Remember last week when I said that the beginning of March Madness is the greatest four-day stretch on the sports calendar? Well, I rarely get to reap the benefits of being right, so this is the part where I say, “I told you so.”

Kentucky's Julius Randle (left) and Willie Cauley-Stein are two big men worth keeping an eye on as the NCAA tournament continues. (AP)

Kentucky’s Julius Randle (left) and Willie Cauley-Stein are two big men worth keeping an eye on as the NCAA tournament continues. (AP)

Seriously, what a weekend. Some will whine and complain about the low scores, the long shot clock or the quality of the play. Really!? Mercer completely outplaying Duke wasn’t shocking enough for you? Harvard winning a tournament game for the second year in a row, then giving Michigan State a run for its money didn’t entertain you? Dayton battling past Ohio State and Syracuse into the Sweet 16 — setting up a double-digit-seed showdown with Stanford, which took down Kansas — didn’t inspire you? Sorry to ramble, but this tournament is just too much fun.

To sum it all up, just picture this: No. 5-seed VCU is at the free throw line for a pair, up four points, with 10 seconds left against 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin. Now I tell you Stephen F. Austin will win this game by two points in overtime, arriving there on two missed free throws followed by an improbable four-point-play with 3.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Would you even believe me? It makes it 10 times more fun if you had Stephen F. Austin in your bracket, too.

This is why you watch March Madness.

The Celtics are involved in some madness of their own, as they jostle for lottery position in the bottom-heavy NBA. They currently are slotted into the fifth lottery spot, which after giving a glance at the standings and schedules isn’€™t a horrible place to end up. With 12 games remaining, Boston has to face the amazingly horrible 76ers (riding a cool 25-game losing streak) twice before season’€™s end, but the rest of their games could be helpful to their cause.

The Celtics will play the Bulls, Raptors and Wizards twice each, along with games against the Hawks and Bobcats — all teams battling for playoff position in the East. Lets just say those teams will be playing for a lot more than the Celts. And even when Boston faces off against fellow lottery competition on the road in Cleveland and Detroit, those games come on the tail end of back-to-backs ‘€“ meaning no Rajon Rondo. A 3-9 finish is not too much to ask for going into Wednesday night when Boston plays host to Toronto.

As much fun as the NCAA tournament was to watch, things didn’t go quite as well for the top NBA prospects. Jabari Parker and Marcus Smart went down in their first games, Andrew Wiggins dropped his second game (ending his college career with a four-point stinker) and Joel Embiid never even played. Add Dante Exum (the heralded Australian prospect) to the mix, and none of the potential top five picks in the draft will be playing in a Sweet 16 game.

These guys will basically disappear until summertime, when the lottery/draft talk starts to heat up again. Other potential top-10 picks Tyler Ennis and Doug McDermott were knocked out in the Round of 32, and recently declared Noah Vonleh‘€™s Indiana squad never even made the big dance. So, what notable NBA prospects are even left in the tournament?

Only two of the core freshman prospects remain in the madness: Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon. Randle’s Kentucky team took down undefeated Wichita State in impressive fashion and moved on to an in-state rival showdown with Louisville. Randle has posted typical double doubles in both of his tourney games, even chipping in six assists in the Wichita upset. Gordon’€™s Wildcats rolled into the Sweet 16, and he has been a huge part of it. In his two tournament games Gordon has 34 points on 15-of-21 shooting, posting five blocks in his March Madness debut and following it up with four steals in his next game. His offense is coming, and his defensive upside is limitless.

Aside from the sure-fire top 10 guys, there are some intriguing talents who will be playing in late March. In a recent interview for Celtics.com, Danny Ainge stated that “rim protectors” would be an emphasis for the C’€™s in this draft. Of course, you never know with Ainge, he could just be speaking on trades or free agency, but this draft goes deeper than Embiid at center. Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky is a 7-footer and a leaper who has to intrigue scouts at the next level based on potential.

