Celtics

Young Pats secondary believes in bright future

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Young Pats secondary believes in bright future

INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Giants' stable of receivers is imposing: Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham.

"Pick your poison," said safety Sterling Moore. He and the rest of the Patriots secondary knew how tough the assignment was; they haven't intimidated anyone this season.

Beleagured. Maligned. They've been called every pretty word for "awful" that's in the book. Some new words might be invented in consideration of The Manningham Catch.

Eli Manning started New York's final drive of the game at his own 12. The Patriots were up 17-15 and just under four minutes from Super Bowl victory. They attacked playing cover-2. Moore, on Mario Manningham, briefly got his hands on the Giants receiver. Patrick Chung was over the top.

Manningham made the catch. He toed the sideline for 38 yards and triple-jumped New York to the 50.

"When you lose a game like this, especially a close game, it's always, 'I could have gotten this play back, I could have gotten that play back; maybe it would have made a difference," said cornerback Kyle Arrington.

Then he caught himself.

"Everybody left it out on the field -- I'm not saying everybody didn't leave it out on the field. But you just try to recap, as a player, maybe plays you could have made that would have been a difference in the game."

Forcing Manning and his target into an incomplete would have made a difference.

But losing Super Bowl XLVI doesn't just rest on the boys in the back. The throw was perfectly placed; Manningham's catch was spectacularly athletic.

Safety James Ihedigbo remembers the unit's effort with stubborn pride.

"I don't think there's one play out there that beat us," he said, chin set and straight. "We played a great game on defense. It was one of those championship games, it was a game that was going to be a slugfest and they made the key plays at the end."

Sterling Moore, hero of the AFC Championship for breaking up Baltimore's go-ahead touchdown try, made some impressive plays throughout.

"He was great," Arrington smiled. "Especially on third down. He came up big for us. He got multiple stops for us and he's only going to get better."

In the second quarter, Moore ruined a third-and-10 Giants bid by swatting a deep-ball catch away from Manningham. He came through on another third-and-10 in the next frame. Moore read Manningham's route perfectly and held the receiver to five yards.

His teammates called him inspiring; they had moments of their own. Chung delivered a helmet-rattling hit to disrupt a sure-catch by Nicks. Arrington limited Cruz to 25 yards on four catches.

"We've been through a lot of things: injuries, people talking, saying whatever they're saying," said Chung. "But we fought back, we fought hard, we got to the Big Show. We performed, we played a good game. It just comes down to the end."

Sunday's end was a sad one.

The Patriots secondary, after whatever analysis they could afford, could only conclude they failed. But theirs is not a hopeless case. Arrington and the others understand their youth. It gives them hope.

"Our future is bright. Positive," he said after a pause. "Give us another year to gel, be more cohesive as a unit. We'll come together this offseason."

It's something. On this night, it has to be everything.

WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Hawks

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

- Game preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C's defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“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.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”