Knicks are worse at .216). That said, the Golden State Warriors (.250) are in the bottom five overall; the Spurs (.268) are on the cusp of the bottom 10; and the Atlanta Hawks (.281) are middle of the pack. Low free-throw attempt rates are not an insurmountable obstacle for quality teams.

What aids Boston -- and some of those other top squads mentioned -- is how it limits free throws for opponents. The Celtics rank 12th with opponents owning a .270 FTA rate this season. The Hawks (.248) and Spurs (.263) both reside in the top 10 for opponent FTA.

Building towards the future, it certainly wouldn't hurt Boston to seek players that can get to the line more frequently, particularly when the team's shots are not falling. Boston is hopeful that rookie Marcus Smart will get to the line more often as he gets comfortable as a driver at the NBA level and young bigs like Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller must learn to draw more whistles when working around the basket.

Consider that Jeff Green led the Celtics while averaging 4.4 free throw attempts per game this season. With his recent departure, Boston's new leader in free throw attempts per game is Brandon Bass at a mere 2.6 per contest. That's sobering when you consider old friend Paul Pierce averaged 7.2 free throw attempts per game over his 15 seasons with Boston.

The Celtics rank dead last in the NBA drawing only 18 personal fouls per game. For a team that struggles to generate consistent offense, not getting to the line often certainly doesn't make that task any easier.

Boston's young nucleus of players might simply need to learn how to draw fouls. If you look at blocked attempts per game, it suggests Boston is generating foul opportunities. That Kings team that leads the league in FTA rate is getting blocked a league-high 6.1 times per game, suggesting a lot of activity around the basket. Boston ranks eighth while getting blocked 5.5 times per contest. If the Celtics could turn one or two of those blocks into trips to the foul line each game, it would go a long way towards boosting their FTA rate.

For now, the Celtics simply must continue to figure out how to get by with a lack of charity.

Wolves 110, Celtics 98: Tripped up

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
10:22
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Looking like a team limping to the finish line of a grueling six-game road trip, the Boston Celtics couldn't sustain a consistent level of play and endured a 110-98 loss to the basement-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night at the Target Center.

The Celtics played well in spurts, but the lulls ensured they'd settle for a .500 record on this mileage-heavy trip. Minnesota rookie Zach Lavine (17 points on 7-of-9 shooting over 24 minutes) carried the team early and veteran Kevin Martin (21 points on 7-of-18 shooting over 29 minutes) got hot late while propelling a Wolves team that put seven players in double figures for scoring.

The Celtics rallied from nine down in the first half to take a 1-point lead into the intermission. The Wolves responded by making everything they put up early in the third quarter -- shooting 70.6 percent (12 of 17) in the frame overall -- while opening as much as a 13-point lead in the frame. Boston rallied again, but just could never get over the hump.

Jared Sullinger scored a team-high 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting with eight rebounds, but was minus-22 overall in plus/minus. Marcus Thornton provided a second-half spark and scored 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while Tayshaun Prince added 12 more off the bench.

Nothing for free: Maybe hammering home Boston's reliance on easy jumpers, the Celtics attempted only nine free throws (making seven of them). By comparison, the Wolves were 28 of 32 at the charity strip and Anthony Bennett was the only Minnesota player that failed to get to the line.

Young Wolves: The Timberwolves do not lack for youth and athleticism. That much was highlighted when Andrew Wiggins tossed a midcourt alley-oop to dunk-contest competitor Lavine late in the first half. Lavine followed soon after with a notable put-back dunk.

Loose balls: The Celtics went 12 deep on the final night of this road trip. Phil Pressey was summonsed for a second-half spark, while James Young (0 for 2, 0 points) got eight minutes of action. ... Shavlik Randolph was Boston's lone inactive.

What it means: The Celtics finish this road trip at 3-3 and fall to 16-28 overall. The Wolves improve to 8-37. Boston is back home and welcomes the Houston Rockets on Friday night.
Boston Celtics second-year big man Kelly Olynyk was named to the World roster for this year's Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend.

Olynyk, a Canada native, is part of the 10-man international roster that will compete against a 10-man U.S. squad. Celtics rookie Marcus Smart was not chosen for the U.S. team, a noteworthy snub on a squad that includes rookies Zach LaVine, Nerlens Noel, and Elfrid Payton.

