Stretching the Field: It's time for the Celtics to peak

A sixth straight postseason berth is within reach.

Chances of making a run toward the playoffs are attainable, too.

The Boston Celtics, barring more injury to the aging unit of distributors, still have enough gas left in the tank to bang around in a seven-game series. The Celtics have to finish this fading regular season with a sudden urge and rid themselves of the inconsistency that has cost them positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Boston's lineup recently has resembled more of a melting pot for how many ingredients coach Doc Rivers has added to the mix. A sprinkle of Paul Pierce with Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee here, and a scattering of Jason Terry, Chris Wilcox and Avery Bradley there have been the latest concoctions.

"This is not necessarily how we want to play; we're going to change styles," Rivers said. "We're going to go from big to small in every game."

Rivers admitted he doesn't know what lineup he'll use Friday night at home against the Atlanta Hawks, a team the Celtics could be even with or positioned better than in the East.

"We've just got to figure it out and everybody has to be in on it. We can't have any guys with hurt feelings if they're not playing or not starting or in a different position," Rivers explained.

The Celtics are seventh in the East standings -- 2 1/2 games behind both Chicago and Atlanta with 11 to play -- and reaching the fourth spot is still a possibility. Brooklyn is seeded fourth and sits five games in front of the Celtics, who are only two games ahead of Milwaukee. So, as you can see it's a jumbled mess with the end of the regular season just weeks away.

Celtics star Paul Pierce, who can play the 1-4 positions, doesn't think the current lineup philosophy should have any bearing on how well the team plays. Being ready for whatever is on the board pregame and the younger guys building confidence with more action will be Boston's mantra for the stretch run.

"Coach just says everyone be ready," Pierce noted. "He's going to change lineups. Some nights we're going to be big, some nights we'll go small, but everyone has to be ready. He tells us that every day. That's all we can expect right now."

Rajon Rondo has been out for a while, and surprisingly still leads the NBA with 11.1 assists per game, and Kevin Garnett is banged up. Is it a good idea to give Garnett sporadic nights off until a postseason berth is inevitably clinched? Sure, but punch that ticket first.

As Pierce previously touched on, younger players such as Green, Lee and Bradley are starting to feel more comfortable and Green is getting more action with Garnett out. Bass has been a staple in the starting lineup since February, when the Celtics began their roll to a 12-4 mark. They dropped five straight and seven of nine after that nice stretch, but got back into the groove with a buzzer-beating win Wednesday on the road against Cleveland.

"Sometimes it takes games like this to get you out of a rut," Pierce said. "I'm happy with the way we fought back."

And the fight must go on.

Scheduled to play five of the next seven games at home, the Celtics have an opportunity to build some momentum for the postseason. History has proven that hot teams succeed when peaking before the playoffs commence and Boston can be that team. Right now the Celtics, who enjoy running screens and using the low post, are paired up with Indiana for a first-round showdown. They are better off moving into the 4-6 spots if they draw the Pacers, however.


Brooklyn Nets - Having clinched their first playoff berth since 2006-07, postseason action will be in store for the Nets in their inaugural season under the 11217 zip code. Brooklyn is currently in the thick of a draining eight-game road trip, but is 4-1 on the junket. Having won eight of 11 overall, Brooklyn is fourth in the East -- 2 1/2 games behind New York and 2 1/2 games clear of Chicago and Atlanta.

Milwaukee Bucks - A benching for Brandon Jennings paid off and the talented guard helped the Bucks get back into the win column. Jennings was pulled during a loss at Philadelphia Wednesday night, scoring no points in less than 18 minutes of action. One night later, Jennings netted 20 in just over 32 minutes and all appears right in Milwaukee, which ended a four-game losing streak and won for the third time in 10 tries. The Bucks are two games behind Boston in the eighth spot -- seven ahead of Philadelphia.

Atlanta Hawks - Although they've played somewhat inconsistent the last week or so, the Atlanta Hawks are in the postseason for a sixth straight year. Coach Larry Drew said people counted the Hawks out early, and now look how far they've come. Granted a healthy Lou Williams would have made the scoring more exciting, Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague are admirable enough to possibly lead Atlanta into the second round. The Hawks and Bulls are even in the fifth spot -- 2 1/2 games in back of Brooklyn.

Chicago Bulls - The Bulls proved that toughness pays off. They just knocked off the red-hot Miami Heat in a matchup that left LeBron James whining about the officiating. Whether former MVP Derrick Rose returns is anyone's guess and Ripley's couldn't even get a feel for it. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is known for his defensive prowess and has the bangers inside to move deep into the playoffs. A healthy Joakim Noah makes that statement even more reasonable. Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng are long enough to run with any team the East has to offer, including the Heat.

It appears the top three seeds are safe if all goes right down the stretch, as Miami, Indiana and New York sit 1-3, respectively.