Patriots

Celtics-Hawks review: What we saw

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Celtics-Hawks review: What we saw

ATLANTA The Boston Celtics are not the kind of team that gets too giddy about what some might construe as a quality loss.

But Friday's 97-92 loss at Atlanta just may qualify as the lone exception.

Boston had no business keeping the game close, let alone being in position to win it in the final minutes.

And there they were, playing without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett who were given the night off.

No Mickael Pietrus (knee), Ray Allen (ankle) or Rajon Rondo (back) either, with all back in Boston nursing their respective injuries.

"Nobody gave us a chance in hell tonight," said Celtics guardforward Marquis Daniels. "We gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We were a couple shots away from it."

And that shot at winning was fueled by what on many stretches resembled the Celtics' "C" team of players at the very end of the bench that delivered in a big, bad way for the Celtics all game against an Atlanta team that played their usual rotation players close to their usual minutes.

"Even though we didn't win, I felt like we took steps forward as a team," said Boston's Avery Bradley who led all C's with a career-high 28 points. "It was an opportunity for us to improve, and a lot of our guys did that."

Boston's cut-and-paste second unit kept the game close with a number of hustle plays such as steals, deflections and contesting shots. But surprisingly, they held their offensively as well, tallying 29 points compared to 30 for Atlanta's second unit.

Even though the Hawks got the win, it was clear that Atlanta head coach Larry Drew didn't feel overly enthused with how the game played out.

"As far as I'm concerned, whether Boston won or not, they accomplished what they wanted," Drew said. "To have his reserves come out and compete at a high level, and to take us down to the wire the way they did."

Bench play certainly gave the Celtics a shot at pulling off the major upset. Here are some other keys outlined prior to the game, and how they actually played out.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR If the Celtics keep as many guys out as expected tonight, Avery Bradley may be the team's best scoring option among the starters. It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make when more attention is paid to him offensively, and he doesn't have the benefit of Rajon Rondo at the point or Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the floor creating space for him to work.

WHAT WE SAW: Avery Bradley continues to make a last-minute dash for the league's Most Improved award, showing that he can indeed deliver offensively without the usual set of Hall of Famers or all-stars around him. He scored a career-high 28 points, his third game with 20 or more points in Boston's last four. "Avery played a terrific game in a lot of areas that really helped us tonight," said C's coach Doc Rivers.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Sasha Pavlovic vs. Joe Johnson: This matchup will be decided in the first quarter most likely. If Pavlovic can come out and hit a couple shots early, his defense will actually get better Johnson. It's weird, I know. No one is under any disillusions that Pavlovic is going to shut Johnson down. But if he can keep him from being an efficient scorer, the C's will have a much better chance at victory.

WHAT WE SAW: Joe Johnson, arguably the best crab-dribbler in the NBA, was much, much, much too much for Pavlovic to handle. Pavlovic didn't take a single shot until the second quarter. By that point, Johnson was well on his way to a game-high 30 points - 23 of which came in the first half. Pavlovic finished with four points on 2-for-3 shooting.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Keyon Dooling is expected to get the start tonight, which should take some of the ball-handling pressure off Bradley. Dooling needs to be more than just a facilitator. He needs to provide the Celtics with a bit of scoring, something he has not done much of this season. He's averaging a career-low 3.5 points per game this season and has not reached double figures scoring since scoring 10 points at New Orleans on Dec. 28.

WHAT WE SAW: Dooling was very aggressive offensively in the first half, scoring 10 of his season-high 17 points. Just as impressive was how efficient he was, connecting on seven of his 10 shots from the field along with racking up three assists without a single turnover.

STAT TO TRACK: Both Boston and Atlanta rank among the bottom-10 in the NBA in rebounds per game, so winning the battle on the boards will be huge. The C's rank dead-last with 38.8 per game while the Hawks are No. 23 with 41.3 per game. In the two previous games, both Celtics wins, the C's have averaged winning the boards by six per game.

WHAT WE SAW: The Hawks played without center Zaza Pachulia, but it didn't matter on this night. Atlanta was plus-8 on the boards against Boston which more than anything else, prevented the C's from getting out and running as much as they would have liked. Despite coming up short on the boards, Boston still managed to tally more second-chance points (14) than the Hawks (12) in addition to outscoring Atlanta in the paint, 44-36.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

MORE:

After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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