Olynyk is currently nursing an ankle injury that is expected to keep him out of action until around the All-Star break, which could force him to skip the annual rookie/sophomore game. Olynyk played as a rookie last season.

The rosters were chosen by NBA assistant coaches and had to include four guards, four frontcourt players, and two players at any position. The coaches also picked a minimum of three first-year players and three second-year players for each team.

A look at this year's rosters:

2015 Rising Stars Challenge

W2W4: C's vs. Wolves (Game 44 of 82)

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
10:00
AM ET
The Boston Celtics (16-27, 7-14 away) visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-37, 3-18 home) on Wednesday at the Target Center (8 p.m., CSN). Here's what to watch for:

GAME PREVIEW (via STATS LLC)

The Boston Celtics will finish with a winning record on their longest road trip of the season if they can get past the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Celtics will try to send the Timberwolves to an 11th consecutive home loss and sixth in a row overall Wednesday night.

Since opening its trek with a 102-93 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 19, Boston (16-27) has taken three of four, with its other defeat coming by three points to league-leading Golden State on Sunday.

The Celtics bounced back with a 99-90 win over Utah the next day, their fourth game in five nights. Tayshaun Prince led the way with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting and five assists, his best showing since being acquired from Memphis in a three-team deal Jan. 12.

"That's what makes this special, to go through this with a young team and pull out some wins in this situation," Prince told the team's official website.

Boston went 0-5 on its longest trip in 2013-14 and hasn't finished with a winning mark on a trek this long since going 4-2 from Feb. 11-25, 2009. The team went 4-4 on an eight-game trip in March 2012.

The Celtics have lost their past two games in Minnesota but have taken the last two overall matchups, including a 114-98 victory Dec. 19. The Timberwolves (7-37) were missing five players in that game and won't have Kevin Martin (wrist), Shabazz Muhammad (oblique), Ricky Rubio (ankle) and Robbie Hummel (broken hand) for this one.

Muhammad had a team-best 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting against the Celtics in December.

Boston won't have Kelly Olynyk, who scored a team-leading 21 points in the win over Minnesota, because of a sprained right ankle that will reportedly keep him out for at least two weeks. The Celtics got rookie guard Marcus Smart back on the court Monday following a death in his family.

While Boston has won two of three during Olynyk's absence, Minnesota has continued to struggle while short-handed.

The Timberwolves are on the verge of matching the longest single-season home losing streak in team history, from Jan. 28-March 9, 2009. They've also dropped 21 of 23 overall after a 92-84 loss in Oklahoma City on Monday.

(Read full game preview)

TWO THINGS TO WATCH (via Chris Forsberg)

Finishing strong: Even after Tuesday's offday, the Celtics are going to be feeling the effects of this grueling six-game road trip when it concludes in Minnesota. Boston has a chance to finish strong, but will have to dig deep, even against the lowly Wolves. This is a night where some of the team's fresher legs off the bench could help by providing a spark.

Wolves in focus: Minnesota doesn't do much well (27th in offensive rating; 30th in defensive rating), but two numbers jump off the advanced stats page: The Wolves are sixth in offensive rebound percentage and seventh in pace. Boston did a good job limiting the second-chance damage in Utah, but Minnesota is going to seem like a bunch of gazelles after playing against the plodding Jazz. The Celtics like to run, too, but they probably don't want a track meet on the final game of the trip.

Playoffs not unfathomable for surging C's

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
5:08
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Celtics CelebrationAP Photo/Rick BowmerThe Celtics have had plenty to celebrate on a successful road trip.
The day before the Boston Celtics opened their season-long six-game road trip in Los Angeles, second-year coach Brad Stevens was asked what his goals were for the team's high-mileage journey.

"We just need to get better," Stevens said. "We haven’t played well enough to get over the hump against the best of the best. And so we need to take care of what we can take care of to get a little bit better to do that. ... You’ve got to make sure you take care of the ones in your control. We’re just not as good as we need to be at doing that, for whatever reason, right now. I don’t think anybody is exactly where they want to be at the end of the year in doing that, but our margin is such that we better be pretty close to it."