Montrezl Harrell has been an impressive big man for Louisville of late, and similar to Randle seems to have an NBA body with NBA strength already in his game. Isaiah Austin of Baylor is another “rim protector” who comes to mind. Austin is more of an inside-out player, although at 7-foot-1 he would be expected to challenge shots in the NBA. These three bigs remain very “raw” in the eyes of scouts, though.

Many fans, however, do not want to see a pick based on potential (see Fab Melo), rather more of a safe pick to assure the rebuild does not go haywire. Here are three more “safe” picks that could work for Boston.

To stick with size just one last time, Adreian Payne of Michigan State is a proven player in his four years with the Spartans. Although he is 6-foot-9, he makes up for it with experience and skill. If you want a glimpse at Payne’s ceiling, watch his 41-point first-round performance in just 24 minutes against Delaware.

Payne’s teammate, Gary Harris, is a potential lottery pick as well. As a sophomore wing player, Harris has been the Spartans’ best option much of the season and is good at getting to the rack. On the other hand, Michigan sharp shooter Nik Stauskas looks to be another off guard who would translate well to the NBA game. Playing at a higher level cannot take away his quick release, something that is very appealing. With Avery Bradley‘s future uncertain, one of those players could be a great replacement.

Much of the “madness” has played out, but safe to say there is a fantastic Sweet 16 and further rounds ahead of us.

Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow.

Blog Author: 
Julian Edlow

This is the first in a series on the parallels between Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge‘s last team to miss the NBA playoffs and this year’s lottery-bound squad. A deeper look at the C’s player personnel, potential trade packages and financial flexibility should offer insight into whether or not Ainge can recreate the 2007 magic of acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen seven years later in 2014. (Hence, Double ’07.)

Zero score and seven years ago, Ainge faced a decision that would influence the next decade of his once great franchise: a) Trade a perennial All-Star in his prime to rebuild around a young core and a top-10 draft pick, or b) Trade that young core and the top-10 draft pick to reconstruct around his Celtics captain. Sound familiar?

As the 2014 NBA draft approaches, Ainge will be faced with the same choice he made in 2007. Therefore, the Celtics must first answer a pair of questions: 1) Do they value Rajon Rondo at age 28 the same way they did Paul Pierce at 29? and 2) Who is available at what price? Here, like Ainge, we’ll examine the former first, as it will influence every other decision made this summer (as well as the ensuing posts in this series).

Pierce & Rondo

In 2007, a hobbled Pierce missed his first All-Star Game after five straight bids from 2002-06. Likewise, Rondo’s rehab forced his absence from All-Star Weekend this February for the first time in five seasons.

Pierce’s last playoff appearance had ended in a head-wrapped controversy that only fueled his contentious relationship with the Boston media. Last we saw Rondo in the postseason, ironically, his chest bump of a referee required a herculean performance from Pierce to avoid an 0-2 first-round hole in 2012. And let’s just say the current Celtics captain doesn’t line the locker room with rose pedals for the C’s press contingent.

The similarities between the only true Celtics captains of this century are plenty. Heck, Ainge even respectively offered Pierce in 2005 and Rondo in 2011 to New Orleans for Chris Paul. A couple years removed from those offers, the two couldn’t be more comparable in terms of legacy, maturity and desirability.

That isn’t to say Pierce and Rondo are identical players in their late 20′s. Averaging 23.6 points over his first nine NBA seasons, Pierce had already begun to establish the self-proclaimed “natural born scorer” reputation that led Tommy Heinsohn to dub him the best pure scorer in Celtics history. Rondo, on the other hand, owns an 8.3 assists per game average over his first eight seasons, which ranks him highest in team history.

In 8,218 fewer minutes, Rondo has four All-Defensive Team selections to Pierce’s none. The 6-foot-1 point guard’s resume also includes 80 more wins in 17 fewer games and nearly three times as many playoff games by age 28. Of course, Rondo benefited from playing six of his first seven seasons alongside three future Hall of Famers. The closest thing to a Hall of Famer Pierce had ever played with was a 36-year-old Gary Payton.

