Celtics say goodbye to Paul Pierce, beat Clippers 107-102 (VIDEO)

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BOSTON (AP) Isaiah Thomas stole the spotlight from Paul Pierce on Sunday, scoring 28 points to lead Boston to its seventh straight victory, a 107-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the former Celtics captain’s final game in the Garden.

Al Horford had 13 points and a season-high 15 rebounds for the Celtics, who brought Pierce to tears with a first-quarter highlight video. Thomas had eight assists but had a four-game streak of 35-point games snapped.

Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford scored 23 apiece, and DeAndre Jordan had 16 rebounds for Los Angeles, which lost for the sixth time in eight games. Pierce’s only points came on a 3 after checking in with 19 seconds left and the game out of reach.

With fans undecided on whether to cheer louder for the Celtics, for Pierce, or for the New England Patriots, who played in the Super Bowl later Sunday, the basketball team held on as the Clippers cut a 12-point lead to 103-99 in the final minute.

Pierce started and played the first five minutes and then went to the bench – even as the crowd chanted his name, egged on by the Celtics cheerleaders and even Thomas himself. After Griffin missed a 3-pointer that could have made it a one-possession game, Pierce checked back in for the final possessions and, with the fans already standing and cheering, hit a 3-pointer that was meaningful only to them.

As the crowd was filtering out to get home in time for the Super Bowl, Pierce walked back onto the parquet floor, dropped to his knees, and kissed the leprechaun at center court.

Pierce, 39, has said he will retire after the season. He had not played since Dec. 31 but former Celtics coach Doc Rivers put him in the starting lineup so he could have a fitting farewell.

Boston scored the first six points of the game and had a 29-14 lead late in the first quarter. The Clippers ran off 10 straight points in the second – five from Raymond Felton followed by five from Jamal Crawford – to make it a two-point game.

But it was 56-47 at the half and a 14-point Boston lead at the end of three. The Clippers got within four in the final minute, 103-99, but Griffin missed a 3 from the left side, Horford got the rebound and sank his foul shots.


It was Pierce’s 630th game at the new Boston Garden. He has never failed to score in the building…. Celtics G Avery Bradley missed his 10th straight game with a sore Achilles tendon. … The Celtics took a franchise-record 52 3-pointers. … Celtics Jaylen Brown and Jonas Jerebko took each other out when the collided under the basket early in the fourth quarter. Jerebko (nose) did not return. … Pierce’s final 3-pointer was the only one made by a Clippers starter.


Clippers: at Toronto on Monday.

Celtics: At Sacramento on Wednesday.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.