Stevens' words stuck with us, especially after Boston stole Thursday's nail-biter in Portland on Evan Turner's late-game heroics. Three of Boston's final four games on the trip were against non-playoff-caliber teams (Denver, Utah, Minnesota) and it seemed an opportunity to make up some ground despite the obstacles working against them in terms of travel and lack of rest.

Boston didn't just beat Denver and Utah, it put up a solid fight against the league-leading Golden State Warriors in between those triumphs. Now Boston has a chance to finish off this road trip at 4-2 with a win against the league-worst Timberwolves on Wednesday night. It would be the first time the team produced a winning record on a road trip of at least five games since February 2010, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

For the moment, Boston sits 11 games under .500 at 16-27, but that's good enough in the downtrodden Eastern Conference to be just two games out of a playoff berth and in a cluster of teams that could potentially jockey for final playoff berths.

It seems a bit ludicrous to be talking playoffs. These overhauled-on-the-fly Celtics were supposed to head out west, come fully unglued and stumble back home ready to spend the second half of the season jockeying for ping-pong balls.

But these scrappy Celtics have found something out west, while embracing their blend of youth and veteran leadership. And if Boston heeds Stevens' words and takes care of those games it can control over the final 40 tilts of the season, there is a very real chance that Boston could legitimately hang around in playoff contention.

Consider this: The Celtics own the easiest remaining schedule in the league, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Boston's remaining opponents own a .451 winning percentage. Compare that to the teams around them in Brooklyn (11th most difficult, .516); Orlando (16th, .496); Charlotte (17th, .492); Detroit (20th, .483); and Indiana (25th, .474).

What's more, John Hollinger's computerized Playoff Odds currently peg Boston with a 40.9 percent chance at making the playoffs. In fact, the projections as of Tuesday had Boston, Detroit and Charlotte finishing in a three-way tie at 36-46 (with Detroit sneaking in via tie-breaker).

Getting to 36 wins means essentially playing .500 ball over the second half of the season. Impossible? Boston still has a total of five games to play against the East's bottom-dwellers (three games vs. the Knicks; two vs. the 76ers), which will offset some of the more daunting remaining tilts, including three games against Cleveland, along with visits from Atlanta and Golden State.

That means Boston's playoff fate is likely to hinge on a series of games against those teams it's hovering around. Boston plays three games against Miami (including a visit this Sunday in a Super Bowl appetizer), along with two games apiece against Charlotte, Orlando, Indiana and Detroit.

In those games, Boston essentially controls its own fate. Win the majority of those tilts against those teams nearest them in the standings and it's even more likely Boston sneaks into the postseason.

Let's table the discussion about whether it's in Boston's best interest to make the playoffs for further down the road. We'll simply say this for now: Instilling a winning expectation and teaching a young team to be competitive is extremely important for the Celtics moving forward, especially if this young nucleus will serve as the core of the team as it builds.

There is, of course, the looming February trade deadline that, if Boston's roster is stripped of some veterans as other more surefire playoff teams load up, could affect the team's ability to make a sustained run.

And there is a chance that we're simply overreacting to a positive stretch for Boston. But what the Celtics have shown on this road trip is hard to ignore. Boston is winning the close games that were so elusive earlier in the season. Before Thursday's win in Portland, Boston was a mere 5-15 in "clutch" games, where the team was within five points of its opponent in the final five minutes.

The Celtics are 3-1 in such games over their last four. This team is learning how to compete in close games and capitalizing in winnable situations. It's the sort of progress that was sorely lacking earlier in the year and prompted, in part, the decision to trade away the likes of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.

Unfathomable as it seemed after the roster overhaul and enduring some of those tough losses earlier in the season, these Celtics can legitimately daydream about the postseason.

They simply must take care of what they can control.

Power Rankings: C's vault 7 spots

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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The Boston Celtics enjoyed the biggest climb of the week in the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings while vaulting seven spots to No. 21.

Writes curator Marc Stein: "Have we unearthed a specialty for the oft-maligned Evan Turner? His decisive 3 in the win at Portland that finally snapped Boston's 24-game road losing streak to Western Conference teams made him 4-for-8 lifetime on go-ahead shots with less than five seconds to go in the fourth quarter or OT."