While Rondo’s assists may have been inflated by the presence of Pierce, Garnett and Allen, the Truth’s points had been boosted by the lack of scorers around him. And 99 games worth of playoff experience — including an NBA title and three Eastern Conference finals — can’t be a bad thing. Even if the Big Three carried the playoff load early in his career, Rondo emerged as the most important of the four over the latter half of those contests.

Pierce endured five lottery seasons before everything changed in 2007. Rondo is in the midst of only his second spring without playoff basketball, and Ainge has publicly reminded his captain of that fact in The Boston Globe:

“We understand you have been very patient and it’s time to get it done or not, to move you somewhere where you can have a chance because you’ve been great to us, and you can move forward — or we need to get something done,” Ainge told Pierce in 2007. “Rondo shouldn’t be at that place, because this guy got a championship in his second year and he’s been playing with great players for a long, long time. He really never has had yet to go through rebuilding. I wouldn’t even count this year of sort of hanging in there because of where he’s at.”

The average player understands that. As one former teammate said when asked to compare Pierce’s situation in 2007 to Rondo’s in 2014, “It’€™s different, because Rondo won a championship and had so much success with Paul and Kevin. Pierce didn’€™t have that history. It’€™s a good question, though. Rondo has a real tough road ahead of him.”

Then again, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo aren’t your average player.

Pierce & Rondo 3

Posed the same question after Pierce received his Garden video tribute — whether or not he saw any of himself in a younger Truth — Rondo revealed the stubbornness that is the root of all his criticism. “No,” he said.  Surely, Rondo must consider what it would be like to one day receive the same hero’s welcome Pierce and Garnett did. Or not.

“No. Why should I? I’m 27,” Rondo said weeks before BirthdayGate on Feb. 22. “I’ve got a long career ahead of me, so I don’t think about that. I try to go out every night and play as hard as I can, and whatever happens, happens.”

The previous night, like so many times before, Pierce and Garnett had shared their wisdom with Rondo over dinner.

“We stressed setting the tone and being the example, even when he doesn’€™t want to,” said Garnett, who had endured three straight lottery seasons before coming to Boston. “I always talk to him about being a professional. You don’€™t get to pick and choose when you want to be a professional. Just understanding the pedigree of a champion, you don’€™t let losing become something usual. You keep the mentally of a champion, and some are not going to follow, but most will. As long as you’€™re the example and you’€™re having a voice, just do it by example. Rondo’€™s ready.”

Six weeks later, as the Nets were scheduled to arrive in town for a second time, Rondo faced a similar question — whether he could draw any parallels between this year’s team and his rookie season — and again offered the same one-word response. “No.” Perhaps he and Ainge see eye-to-eye on this one. Perhaps the point guard’s path really is different than his predecessor’s. Then again, perhaps he’s refusing to accept the similarities, just as Pierce did.

“I try to forget those days, because those are your trying days, man,” said Pierce of that 24-58 season seven years ago that included a franchise record 18-game losing streak. “Those are the days where you try to forget. But you grow from it. I think it made me a better player. Physically, mentally, it made me stronger. You only can learn from this process right now. You find out what type of players you have when you go through moments like this.”

Of course, Pierce has the benefit of hindsight. It’s a little different when you’re in the moment. But as much as Rondo publicly rejects the concept of rebuilding, both Pierce and Garnett admitted their successor grasps the notion more than he acknowledges. “He understands it probably a little more than I did at the time,” said Pierce.

Don’t think Ainge hasn’t been taking notes this season, too. As his star player’s contract enters its final season, the C’s president must decide this summer whether aligning his future in Boston with Rondo’s is such a great idea. At least publicly, Ainge has repeatedly expressed his willingness to do so, if only because the right trade hasn’t arisen.

“When you’€™re in the middle of your prime, like Rondo is, and you’€™re frustrated with the losing,” said Pierce, “it’€™s about just staying patient, staying with the guys, helping them develop, helping them get better. At times, it’€™s going to be frustrating, and you have to understand that’€™s the position you’€™re in. At times, things don’€™t always go your way, and you want everything to be better right away, but you understand it’€™s a process, Danny Ainge understands it’€™s a process, and they have to be on the same page. There’€™s constant communication between your franchise player and the organization on what they want from each other, and you go from there. You build with each other.”

