Bruins

Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

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Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

BOSTON Kevin Garnett is playing his best basketball in years, Paul Pierce is setting the tone early in games and the Celtics bench has come alive. The Miami Heat will surely look to slow down the Boston Celtics (29-22) on all those fronts. But if there's a barometer of late as to how the C's will fare, it has to be Rajon Rondo. His ability to set the tone of the game with his playmaking has been a huge factor in Boston's success which has catapulted them to the top of the Atlantic Division.

He comes into today's game having racked up double-digit assists in 12 straight games. In Boston's 100-79 win at Minnesota, Rondo had 17 assists -- two more than the entire Timberwolves team.

"It's really a credit to my teammates," Rondo said. "I'm passing them the ball, but at the end of the day, they have to make the shots."

Rondo's ability to break down Miami's defense will go far in determining if the Celtics can continue on their winning ways against a Miami Heat team that's trying to get to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.

Here are a few other keys to consider as Boston (29-22) plays the first of three games against Miami in this final month of the NBA season.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR This will be the second time these two have faced off, but much has changed since their matchup back on December 27. Paul Pierce (right heel) did not play in that game. Kevin Garnett, who now plays center, was playing primarily at the power forward position then. And Greg Stiemsma was just another rookie big man at the end of an NBA bench who didn't play. Today, he's the C's best shot-blocker who is now one of the first reserves to see action. "We're definitely a better team now than we were at the start of the season," Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. "Hopefully we'll just keep improving, and go into the playoffs playing our best basketball." Miami has a slightly different look as well with the recent addition of Ronny Turiaf who signed with the Heat on March 21 after being waived by the Denver Nuggets. It'll be worth monitoring how the new faces who weren't around or were in different roles the first time these two met, will fare today.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Avery Bradley vs. Dwyane Wade: Bradley's abilities to cut to the basket and (more recently) knock down jumpers will be put to the test against Wade, who is one of the more under-rated perimeter defenders in the NBA. Bradley's aggressive style defensively will face the ultimate challenge in Wade, a big-time scorer who has a way of getting the best defenders in early foul trouble. Whether Bradley starts or comes off the bench in place of Ray Allen -- he's questionable to play after missing the last five games with a right ankle injury -- this will be an interesting matchup.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Kevin Garnett's last two games at center pitted him against Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, easily two players Garnett had no problem getting amped up to face. Joel Anthony? Not quite the same sizzle. But Anthony potentially poses an even greater problem. He is a high-energy, all-out hustle kind of player -- the kind of player whose strengths work against what Garnett does best. Keeping Anthony from controlling the boards should be Garnett's primary responsibility today.

STAT TO TRACK -- Boston has been a lot more efficient offensively around the basket lately, aided largely by their dribble penetration which has resulted in a slight spike in points in the paint. That'll be key against a Miami Heat team that has been among the NBA's best all season in limiting opponents scoring around the rim. Teams have averaged just 36.9 points in the paint against Miami this season, the third-fewest allowed in the NBA. Although Boston's 34.8 points in the paint average ranks just 29th in the league, the C's have increased their points in the paint scoring to 40 per game during their current four-game winning streak.

Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"

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Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"

BOSTON – At the end of the day, it was simply a game where the Bruins allowed themselves to get outworked in the third period and overtime. 

The B’s held a three-goal lead in the second period and still enjoyed a two-goal lead in the third period, but eventually dropped a frustrating, futile 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Saturday night. It was clear to most speaking after the game that the Bruins eased up on the gas pedal once they’d scored their fourth goal of the game in the second period, and simply watched as the Sabres stomped all over them in the game’s second half. 

“I think we might have been a little bit too scared to play [in the third period], you know? We tried to just flip the pucks away, and didn’t make any plays trying to get it in the zone. Instead we should have just kept going like we did in the first two periods,” said David Pastrnak, who scored a pair of goals early in the loss to allow the Bruins to build up the three-goal lead. “Obviously we’re disappointed. We got one point. I think we didn’t play our game in the third period. We kind of stopped playing and they were all over us, and you know, it’s on us. We were the ones that gave them their point, but the first two periods were good. It’s just another learning session.”

To Pastrnak’s point, the Bruins were outshot by a 15-6 margin in the final 20 minutes of regulation and 21-6 overall in the third period and overtime prior to Ryan O’Reilly’s game-winner during 3-on-3 play. It was at this point the Bruins certainly missed stalwart stay-at-home defensemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller in the D-zone, and fell short of qualified penalty killers while trying to burn off a Brandon Carlo interference call at the end of the third period. 

All of that caught up to them once the Bruins loosened their grip on the Sabres, but certainly the feeling is that the loss should’ve been avoidable even if some of the circumstances made it difficult for the Black and Gold. It also should have been avoidable against a Sabres hockey club that was dreadful last season, and is again one of the doormats in the Atlantic Division in the early going thus far. 

“Those are the games you can’t lose. We obviously didn’t do the job there in the third and close it out, but we’re going to have to regroup and work on our game and be better for the next one,” said Brad Marchand. “We didn’t play the game we needed to play. We relaxed a bit and we started losing a few battles in the wrong areas, and you know, they just played better than we did.”

It’s mystifying that any team would need a crash-and-born loss like Saturday night in order to learn any lessons moving forward, and it certainly might have been a different story for the Bruins if they weren’t missing a few big defensive pieces. But that’s not how it went down for the Black and Gold as they sagged under rising pressure from the Sabres, and simply stopped working when the chips were on the table late in Saturday night’s game. 

Astros beat Yankees in Game 7 to advance to World Series, 4-0

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Astros beat Yankees in Game 7 to advance to World Series, 4-0

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve embraced Justin Verlander as confetti rained down. An improbable thought just a few years ago, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. combined on a three-hitter, Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Astros reached the World Series for only the second time by blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Verlander, the ALCS MVP , and fellow Houston ace Dallas Keuchel will have plenty of rest before the World Series begins at sweltering Dodger Stadium.

"I love our personality," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We have the right amount of fun, the right amount of seriousness, the right amount of perspective when we need it. This is a very, very unique group. To win 100 games and still be hungry is pretty remarkable."

The Astros will try for their first World Series title, thanks in large part to Altuve , the diminutive second baseman who swings a potent bat, and Verlander, who switched teams for the first time in his career to chase a ring.

Four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees on consecutive nights after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first crown, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

"This city, they deserve this," McCullers said.

Clutch defensive plays by third baseman Alex Bregman and center fielder George Springer helped Houston improve to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and become the fifth team in major league history to capture a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four. A noted curveballer, McCullers finished up with 24 straight breaking pitches to earn his first major league save.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron JudgeGary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

"I know people are going to talk about how we didn't win many games on the road. There were some other teams that haven't won many games on the road, either. We just happened to run into a very good team that just beat us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Astros also eliminated New York in the 2015 postseason, with Keuchel winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

CC Sabathia entered 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double. He snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night in a 7-1 win.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York went 1-6 on the road this postseason.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS exactly 13 years earlier.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh.

With McCullers in charge, the Astros soon closed it out.

"It's not easy to get here. And I don't take any of this for granted. And this is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series."

{video:stanzacal]