[Read full Power Rankings]

The artist currently known as Prince

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
12:45
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Eyebrows shot skyward earlier this month when Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens announced that Tayshaun Prince would join the team in Los Angeles for the start of a season-long six-game road trip. Acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies in the Jeff Green swap, it was assumed that Prince was more likely to be bought out or traded to a contender than ever wear a Celtics uniform.

[+] EnlargePrince
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTayshaun Prince has brought winning experience to Boston.
But Stevens embraced the addition of the 34-year-old swingman, noting that "he's had a lot of winning experience and any guy like that is welcome to share his thoughts all day long."

Prince did more than share his thoughts on Monday. Appearing in his fifth game on Boston's mileage-heavy road trip, he led the Celtics in points (19), assists (5), plus/minus (+16) and minutes (30) during a 99-90 triumph over the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.

"[Prince] made us better today," Stevens told reporters in Utah. "He made us better with his play."

Prince spearheaded Boston's monster second quarter in which the Celtics outscored the Jazz by 24. Prince scored 10 points in the frame on 4-of-6 shooting and added a trio of assists. The Celtics were plus-18 in his nine minutes of court time in the quarter.

Prince looks like an aging veteran when he's standing on the perimeter, hands on hips, as a play starts to develop. Then he launches into motion and looks a decade younger than he is. On his first bucket Monday, he drew Trey Burke -- 12 years his younger -- on a switch and went old-school fadeaway over the young guard from the blocks.

Shortly after, Prince did the same move over rookie Elijah Millsap from the opposite blocks. Prince added a couple of second-quarter 3-pointers and Boston was up 18 by the time his second-quarter shift was over.

Prince is averaging 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists over 21.8 minutes per game in five appearances. He's shooting 60 percent from both 3-point land and the floor overall, and is plus-13 in 109 minutes of total floor time.

Maybe more impressive: Boston owns an offensive rating of 107 when Prince is on the floor (that's 5 ½ points higher than the team's season average). What's more, the team's defensive rating with Prince on the floor is 98.5 (or 5.1 points lower than the season average). Bottom line: Good things are happening whenever Prince hits the court.

That's why Stevens left Prince in for nearly 20 minutes during his Boston debut in a loss to the Clippers last Sunday. The Celtics got a spark from a bench unit that included Prince, so Stevens ran with it despite the fact that Prince had had little more than a brief practice and film session since joining the team the night before.

But Prince has so much basketball experience, Stevens doesn't have to worry about him being lost on the court. Prince doesn't need a playbook to provide steady defense and doesn't force anything offensively.

Ironically, Prince has done nothing but likely make himself more attractive to other teams with his recent play. You get the sense Stevens wouldn't mind keeping him around for the duration of the season -- and Boston sits just two games out of a playoff berth in the East at the moment -- but the Celtics will have to listen if teams call on Prince's expiring deal while looking to add a veteran presence for their own postseason push.

One thing is clear, as long as Prince is on the roster, Stevens is going to utilize him. Some Celtics fans would rather see those backup swingman minutes go to first-round pick James Young, but Stevens has pledged to lean on the players that give the team the best opportunity to win.

So there were Prince and 32-year-old Gerald Wallace on the floor together during Boston's second-quarter run on Monday. The two look a bit out of place on a roster with an average age without them that is closer to 24. But both veterans made good things happen with their crafty play.

After his first practice with the team, Prince was asked about his murky future with Boston. He said that until there was a more definitive answer on how the team would proceed, he was all in on helping the Celtics in any way he could. He noted, "My approach is to come in here, provide a spark, provide leadership."

The Celtics have won three of the five games since his arrival. Maybe Prince's winning experience really is rubbing off on his younger teammates.

Celtics 99, Jazz 90: Road warriors

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
11:25
PM ET
Playing their fourth game in five nights, capping the longest such trek in the NBA this season based on total mileage spanned, the Boston Celtics had every excuse to struggle on Monday night against the Utah Jazz.

Instead, the Celtics produced one of their most dominating quarters of basketball, outscoring the Jazz by 24 in the second quarter and hanging on for a 99-90 triumph at EnergySolutions Arena.

