One man's completely uneducated guess at five headlines you'll be reading this week …
1. Pierce scores 25, Garnett adds 18 in win over Knicks
Paul Pierce is shooting 49.2 percent from the floor this season, a number that would easily set a career best. I know it has been written about a million times over the last few years, but Pierce's transformation into one of the NBA's most efficient offensive players is fascinating to me. This is a guy that shot 40.2 percent -- 96th in the NBA -- in 2004. He was 26 years old, not in great shape, and not thrilled about the direction of his team (ah, 2004, a time when Celtics fans had nothing to do but convince themselves that Jiri Welsch was the answer at point guard). It could have gone either way with Pierce at that point -- he could have packed on 30 pounds, demanded a trade, all the stuff we've seen from NBA almost-stars when it starts to get ugly.
But Pierce dug in. OK, there were a couple more lean years before the Celtics got maybe the luckiest unlucky break in history -- turning the fifth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak into an NBA championship -- but Pierce had already made the leap as a mature offensive player by the time Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett showed up. And now Paul Pierce -- who needed nearly 19 shots per game to average 23 points per game in 2004 -- needs just 12.7 shots per game to average 18.5 points. We're talking Jeff Hornacek kind of efficiency here.
I just spent the last two hours on basketball-reference.com in an attempt to find another player in NBA history who has had his two best shooting seasons at age 32 and 33 (you think that's pathetic -- I once spent THREE hours looking for a nude picture of Carol Burnett from 1976. No luck, alas, so on the Bucket List it stays). Couldn't find another guy. Just Pierce. And on Monday night, in a game that'll be stuffed with All-Stars, don't be surprised when Pierce needs just 14 shots to put up his 25 points and lead all scorers in a 98-92 Celtics win at Madison Square Garden.
2. Butler knocks off Wisconsin, advances to Elite Eight
A couple of thoughts on the first four days of the tournament …
-- Hard to believe, but Clark Kellogg is so bad as the lead analyst that I find myself longing for Billy Packer at times. Kellogg is just there. No value. Take the end of the UNC-Washington game on Sunday afternoon. Down three points, Washington guard Venoy Overton panicked, taking a half-court shot with about five seconds left in the game. It was short by about six feet, but UNC (John Henson) knocked the ball out of bounds, giving Washington one more chance. Kellogg doesn't knock Overton for the lousy shot (that was left to Jim Nantz, the play-by-play guy), or UNC for not staying away from the ball. He didn't ask if maybe there should be more than 0.5 seconds left on the game clock. Nope, Clark just kept telling us that Washington had no timeouts left. That was important to know, but we just need to hear it once. And when Isaiah Thomas' last-second shot was nearly goaltended by Henson, Kellogg correctly ripped Henson but clearly had no clue that Thomas' shot would not have been a 3-pointer. Again, Jim Nantz had to step in and tell Kellogg what was going on. It was like Nantz was James Garner and Kellogg was Gena Rowlands at the end of "The Notebook" (uh, not that I've seen "The Notebook." I've never watched it by myself in a hotel room in Orlando and cried or anything). There's a reason why Steve Kerr is going to be in the booth with Clark and Nantz at the Final Four. It'll be just Nantz/Kerr by 2014 (though I vote for Marv Albert and Kerr -- they were 30 lengths ahead of any other duo this week).
-- To borrow one from Charles Barkley: I love Charles Barkley, but he shouldn't be near the NCAA tournament. Goes double for Kenny Smith. They sound like I do when I try and talk hockey on 'EEI -- resorting to the standard three or four cliches to try and hide the fact they haven't watched a complete game all season (and yes, "Guard play is key" is the equivalent of "All it takes is a hot goalie").
-- It's odd to watch Duke and not have an irrational hatred for a 19-year-old kid. Duke is hate-free this year (I can't get worked up about Kyle Singler, he falls way short on the Laettner/WoJo/Chris Collins hate chart). So instead I just turn to Seth Davis, who truthfully isn't bad on TV but went to Duke and definitely gives off a "Before we go any further with this, you know I'm better than you, right?" vibe.
-- If Gus Johnson was announcing a game between the cast of "Glee" and the 1986 Celtics, I'm pretty sure it would somehow come down to the last shot.