Seven years ago, when Pierce told Jackie MacMullan, “I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks,” the Celtics captain offered an ultimatum in that same 2007 Globe column: “Either we go for it, or we don’t.” Either build around Pierce or rebuild without him. Ainge’s gamble on Pierce paid off in the form of the franchise’s 17th title. Now, he must decide whether a different captain is ready to command the next Celtics championship.

Blog Author: 
Ben Rohrbach

Avery Bradley matched a career-high with 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting while making 4-of-9 3-point attempts, but his teammates shot just 36 percent from the floor and proved a non-factor on defense as the Nets — without Kevin Garnett — romped to an easy 114-98 victory. Brooklyn scored 64 first-half points and shot 56 percent in the game, with Joe Johnson leading the way with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Paul Pierce poured in 14 points (6-of-10) in just 19 minutes.

For more from the game, click here.

Blog Author: 
WEEI

Avery Bradley matched a career-high with 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting while making 4-of-9 3-point attempts, but his teammates shot just 36 percent from the floor and proved a non-factor on defense as the Nets — without Kevin Garnett — romped to an easy 114-98 victory.

Even extreme Celtics fans should have been rooting for a loss to the Heat.</p>
<div class=



KIRK MINIHANE

BIO | ARCHIVE


Jackie MacMullan of ESPN Boston discusses the Celtics win over the Heat, the future of the team, and the possibility of the NBA Draft Wheel

Finally, it’€™s time to watch some meaningful basketball, Celtics fans! Well, in the NCAA tournament, that is.

Jabari Parker could be slipping right to the Celtics. (AP)

Jabari Parker is a known commodity, but there could be some less-heralded players who emerge in the NCAA tournament. (AP)

The C’€™s had an exciting win against the LeBron James-less Heat on Wednesday night. Sure, it was fun to see Rajon Rondo lead the charge against a quality team, but what does it really mean? This season is already lost, so what it means is a five-game losing streak has been halted, dropping Boston two spots to the sixth lottery spot. The win lowered the C’s current chance at a top-three pick by 16 percent. You never know how the season is going to end, but all signs point to a tight lottery race. Was the thrill of Wednesday worth it if the Celtics finish one win ahead of the Lakers?

Enter the beginning of March Madness, the greatest four-day stretch in sports.

We know that there will be ample buzzer-beaters and upsets, there always are. Brackets will be ripped to shreds (as mine always is), others will turn into lottery tickets (just not the kind Danny Ainge is chasing). No bets are safe come March Madness, but feel free to learn the hard way if you must. Nobody needs any extra incentive to enjoy the most entertaining tournament we have as sports fans. However, this year Celtics fans will have one extra reason to pay attention — draft picks.

Don’€™t forget that outside of Boston’€™s hyped first-rounder, Ainge also will own Brooklyn or Atlanta’€™s pick, which could end up being a player who breaks out in the tournament. We already know the talent players like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and even Marcus Smart posses. A bad tournament will not lower their draft stock, but a breakout tournament could boost their NBA stock even higher. There is no clear cut No. 1 overall pick, but Celtics fans obviously would love to see any top-tier talent arrive in Boston.

The immediate franchise changers will be determined by the ping-pong balls, the hunt for the rest of the stars begins with the later picks. Once the premier talent is off the board, a lot of the next prospects to be taken in the draft are players that raised their stock in March. I didn’€™t even know who Kenneth Faried was until Morehead State upset Louisville in 2011. After watching him play one game, I had no doubt he was a lottery talent in that year’s draft. Kind of an extreme example, but March matters.

Who is 2014′€™s Faried? Can Ainge get his hands on him? And most importantly, can he develop a better nickname than ‘€œThe Manamal’€ in the NBA? Time will tell.