The Celtics won three times during this four-in-five stretch. After losing to the Clippers in the opener, their only loss was a three-point defeat at the hands of the league-leading Golden State Warriors on Sunday night at Oracle Arena. Many thought Boston would come unglued out west on a season-high six-game road trip that concludes Wednesday in Minnesota, but Boston instead has more than doubled its win total for the month out west and has moved within two games of a playoff berth in the East.

The hero on Monday? It was 34-year-old Tayshaun Prince, who scored a team-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five assists and two rebounds over 30 minutes. Not too shabby for a player who it seemed might not even put on a Boston jersey when he was acquired in the Jeff Green trade with Memphis earlier this month.

Prince had 10 points in Boston's dominant second quarter. The Celtics and Jazz were tied at 21 early in that frame, but Boston closed out the half on a 34-10 run that culminated with an Avery Bradley dunk for a 24-point lead at the intermission. The Celtics outscored the Jazz 38-14 in the quarter.

Boston let its foot off the accelerator in the third quarter and Utah surged as close as 4 in the frame. The Celtics did enough to keep the Jazz at arm's length in the final quarter and emerge with the win.

Bench is fine for Zeller: Despite recently shuffling to a reserve role, Tyler Zeller continues to thrive for Boston. The big man scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting with seven rebounds over 29:11 during Monday's game. Zeller was plus-15 while pairing with Prince (and even Gerald Wallace too) to provide a bench spark.

Loose balls: The Celtics stuck with a 10-man rotation despite playing for the fourth time in five games. Phil Pressey and James Young were healthy DNPs. ... Shavlik Randolph was inactive with a left hamstring strain. ... The Celtics limited the damage on the offensive glass as the Jazz turned 10 offensive rebounds into just 14 second-chance points.

What it means: The Celtics improve to 16-27; the Jazz fall to 16-29. Boston is now only two games in back of eighth-seed Charlotte (though the Celtics have Detroit and Brooklyn between them as well). Boston wraps up this six-game road trip in Minnesota on Wednesday night.

W2W4: C's vs. Jazz (Game 43 of 82)

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
12:00
PM ET
The Boston Celtics (15-27, 6-14 away) visit the Utah Jazz (16-28, 8-12 home) on Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena (9 p.m., CSN). Here's what to watch for:

GAME PREVIEW (via STATS LLC)

It's been nearly a year since the Utah Jazz have experienced three consecutive victories and even longer since they've won three in a row at home.

The Jazz will attempt to secure those win streaks Monday night against the likely short-handed Boston Celtics.

Utah (16-28) hasn't won three straight since Feb. 8-12 and hasn't taken three consecutive home games since a four-game run Dec. 27, 2013-Jan. 7, 2014. The Jazz are now in position to end those droughts after routing Brooklyn 108-73 on Saturday.

"We just take it one game at a time. Especially with how young we are, we might come out flat and do some of the stuff we've done in the past," said forward Gordon Hayward, who had a team-best 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting. "Hopefully we don't do that. We learn from this one, we grow from this one and we look forward to the next game."

Trey Burke had 15 of his 19 points in the second quarter while coming off the bench for the second consecutive game. He's totaled 29 points in those two contests after scoring a combined 10 on 5-of-25 shooting in his last two starts.

"It's new to me. I don't know if I was comfortable with it, but I knew I had to be ready to play," said Burke, who has started 109 of 113 games in his two seasons with the Jazz. "It's a different view of the game. ... You definitely get to see how the game's going and how you can affect it when you go in."

With Burke providing a spark off the bench, Utah is averaging 104.5 points on 49.3 percent shooting in the last two after averaging 80.5 points on 37.5 percent shooting in losing its previous two.

The Jazz could be facing a tired Celtics team after Boston was able to hang around with Golden State on Sunday before ultimately losing 114-111. The Celtics (15-27) are allowing an average of 107.7 points in the second half of back-to-backs.

This will be Utah's first meeting with the Celtics since a 110-98 victory on Feb. 24 snapped a six-game skid in the series. The Jazz haven't recorded back-to-back wins over Boston since the 2006-07 season.

