Celtics

Belichick gives his slant on the slot

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Belichick gives his slant on the slot

FOXBORO - No team has ever wrung more offensive production from their slot receiver position that the New England Patriots.

Their reliance on the position predates Wes Welker's arrival in 2007 with the stylings of Troy Brown who, because he was the Patriots best offensive player from 2000 to 2003, forced the Patriots and Tom Brady to become slot-focused.

This week, the Patriots will deal with one of the best slot receivers not named Welker, Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins.

Bess, who's signed through 2013 with Miami, is an intriguing player. At 5-10, 190, he's a little more solidly built than Welker. He's also a little faster. Bess is a player I used to think could be plugged into the New England offense in place of Welker and give identical production.

The 2011 season Welker submitted moved me off that stance, but I still wonder if slot receivers aren't virtually interchangeable. Could Bess do what Welker does if the Patriots part ways with Welker and court the 27-year-old Bess in 2014? Could Danny Amendola do what Welker does if the Rams slot receiver comes available after this season (speculation is, Amendola will be franchised)? Will the Patriots simply let Julian Edelman assume the slot and expand the position's "route tree" because of Edelman's superior straight-line speed (but inferior guile working the middle of the field)? Or do the Patriots find a way to make sure the 31-year-old Welker sticks around a while longer?

Bill Belichick spoke in-depth about the position Wednesday, stating plainly that slot receiver and wide receiver are wholly different positions.

"I think its a little bit of a different world in there (for a slot receiver)," Belichick said when asked if slot receiver was a simple position to fill. "There are a lot more people involved you have linebackers, you have safeties, you have corners, sometimes defensive linemen coming out and blitzing on those."

Looking at the contracts of wideouts compared to slots, it's plain that - even though slots can generate more production and handle the ball more often - teams are willing to allocate more money to pay their best outside receivers than they are going to pay the slot.

That may be, in part, because teams can't teach the kind of speed, strength and athleticism players like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald possess. Measurables matter and a player like Welker simply could not do the things Johnson or Fitzgerald does if you put Welker on the edge.

In the slot, guile and guts trump measurables. Most outside receivers probably COULD play slot at a serviceable level (although long-striders are a liability inside) but they wouldn't have the belly for it.

There's an incredible amount to process when you play in the slot.

"You have different combinations of coverage and its really important that that receiver and the quarterback see things exactly the same when to keep going, when to slow up, when to stop, any kind of option routes, which way to break, when to come out of it. It definitely takes some work," Belichick explained.

"The visual communication between those two players is, I think, more difficult," Belichick added. "Im not saying its easier outside; there are just more variables inside. Again, especially when you get into option routes and decision making, youre just going to run five yards and run across the field and thats fairly straight forward although there is some, Do you go over? Do you go under? Do you slow down? Do you speed up? Do you stop? Do you throttle? What are your rules? What tells you to do what? Most importantly, it has to be exactly what the quarterback thinks youre going to do so you dont go behind the linebacker when he thinks youre going in front of him and its a bad interception, that kind of thing. I think theres a lot to that, yeah. I think it takes a lot to play that position.

If there were a slogan for slots it would be, "We try harder, do more stuff and take more risk for less!" Not really something you'd want your son to sign up for, but, indispensable.

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

BOSTON – You had to figure Golden State’s explosive offense would probably come up a little short scoring-wise against the Boston Celtics and their top-rated defense. 

But for them to score 88 points – that’s about 32 below their average – was very one of those, “where the hell did that come from?” moments. 

And it was exactly what the Celtics needed to escape with a 92-88 win that extended their winning streak to 14 in a row but maybe most important, put the entire league on notice that this streak they’re on right now … it’s real. 

“They wrote us off coming in, saying Golden State was gonna beat us, and do this and do that,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “We came out and played basketball. Even though we got down, the make-up of our team is staying in; we’re resilient.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s signature win of the season, 92-88 over Golden State which extended Boston’s winning streak to 14 straight. 

 

BROWN’S GROWTH

Jaylen Brown was playing with a heavy heart less than 24 hours after the death of his best friend. But as we’ve seen in this still-young season, Brown is very much one of the league’s emerging talents. He certainly played that role on Thursday in leading Boston with 22 points with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.  

 

TALE OF TWO HALVES FOR TATUM

There’s something about the second half of games against elite players that brings out the best in Jayson Tatum. When Boston opened the season at Cleveland, Tatum was noticeably better in the second half than the first. And in Thursday’s win over Golden State, it was more of the same. In the first half he had just two points only to finish with a 10-point second half (7 coming in the fourth) for a 12-point game on 2-for-5 shooting. 

 

AL HORFORD

As well as he’s played, a strong case can be made for Horford being a league MVP instead of their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving. Horford tallied a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds to go with a pair of assists. Horford now has six double-doubles this season which equals his double-double total from all of last season. 

 

MARCUS SMART

As much as you know Smart makes great effort plays consistently and does indeed make a difference when he’s on the court, his shooting woes are reaching critical mass even as Boston continues to gobble up wins. In the last five games, Smart has averaged 7.6 points. That’s not too bad, right? But then you look and see that he’s shooting 19.2 percent (10-for-52) in that span. Ouch! So far, the Celtics have been able to find success despite his shooting struggles. But you have to anticipate at some point it’ll catch up with them. 

 

SHORTENED ROTATION

For most of this season, pretty much everyone who suits up for the Celtics, have played. But against the Warriors, it had the feel of a playoff-like rotation with head coach Brad Stevens playing 10 guys with nine reaching double digits in minutes played. Considering how the second unit struggled to make shots (they missed 17 of their 19 shot attempts), it’s understandable why head coach Brad Stevens leaned a little heavier than usual on his second unit.

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

BOSTON –  The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).

MORE CELTICS:

 

And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
 
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
 
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:
 
TOP 5 MASKED MEN


1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.

4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.

5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES


1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.

3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.

5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.
 
TOP 5 ROOKIES


1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.

5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.
 
TOP 5 DEFENDERS


1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
 
4.  Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
 
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality  better than Baynes.
 
TOP 5 TEAMS


1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.

2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.

3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.

4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.

5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.