I know it takes patience, but this tournament also can carry meaning for drafts post-2014. Take Glen ‘€œBig Baby’€ Davis for example. Davis broke out in the 2006 NCAA tournament, taking LSU to the Final Four. Big Baby then returned to school and had a pretty quite season — he became an early second-round selection by Ainge. Davis was able to contribute right away in key spots on a championship team; don’€™t think Ainge didn’€™t watch that Final Four tape from the previous year.

The Celtics are loaded with multiple first-rounders in both 2015 and 2016, and own a plethora of second-round-picks in those drafts as well. The tourney should now have new meaning to Celtics fans. It is the breeding grounds for future stars at the next level.

So, glue your eyes to March Madness as you always do; it’€™s about time we enjoy some meaningful basketball in Boston. But this year, remember it may not only be meaningful to the teams in the tournament, but to Danny Ainge watching like us. I told you, March matters.

P.S., Final Four: Florida, Michigan State, Louisville and dark horse Oklahoma State. Lock it up. Or I will be tearing my bracket to shreds by the end of the weekend — one or the other.

You still have time to submit your bracket on WEEI.com for a chance to win $500! Get it in Thursday before noon.

Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow.

Blog Author: 
Julian Edlow

Will Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo remain teammates next season? (AP)



BEN ROHRBACH

BIO | ARCHIVE


Rajon Rondo scored just nine points, but he was the best player on the floor all night, taking over the fourth quarter in a 101-96 victory against the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. Of course, it didn’t hurt that LeBron James (back spasms) was relegated to the Miami bench, but still — this was Rondo’s night.

Rajon Rondo scored just nine points, but he was the best player on the floor all night, taking over the fourth quarter in a 101-96 victory against the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. Of course, it didn’t hurt that LeBron James (back spasms) was relegated to the Miami bench, but still — this was Rondo’s night.

The Celtics point guard finished one point shy of a triple-double (15 assists, 10 rebounds), ending a five-game losing streak. Avery Bradley‘s 23 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers, led the scoring effort, and four other Celtics reached double figures: Brandon Bass (18 points), Jared Sullinger (14 points), Jeff Green (13 points) and Kelly Olynyk (10 points). And the Celtics needed all of it from each of them.

The Celtics improved to 23-46, moving one win ahead of the Lakers and Suns for the NBA’s seventh-worst record.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Bradley’s back: After making just six of his 25 attempts from outside of 10 feet in his first three games back from an ankle injury, Bradley found the stroke that made him so successful early this season. The soon-to-be free agent knocked down three of his six first-half 3-point attempts and added a long jumper to enter the break with 11 points. In all, the C’s shot 50 percent (9-18) from distance over the first two quarters and stayed within 56-53 after two.

Charmed third: Working inside and out, Bradley and Brandon Bass shot a combined 8-of-8 from the field to score 21 of the C’s 27 third-quarter points. Rondo was on the feeding end of four of those buckets, finishing with six assists in the frame. As a result, the Celtics took an 80-78 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Bench press: The C’s bench situation isn’t pretty. It’s comprised of four guys who weren’t on the team to start the season, two rookies and another player with 45 NBA games under his belt entering the year. Yet, they received valuable contributions from three of those seven players, as Sullinger, Olynyk and Jerryd Bayless (7 points, 5 assists) combined for 28 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Worst first: The opening quarter couldn’t have gone much worse for the Celtics defense. While the NBA’s two-time defending MVP sat on the bench, the Heat still scored 34 points on 70 percent shooting to take a 12-point lead in the game’s initial 12 minutes. It wasn’t Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh who victimized the C’s, but Udonis Haslem. The Miami veteran scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the first quarter.

No LeBron: The Heat announced James would miss his first game in a month shortly before tipoff. It remains to be seen whether he’ll return Friday in Miami, but regardless of how they feel about him, Boston fans missed a player worth the price of admission. Perhaps a motivated Celtics team took it as a sign of disrespect, too.

Blog Author: 
Ben Rohrbach