Patriots

Celtics-Heat preview: What to look for

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Celtics-Heat preview: What to look for

MIAMI Regardless of the team, the game plan for defending the Miami Heat begins and ends with LeBron James.

The game itself will determine which Boston Celtics player has to deal with him down the stretch.

But at the game's onset, Brandon Bass will likely be the one to draw that assignment.

"Being that he's 6-8, 6-9 he can basically do it all," Bass told CSNNE.com. "He's quick, he's explosive. He's a tough cover, man."

In addition to Bass, the C's will also use Jeff Green at times to guard James.

"You have to try and make him work both ends of the floor," Green told CSNNE.com recently. "But it doesn't matter what you do. He's a handful for anybody to deal with. He's the league MVP. That speaks for itself."

Dealing with James will be one of the many keys in determining whether the Boston Celtics can knock off the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat in the season opener for both teams.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Injuries forced Boston to go with small lineups more than they would have liked last season. Now, it's being done out of necessity. Even though Boston has the kind of size to go with more traditional lineups, their approach - and most of the NBA for that matter - is to go with your three best frontcourt players and not necessarily your top two forwards and a center. Boston's resurgence after the All-Star break was fueled in part by Kevin Garnett spending more time at center. And the Heat's title run a year ago was aided during the playoffs by head coach Erik Spoelstra's decision to put Chris Bosh - a power forward in the same mold as Garnet - at center.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo vs. Ray Allen: It's unlikely they will be matched up against each other tonight, but the friction that developed between them that factored in Allen's decision to leave Boston, makes any chance they are on the floor at the same time a must-see moment.

PLAYER TO WATCH: It has been an emotional year for Jeff Green who will play in his first regular season game in more than a year. His ability to continue showcasing the skills he displayed in the preseason can have a major impact on the outcome from tonight's game.

STAT TO TRACK: Balancing the highs of getting championship rings with the level-headed demeanor needed to win a game, will be a challenge for the Miami Heat tonight. If recent history is any kind of indicator, the odds are stacked in Miami's favor. Since 2000, teams that win NBA championships are 9-3 in the first game of the following season. Among those wins was a 95-90 win by the C's over a Cleveland team that was led by current Heat star LeBron James. Of the three losses, Miami was involved two of them. The first came in 2006 after they won the franchise's first championship and were blown out by the Chicago Bulls. The second time was last season when they opened at then-defending champion Dallas and came away with the win.

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

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Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

FOXBORO -- Are we giving the Jaguars defense too much credit?

The numbers, on the surface, paint Jacksonville's defense as one of the best the NFL has seen in years. They finished the season as the league's top passing defense in terms of yards allowed, and they were second when it came to points allowed, total yards and sacks.

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Then there are the postseason awards that have been bestowed upon their defensive regulars. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have all been named Pro Bowlers. Ramsey and Campbell are First-Team All-Pros, while Bouye and Telvin Smith are Second-Teamers. Campbell is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. 

So why, then, is there this lingering feeling that the Jaguars defense isn't all it's cracked up to be? They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to heave his way to 42 points in the Divisional Round. In Week 16, they gave up 44 to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Hell, Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals put up 27 and beat them in Week 12. 

Those results don't exactly scream "all-time defense." So what is Jacksonville? Overrated? Properly rated? 

One thing is for certain: The Jags played an easy schedule. The combined winning percentage of their opponents in 2017 was a league-low 44 percent. And when it comes to the defense in particular, they had the second-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It didn't hurt that they were able to play the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, the Texans before Deshaun Watson became a star and after he got hurt, and the NFL's No. 23-ranked Titans offense. Twice. Each. They also got the Ravens (No. 27 offense), Jets (No. 28), Bengals (No. 32), Browns (No. 24) and Cardinals (No. 22). Add it all up and that's nine games -- more than half their schedule -- against bottom-third NFL offenses. Two more games came against a Houston offense that featured starting quarterbacks Tom Savage and TJ Yates. 

When you dig into the analytics it's harder to find ways to poke holes in Jacksonville's credibility as a top-tier defensive unit. Pro Football Focus grades the Jags as their No. 1 defense, and it's really not close. Football Outsiders calls them their No. 1 defense in terms of DVOA. Even when you factor in some of its recent performances -- like letdowns versus the Steelers and Niners -- Jacksonville is still the league's No. 4 defense in weighted DVOA, which is adjusted so that games that were played earlier in the season are gradually less important. 

At the same time, the analytics can be occasionally unkind to the Jaguars. Football Outsiders has them ranked as one of the most inconsistent defenses in the league. According to their variance statistic, Jacksonville is the fourth most inconsistent defense in football. A deeper dive into the numbers has also located an apparent soft underbelly of the Jaguars defense. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars are dominant against three-receiver sets -- No. 1 in the league, in fact -- but they're the No. 23 defense in the NFL when it comes to defending personnel groupings that feature one or two wide receivers. That would explain, in part, why the Titans (who Sharp rated as the least-likely team to employ three-receiver sets this season) and Niners (who went with more "21" and "12" personnel looks late in the season) were able to beat the Jaguars. 

The most difficult argument against the legitimacy of the Jaguars' defensive rankings is the talent they put on the field on a weekly basis. Their roster, defensively at least, stacks up with some of the most imposing defensive units in recent memory. The Seahawks had four First and Second-Team All-Pros on their defense in 2014. The Broncos defense had five Pro Bowlers in 2015. The Jaguars have five players who were named either All-Pros or Pro Bowlers or both this year, and they probably should've had a sixth in pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and a league-best six forced fumbles. 

The verdict? The Jaguars defense is loaded with blue-chip players. It will be the best unit the Patriots offense has seen this year. But they have been inconsistent, they have holes -- which we touched upon in this week's Quick Slants the Podcast with Jerod Mayo -- and there remains the very real possibility that Tom Brady and his teammates will light up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard on Sunday. 

Now, is Brady healthy? Good question. Will he have enough time to throw? We'll see. But if the answer to both of those questions is "yes" (or "enough"), then the Patriots should be headed to Minnesota. This Jaguars defense is very good, but it's far from inpenetrable.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: Tom Brady injures right hand during practice

0:41 - Tom Brady injured his right hand during practice on Wednesday. Tom Curran, Albert Breer, Michael Holley, and Tom Giles discuss how this injury could impact Brady’s ability to throw against the Jaguars on Sunday.

6:06 - Isaiah Thomas has asked the Celtics to cancel his video tribute on Paul Pierce Night, and Pierce said that Thomas was trying to ‘punk’ Danny Ainge into a tribute video. Michael Holley, Kyle Draper, and Tom Giles debate if Isaiah Thomas or Paul Pierce is in the wrong.

11:19 - Albert Breer discusses how much credit Tom Coughlin deserves for the Jaguars great season and if Coughlin’s success against the Patriots and Bill Belichick will come into play on Sunday.

15:37 - Joe Haggerty joins BST from the TD Garden to break down the Bruins win over the Canadiens and Claude Julien’s return to Boston.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE