Patriots

What we saw: Celtics-Hawks preview review

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What we saw: Celtics-Hawks preview review

BOSTON The Boston Celtics are never going to be a dominant rebounding team this season. But they continue to make progress, as was the case in their 88-86 overtime win against Atlanta. Boston wound up with a season-high 56 rebounds, which is impressive. The fact that they only allowed the Hawks 39 -- a 17 rebound difference -- was remarkable.

"Well, you're not going to see it a whole bunch, but we'll take it," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "We rebounded very well."

Brandon Bass was among the C's to have a big night on the boards, finishing with 10 rebounds to go along with 21 points.

"We needed a night like that to build on," he said. "We've been struggling on the boards; that's an area we wanted to improve on. I just hope we can keep it going."

Boston's board work was a major reason for the C's winning their fourth straight game. Here we'll review other keys to the C's win identified prior to tip-off, and how those factors played out.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Regardless of whether the Celtics played last night, the Hawks are going to come out looking to run. It makes sense when you consider they are the younger team, and getting out in transition has been one of their best traits all season. Atlanta averages 15.8 fast-break points this season (No. 8 in the NBA), a figure that will be challenged by a Celtics defense that's giving up just 12 fast-break points per game which ranks sixth in the NBA.

WHAT WE SAW: Atlanta had some success early on getting out and running, but the C's kept them in check for most of the game. The Hawks finished the night with 12 fast-break points compared to 10 for the Celtics.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Avery Bradley vs. Joe Johnson: Once again Bradley will find himself matched up with a taller player at the shooting guard position. But what makes Johnson such a tough cover is his ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim, or pull up for jumpers. Give Bradley credit. He has managed to make some of the NBA's best (Dwyane Wade, for example) have off nights. He'll look to continue that trend against Johnson, one of the most efficient shooting guards in the NBA.

WHAT WE SAW: Bradley was one of several defenders on Johnson, who had just 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting. The C's defense was especially up for the challenge near the end of regulation when the Hawks made a point of trying to get Johnson to take the last shot. However, he was unable to because of the Celtics' aggressive double-team that forced him to give the ball up.

"That's why I really didn't want to run a pick-and-roll because I knew (Rajon) Rondo was going to jump out there and try and trap me to get the ball."

PLAYER TO WATCH: Atlanta's Josh Smith is a phenomenal talent except when he plays against Boston. In his lone game against the Celtics this season, he had 10 points on 5-for-20 shooting. He has faced the C's 24 times in his career, averaging 12.3 points per game. Of the teams he has played against 24 or more times, Smith's scoring, rebounding (6.7) and field goal percentage (.403), are worst against Boston than any other team.

WHAT WE SAW: Smith had one of his better games against Boston, scoring 20 points to go with 11 rebounds and five assists. But when the game mattered most, Smith failed to deliver. He failed to make a basket in the fourth quarter or overtime, which wound up being just a part of all that went wrong for the Hawks down the stretch.

STAT TO TRACK: Although both Boston and Atlanta have not been among the NBA's top scoring teams this season, both have ratcheted up their bucket-making skills of late. In the last three games by the C's, they are averaging 101.3 points per game which ranks 10th in the NBA during that span. For the season, Boston ranks No. 26. As for the Hawks, they have the 18th-best scoring team this season, but have averaged 112.3 points in the last three games which only trails Phoenix (112.7) during that same span.

WHAT WE SAW: After a fast start offensively by both teams, it became very much a defensive battle for the last three quarters. And in those type of games, the Celtics more often than not, come out ahead. Look no further than overtime, which featured a total of six points combined.

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.”

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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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