Celtics

Saltalamacchia more confident, ready for 2012

642754.jpg

Saltalamacchia more confident, ready for 2012

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Last spring, Jarrod Salatalamacchia represented the Great Unknown for the Red Sox.

The club saw him as the likely No. 1 catcher, with veteran Jason Varitek transitioning to the backup role, but was unsure of exactly what it could expect from Saltalamacchia, who hadn't handled the workload or the responsibility before.

A year later, Saltalamacchia is more established and there's little doubt about his status.

"It seems to me he's a player who's trying to step right into his own," said manager Bobby Valentine. "It feels like this is his time. He's shown good physical skills in his catching and his
batting practice is good. He's trying to take a leadership role with the pitchers.

"We've had a lot of communications sessions. When I've gotten to those sessions, he's applying himself. (Bullpen coach and catching instructor) Gary Tuck likes him a lot."

Saltalamacchia survived a brutal April that saw him hit just .216, strike out nearly once every three at-bats and allow opposing baserunners to run at will. But the Red Sox stuck by him.

"It meant a lot," Saltalamacchia said. "It meant they do have that confidence in me, which is something in the past that I lacked. I got my confidence where it needed to be."

The team's patience paid off. For the middle four months of the season, Saltalamacchia compiled an .838 OPS, among the leaders in the position.

Later, Saltalamacchia also endured a rough final month, when he might have physically worn down and begun to press as the team began its 7-20 nosedive, playing itself out of a post-season spot.

"I saw we were struggling," he said, "and I thought maybe we needed that one big hit to get us back on track or that one big home run. Maybe I tried too hard. It was September. Last year was a huge learning experience for all of us, so we'll learn from that and get better."

With Varitek apparently retired, the Sox signed Kelly Shoppach as his backup. Valentine is unsure how he'll split the playing time between the two, but Saltalamacchia is unquestionably the starter.

In his second full season as the top receiver, Saltalamacchia knows there's still plenty of room for improvement.

"I'd like to be a little more consistent at the plate," he said. "Cut down strikeouts, try to put the ball in play, give our team best chance possible and just do whatever I can that game. I want to go home every night with a 'W.'"

Ryan Lavarnway, who started the final two games of the season as the team gasped for a win, will probably begin the year at Triple A.

Asked if he could envision a setup under which the Sox carried all three catchers, Valentine hinted that was a longshot.

"I haven't considered it," he said. "The American League affords you the opportunity to bring that extra pitcher and right now I'm thinking about carrying that person. I would think that a third catcher would have to be someone who plays other positions pretty well."

WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

stream-celtics-mavs.jpg

WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Get it done. No excuses.
 
That has been how the Boston Celtics have played most of this season.
 
And if there’s one Celtics player who embodies that on this team, it’s Marcus Smart.
 
The fourth-year guard has struggled all season with his shot-making, but when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter you can count on Smart to be on the floor.

THE WINNING STREAK

He has been among the many reasons Boston has won 15 in a row, which is the fifth-longest winning streak in franchise history.
 
And Smart will be among the Celtics looking to keep it going tonight against the Dallas Mavericks.
 
Most likely, Smart will make an impact with his defense, which is among the best in the NBA.

How good?
 
Smart has a defensive rating of 93.4 (points allowed per 100 possessions) which is tops among all guards in the NBA, and ranks third among all players who have played in at least 10 games this season.
 
But in the 110-99 win over the Hawks, Smart knocked down a couple of 3-pointers which was a big deal considering how mightily he has struggled shooting the ball this season.
 
Smart is shooting 27.3 percent from the field as well as from 3-point range – both career lows.
 
However, he’s also averaging career highs in assists (4.5) and rebounds (5.1) this season.
 
And while he certainly doesn’t appear to be affected by the shooting struggles, he acknowledges that it is something that he can’t help but think about from time to time.
 
“It does affect you, especially if you’ve been working (on shooting) all summer,” Smart said. “At the same time, I don’t take as many shots. But like I said, we got other guys who are playing well. My job is to get them the ball and do whatever I can, go back down the floor, play defense and get the ball again.”

In Boston’s win over Atlanta, Smart spent a good amount of time defending Marco Belinelli who had four points on 2-for-10 shooting compared to 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting when these two teams met earlier this month.
 
Coach Brad Stevens pointed to the job Smart did on Belinelli, in addition to the clutch offensive rebound he was able to snag and quickly put back up and in that gave Boston a 103-95 game with about two minutes to play.
 
“He was really good,” Stevens said.
 
The same could be said for most of the Celtics of late.
 
Kyrie Irving is coming off his most efficient game of the season, tallying 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the field. Jayson Tatum had a rough start, but he came on strong as well with 14 points – all coming in the second half.
 
But the backbone of Boston’s success lies in what they’re able to get done defensively.
 
So far, Boston’s defense has been as strong as we’ve seen this early, in quite some time.
 
Boston, which has a league-best defensive rating of 95.9, has length, savvy and an overall total buy-in by the players on what Brad Stevens is looking for, from them.
 
Meanwhile, the Mavericks (3-14) are coming off their most impressive victory this season, a 111-79 win over Milwaukee.  Dennis Smith Jr. has been among the more talented rookies this season. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Dallas is indeed in a transition period where longtime superstar Dirk Nowitzki (10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) is gradually passing the torch to his younger teammates like Harrison Barnes (18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds) and Smith Jr.
 
Much like the Hawks game, the Celtics must approach this game with a focus on the opponent and not their record.
 
Because the Celtics are no longer just a good team on the schedule. They are a measuring stick for most to see how they stack up against the league’s best.
 
And the Celtics understand how their success has changed how teams see them.
 
“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE