Celtics

Belichick, Caserio go deep on Ravens receivers

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Belichick, Caserio go deep on Ravens receivers

There was something very obvious about Joe Flacco's play against the Texans. No, not his habit of taking sacks; his happiness in having Anquan Boldin back as a target. The Ravens receiver missed the regular season's final two weeks after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Boldin fell right back into step during last weekend's Divisional playoff, punishing Houston for 132 yards on eight catches.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick couldn't have been encouraged. He spoke Tuesday about the edge a healthy Boldin gives Baltimore.

"Boldin is a tough matchup hes strong, hes really physical, hes got great size, tough guy, tough after the catch. You give him too much space and hes strong and physical and can hurt you with the ball in his hands. You get up there too tight on him and hes big and physical and can throw some of those smaller guys around and get on top of him and go up and get the ball. Hes a tough guy to match up on."

The scope of Belichick's compliments was actually much wider. He said the Ravens have a complimentary offense based on an array of targets available to Flacco. Whether looking to Boldin, Ray Rice -- the NFL's No. 2 regular season rusher, Torrey Smith, or tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, there's someone to step up against the coverage.

Smith, in particular, is someone the Patriots looked over during 2010's pre-draft process. He and Boldin could be a pair to bother New England's inconsistent secondary.

"Torreys probably their top vertical threat," Diirector of player personnel Nick Caserio said this week. "He was an explosive down field player at Maryland; a real productive player. Hes got good size, great kid, and great makeup. Hes come in and has done a nice job and hes given their offense a different dimension.

"They really have players that really can attack all three levels of the field. Smith is maybe a little faster than Boldin, but Boldins ball skills are very, very good, so even if you have him covered they still might throw it up to because the quarterback has quite a bit of confidence in that Anquan is going to go up and make a play."

The message was clear: Neither Belichick nor Caserio is surprised to see Baltimore across the field.

They said it starts at the top. Both men stroked the Ravens' staff, from Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta in the front office, to John Harbaugh down on the front line. While Baltimore's defensive gets most of the attention, its offense did rank in the NFL's top half during the regular season. Nobody will be muttering, "But it's Flacco" in that planning room.

"The bottom line is they have good football players." Caserio said. "Thats really what it comes down to in this league. They find good football players, they bring them in, and they develop them."

The Patriots can afford to underestimate nothing. Especially not for the AFC Championship.

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

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Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

BOSTON – For most of this NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Celtics has centered around the maturity of their young players.

Well, there's a much bigger tale of growth on this team. But we're not talking about rookie Jayson Tatum or second-year wing Jaylen Brown.

We're talking about Kyrie Irving, whose desire for growth fueled his decision to want out of Cleveland this past offseason.

And that growth has in turn sparked the Celtics to what has been an unprecedented run of success.

"He's doing things that we never saw when he was in Cleveland," one league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. "He always had great talent, but could he lead a really good team? I think we got our answer now."

The Celtics (16-2) boast the best record in the NBA, which is amazing when you consider Gordon Hayward broke his ankle less than five minutes into the season opener. Not to mention they lost their first two games.

Literally all they've done since then is win.

Boston's 16 straight victories is an NBA record after losing the first two games of the season. The winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in franchise history.

And while the pieces to Boston's success vary, the man whose growth has been at the epicenter of the Celtics' emergence as a title contender has been Irving.

You can count Mike Brown, Irving's former coach in Cleveland, among those impressed with the growth in Irving on all levels.

"To see Kyrie taking ownership of not only little things offensively, but even on the other end of the floor, leadership and all that other stuff ... I'm happy for him, I'm excited for him," Brown, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, told NBC Sports Boston. 

While his numbers have taken a slight dip here in Boston, Irving seems to be better in tune with what he needs to do to positively impact the play of his teammates and the team as a whole.

In Boston's 110-102 overtime win at Dallas on Monday, Irving had 47 points, the most he's scored as a Celtic.

