Patriots

Celtics-Nuggets review: What we saw

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Celtics-Nuggets review: What we saw

DENVER Get beat by a team that makes a ton of shots. Get beat by a team that simply did a better job at executing.

But to get beat by a team that simply played harder, is a tough pill to swallow.

The Boston Celtics have no choice but to choke on that one, as the Denver Nuggets hung on for a 98-91 win.

"We just got out-worked tonight," said Boston's Paul Pierce. "It was nothing about game planning or Xs and Os. It was just they out-worked us. I hate for it to even come out my mouth. For me to come in here and say that, what happened tonight, it hurts me to say that."

Seeing how well the Celtics played in the second half, and woeful in the first, stings pretty bad as well.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers looks back at the team's win at Golden State, as being the precipitant of the team's struggles lately that have produced back-to-back losses. "We relaxed against Golden State, and we won the game," Rivers said. "And then we thought we could come out and do it again against Sacramento, and we got our butt kicked."

Much of the same was on display in the first half as Boston showed very few signs of being the aggressor that we've seen of late from them, especially defensively.

Effort was certainly one of the keys in the loss. But there were other factors at play, some of which were highlighted prior to the game. Here's a look at how those potential factors actually played out as the C's dropped their second in a row while the Nuggets (25-20) are in the midst of a nine-game home stand.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR - Boston has a tendency to ease their way into games, which can't happen tonight. While the Nuggets rank among the NBA's top 10 in points scored in the first quarter (25.4), they give up a ton of early points as well. Teams are averaging 26.1 points against Denver in the first quarter of games which ranks 28th in the NBA.

WHAT WE SAW: Denver and its high-powered offense didn't waste much time getting the Celtics to play their brand of basketball. They shot a higher percentage and crushed the C's on the boards which both factored in the Nuggets leading 29-22 after the first quarter.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Paul Pierce vs. Kenneith Faried: Pierce should win this battle rather convincingly, but the C's have to be on guard for not looking for Pierce too much so that it disrupts the flow offensively and leads to what Doc Rivers refers to at times, as the "ball sticking" on one side of the floor or in the hands of one particular player. Faried is a high-energy guy who seems to continue to get better with more experience. The 22-year-old rookie has started 17 games this season after not playing (coaches decision) in a number of games in January.

WHAT WE SAW: Pierce usually struggles in the Mile High City, but had a respectable game shooting the ball (22 points, 8-for-17 from the field) despite being in foul trouble down the stretch and eventually fouling out. As for Faried, his energy and just flat-out hustle was too much for most of the night for Boston to handle. He finished with 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds which included a rebound in the fourth in which Pierce picked up his sixth and final foul of the night.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Anytime the Celtics have a back-to-back situation and minutes become a concern, you always have to wonder how will it impact Kevin Garnett. However, because of the lopsided loss at Sacramento on Friday night, Garnett should not be too fatigued considering he was the only starter to play less than 30 minutes in the loss.

WHAT WE SAW: Garnett showed no signs of fatigue, finishing with 22 points nine rebounds and five assists. Although disappointed with the loss, Garnett reached yet another milestone. He is the only player in NBA history with more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists and 1,500 steals. "To be honest, I'm not a stat guy," Garnett said. "But anytime you make accomplishments in the league, milestones, you gotta be grateful." For his career, Garnett has 23,945 points, 13,157 rebounds, 5,004 assists and 1,648 steals.

STAT TO TRACK: With lots of points come lots of mistakes by Denver. The Nuggets average 15.6 turnovers per game which ranks 27th in the NBA. Ironically, the Celtics average 15.6 forced turnovers per game which ranks sixth in the NBA. But a normal night in terms of forced turnovers by Boston, probably won't be enough for the win. The C's need to have another one of those nights in which they force 20 or so turnovers which should then lead to a few easy baskets in transition.

WHAT WE SAW: Boston forced the Nuggets into turning the ball over 22 times which led to 20 points scored. But that could not mask how poorly Boston's defense played in the first half, which set the tone for the C's to be outscored 48-40 on points in the paint, 20-4 on second-chance points and 21-6 in fast-break points - the kind of trifecta that put the Celtics in a hole that they could never fully dig their way out of all game.

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.

MORE - Bortles earning respect from teammates, Patriots

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