(Read full game preview)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH (via Chris Forsberg)

Jazz in focus: Don't let Utah's reasonable looking points allowed per game (98.5) deceive you. The Jazz rank 27th in the league in defensive rating and play at a plodding pace. Even on the second night of a back-to-back, Boston needs to crank the pace and attack the basket.

Limit the second chances: The Jazz rank first in the league in offensive rebound percentage and sixth in second-chance points. Boston needs to keep Utah's bigs off the glass.

Hayward vs. Stevens: It's always fun watching how Celtics coach Brad Stevens defends his former pupil at Butler University. Hayward had 24 points in each of Utah's recent wins.

Celtics making progress out west

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
1:35
AM ET
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images Evan Turner leaps toward the basket against Golden State.

There was uncertainty in their voices before the Boston Celtics set out on a season-long six-game road trip earlier this month. Boston had lost 11 of its previous 14 games, hadn't beaten a Western Conference opponent on the road since February 2013 and had just endured a series of trades that shuffled an already mismatched roster.

But a funny thing happened out west. Instead of coming completely unglued, as some might have expected, the Celtics responded with some of their most competitive basketball of the season. After pulling out narrow wins in Portland and Denver, a shorthanded Boston squad hung with the league-leading Golden State Warriors on Sunday night before enduring a 114-111 defeat at Oracle Arena.

Although a 2-2 record to start the trip is little to write home about, you get the sense there's a bit of newfound energy around these Celtics. Boston never really threatened to steal Sunday's game against Golden State, but it managed to hang around in a venue where the Warriors have been nearly untouchable and routinely stomp opponents as they pass through.

Coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics are not big on silver linings, but there are positives to be extracted from Sunday's game (the Celtics might even grumble about the officiating that gave the Warriors free points late in the first half with a questionable whistle). Boston will clutch those while moving on in this high-mileage trek with two beatable opponents ahead in Utah (Monday) and Minnesota (Wednesday).

Make no mistake: Boston's recent numbers are not particularly glossy. The team hasn't been very efficient at either end of the court, especially the defensive side, where the Celtics are allowing 104.3 points per 100 possessions over the past four games.

But the fact that Boston has been competitive despite being imperfect suggests progress in and of itself. This team has found a way to hang with some quality opponents, despite playing subpar basketball.

The Celtics remain in a rather unusual spot. At 15-27 overall, the team is 12 games under .500 and owns a meager .357 winning percentage. Yet in a head-shaking Eastern Conference, that's good enough to be 2.5 games out of a playoff berth. Boston is equal distance from the fifth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and the lottery-craving Philadelphia 76ers.

What's the big takeaway from the trip so far? The Celtics appear to be making the sort of progress rebuilding teams typically crave. Every time Avery Bradley hits a big, late-game shot or Jared Sullinger produces a big effort against a top-tier opponent, it's progress. There are still 40 games to be played this season, and though it's probably a good bet Boston will remain where it is -- comfortably above the conference bottom-dwellers but back of the playoff pack -- it also seems likely Stevens is going to have his team ready to compete most nights.

Stevens and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the way the Celtics have played recently. When the Warriors opened up a 12-point lead early in the second quarter Sunday, it would have been easy for Boston -- playing without Kelly Olynyk (ankle) and Marcus Smart (death in the family) -- to let the game get away. Boston just kept plugging away, and down 10 with less than a minute to play, the Celtics rallied to make it a one-possession game and didn't allow Golden State to breeze to the finish line as it normally does.

One of the things Stevens stressed before the team departed on this road trip is the desire to build good habits. Stevens is realistic about his team's situation, but he also knows a key to accelerating this rebuilding process is getting his young talent to utilize every ounce of their potential. Stevens knows wins won't come regularly with this squad, but that can't prevent him from attempting to instill a winning attitude and a winning culture.

A lot of people expected the Celtics to go out west and get steamrolled, then limp back to Boston as a team craving as many pingpong balls as it could collect before mid-April. Instead, Boston seems to have embraced the idea of playing hard and seeing what comes of it.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jared Sullinger
PTS AST STL MIN
14.3 2.2 0.7 28.8
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 8.2
AssistsE. Turner 4.5
StealsM. Smart 1.1
BlocksK. Olynyk 0.7