His scoring binge included 10 points in overtime. 

And when talking about his monster scoring night, Irving provides a clue as to how his approach to the game has changed over the years in terms of scoring.

Irving described his breakout scoring night as something that "was called upon," adding: "I don't think I needed to score over 20 or 25 in particular games. So I think if you would have asked me that question probably a few years ago, I would probably tell you that I would definitely be trying to get 40."

Earlier this season, Irving talked about developing some bad habits early in his career because his primary goal, like most high draft picks, was to get buckets. That frequently led to the ball sticking in his hands too long, or him having to force up shots and not getting his teammates involved as much as he should have.

While some chalked it up to him being a selfish player, Brown saw it differently.

"A lot of it was his youth, which is more than understandable," said Brown, who coached Irving in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season. "When he first came into the league, he had played 11 games in college. Before that with high school and AAU, for a guy that talented, it was pretty easy for him. He could go out and get 40 and win and not have to focus on anything else."

Brown recalls one of the early challenges with Irving was getting him to get his teammates involved more consistently.

"One of the things I used to always hit him with, he can score and finish in a crowd like no other, especially at his size," Brown recalled. "He draws a lot of attention. I always used to tell him, whether it's the strong-side or the weak-side, guys in the corners are wide open when you dribble-penetrate because you are such a dangerous finisher."

There would be film study to illustrate this point. It would show just how easily Irving would get to various spots on the floor by breaking his defender down or splitting an upcoming double team. But it would also show that when he made his moves in traffic, far too often his head would be down, which is why he wasn't finding teammates open.

Brown pointed this out as an area Irving needed to get better at if he were going to continue ascending up the point-guard stratosphere in the NBA.

"And you know, he got a little better at it," Brown said. 

Today?

"I tell you right now, he's a double-edged sword," Brown said. "Now, not only can he finish in traffic, now he's finding guys in the strong-corner. He's finding guys in the weak corner. And he's finding guys that are in the slots above the corner on the wing. To see him make that pass with such ease and precision right now, at least for me it's a joy. It's a joy for me because it's something I knew he could do. As a young man in high school and AAU, he's probably thinking, score, score, score. So that's not something he developed growing up, at least he didn't show to me. Now to see him do it, it's beautiful."

It certainly has been for the Celtics, who are off to their best start under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has found a way to blend his system, which is heavily predicated on ball movement offensively and the ability to switch frequently on defense, with Irving's immense individual talent. So far at least, has been a good fit for all involved.

"Kyrie is trying to do his role to the best of his ability," Stevens said. "Obviously, his role garners a lot of attention because he scores the ball and he has those moments where he mesmerizes everybody with his ability to score the ball and handle the ball and stuff. He's trying to do all the little things. It's a brand new system. There's going to continue to be an adjustment period for him. But he's done a good job."

Listening to Irving talk following the win over Dallas, it's clear there's a considerable amount of thought on his part given to how he'll attack defenses even though we're talking about split-second, on-the-fly decisions.

"It just happens," Irving said when asked about his best scoring night as a Celtic. "Just the flow of the game, understanding where spacing is, where the shot is going to come from, when it's time to put the foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and take advantage of certain things I was seeing out there. But my teammates did a great job of continuing to pressure the basketball."

And he continues to provide both strong play and leadership, which have moved the needle closer to him achieving what he was seeking when he asked the Cavs to trade him during the offseason.

"This was literally a decision that I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward," he said earlier this season.

Watching him inside the Celtics locker room and on the floor, it's clear that he's having a good time out there.

And his career going forward? 

Irving's impact on winning has positioned him to where a strong case can be made for him being a top-5 league MVP candidate.

Following the Dallas win, Irving was serenaded by fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P'" which certainly brought a smile to his face and was somewhat unexpected considering Boston was on the road.

"It's pretty awesome," Irving said of the chants. "But we got a long way to go."

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