-- I've watched Jimmer Fredette play 15 or so times over the last two years. I'm fairly convinced I've got the worst-case NBA scenario figured out for him -- Dan Dickau. But best case? Marc Price? Scott Skiles, as Bob Ryan suggested in his column from a couple of months back? No clue, but I'd be stunned if he isn't a 10-year NBA player at the very worst. You can make a lot of money and play a lot of years if you can shoot 3-pointers somewhere in the 40 percent range, and I think Fredette -- provided he lands in the right spot -- is going to be able to do at least that.
3. DeMaurice Smith: 'No progress at all'
Looks like Bob Kraft picked the wrong week to go on a trade mission to Israel.
Probably didn't matter, but I'm with Matt Light on this one -- the fact that Kraft didn't stick around for the meetings shows me that the owners weren't real concerned with getting a deal done. I still think that the owners -- at least a majority of them -- believe that the players will eventually fold. And I tend to agree with them. Too much history to suggest otherwise. Sure, I watched the ESPN piece with Brian Dawkins, Jeff Saturday, Domonique Foxworth, Drew Brees and Mike Vrabel (who is getting closer and closer to completely morphing into Kurt Warner) on Friday night. They brought up plenty of good points. An 18-game schedule is a joke. Maybe -- as Vrabel suggested -- negations would be more effective if Roger Goodell wasn't in the room. Why should a would-be rookie show up to the draft and shake the hand of the man who A) just locked them out of their jobs and B) wants to dramatically reduce the salaries of first-round picks. And this point, of course, was hammered above all: They are locking us out. We want to work, we want football in 2011. The owners are the roadblock to that goal, not us.
All five guys came across really well in the spot (and George Smith -- one of the few good ones at The Worldwide House of Vomit -- asked smart questions and stayed out of the way as moderator). I'm pretty sure, in fact, if Dawkins, Saturday, Foxworth, Brees and Vrabel represented the entire NFLPA the owners would be in serious trouble. But they don't. And I get that the players are united right now, but it's March. Not sure how much One For All we'll be hearing when the checks aren't coming in July. And that's why the owners are gonna win this one.
4. Despite struggles, Papelbon confident as Opening Day nears
Look, this is reality for Jonathan Papelbon. Any other spring -- I'll include last year -- and no one cares if his spring training ERA is 12.60. But when you are coming off the worst season of your career, in a contract year, with other potential closers looming, people aren't going to be OK with "I'm just getting the kinks worked out." There is no question that Papelbon -- not John Lackey, not Josh Beckett, not J.D. Drew, not Marco Scutaro, not the catching situation -- is the story heading into the season. Part of it is simple: People love a closer controversy, and Papelbon has the kind of personality (or at least public persona) that makes people want to root defend him when things are right and turn against him when things go wrong. He's been consistent since Day One -- it's about the money. And fans are fine with that and will laugh along with the act when the ERA is sub-2.00, the K/BB ratio historic and free agency is a few years away, but when you're a couple of inches above Just Another Closer status it doesn't play real well. This will be a story all season long.
5. Ainge on Big Show: Rondo to sit out Friday vs. Charlotte
I don't know, when I watched the Celtics get blown out in Houston on Friday I didn't see a team willing to step in front of a bullet to get that 1 seed (they played so poorly that the Comcast postgame show was merely fawning, instead of the usual full-blown worship). And that's OK -- I don't think that top seed is as important as other folks are making it out to be. Does a Game 7 in Chicago scare you? Or in Miami? Nah, it's about health with these guys, we know that. And if it all starts with Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo is right behind. And while there's no doubt that Rondo is playing hurt, the question seems to be if he's actually injured. Hard for me to believe that he'd be in the lineup at all if that was the case, seems to be way too much risk for … what? To beat New Orleans and Indiana in March? Look for some nights off for Rondo here and there down the stretch. Big picture, not the worst thing for the Celtics. They'll take the 3 seed with a healthy Rondo vs. a 1 seed with the Rondo we've seen over the last couple of weeks. Plus more minutes for Delonte West (who was terrific on Saturday) can only help heading into the postseason.