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Taking in a striking NFL landscape

With the NBA lockout threatening to swallow up the entire 2011-12 season – and slam shut the closing window on the Celtics’ chances at one final title run – it seems like a good time to relish the presence of football, and what has thus far been a riveting 2011 campaign. Consider the following:

• For the first time since the late 90s, the two undisputed best teams in the league (Packers, 49ers) reside in the NFC.

• Three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady, Rodgers) are on pace to annihilate Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards.

• In this new era of gaudy air attacks enabled by concussion-related rules in place that essentially force defenses to play with one arm tied behind their backs, Tim Tebow is 3-1 as an NFL starter while running an offense that bears more resemblance to Navy’s than any other NFL team.

• A neck injury has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Peyton Manning is the most important/valuable/indispensable player/coordinator/on-field general to his team in the history of the sport.

Typically, by mid-November all the chatter is geared toward which squads are contenders and which are bound to regress to the mean. That’s because roughly half of the teams are at or above .500 around Thanksgiving, but in reality at least bradybelichickone-third of those “playoff-hopefuls” are nominally such, and nothing more (aka the pretenders).

These days, however, there are a pair of juicier subplots that need to be investigated in more detail before the annual playoff-push commences.

Reports of Patriots’ demise premature … again

By tuning up the Jets on Sunday night, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady notched win No. 117 together, passing the Don Shula/Dan Marino tandem for first on the all-time victories list. The caveat being they did it in 35 fewer games.

So how does this relate to the here and now? First, it’s officially silly to write off the Patriots in the regular season. Period. Naysayers, naturally, have free rein to trash New England for its recent playoff inadequacies. That hate is founded for a team that is a combined 41-16 (.719) in the regular season since its last postseason win. Second, to not give New England the benefit of the doubt in a division it has owned each of the last seven years Tom Brady has been on the field is shortsighted.

Now, considering the cupcake schedule the Patriots are staring at over the stretch run, it’s going to be tough to legitimately appraise what looks like, at worst, a 12-4 team. The real answers won’t come until January. But teams start to develop patterns by this time of the year, which slowly evolve into identities.

As opposed to recent New England outfits – which, let’s face it, were gifted with talent but plagued by a soft underbelly – this squad has a certain spunk to it. The next-hand-on-deck mentality that was the hallmark of the title teams has made a cameo, most notably on Sunday night, when the Patriots trotted out of a defensive backfield that had even the omniscient Al Michaels grasping at straws in pursuit of arcane nuggets. Alas, even Google only knows so much about the Sterling Moores, Antwaun Moldens and Niko Koutouvides of the world.

Lest we forget, the Patriots of yesteryear were perennial long shots and afterthoughts – rife with castoffs and perceived nobodies – but they embodied the intellect, discipline and toughness of their pair of leaders, which permeated through the ranks, 1-through-53.

Preparation and toughness, more than anything else, wins in January. And while the Patriots have already lost more games than all of last regular season, it’s been their resiliency that has kept them hanging around until the bitter end of tilts against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants that they had no business winning (something that can’t be said of Jets 28, Patriots 14; and Browns 34, Patriots 14).

aaron-rodgersThe Packers are frighteningly good

Not exactly a newsflash, I know. But for those counting at home, Green Bay has not lost since dropping a 31-27 affair in New England last December … with Matt Flynn at quarterback. Since then, it’s been two wins to close out the 2010 campaign, four more en route to a world championship, and nine straight to begin the title defense.

Between the 15-game win streak, the otherworldly play of Aaron Rodgers and the 2007 Patriots still fresh in everyone’s memories, it’s difficult not to at least start thinking about the possibility …

Here’s my two cents: With a Thanksgiving game in Detroit and a trip to the East Coast 10 days later to face a Giants squad that is well-constructed to give the prolific Packers’ offense fits and also capable of putting up its fair share of points (ie the formula for beating Green Bay), I’m not ready to say the 2011 Packers are 16-0 in the making.

Though this is without a doubt the fiercest squad since the ’07 Patriots, and right there with the ’01 Rams as a team you must absolutely conjure up the perfect game plan for – and execute flawlessly – to even have a chance of prevailing.

In addition to the seemingly limitless explosive offensive potential of Rodgers and Co., the much-maligned Packers defense is a good deal better than it gets credit for. When Clay Matthews is flying off the edge and forcing quarterbacks into accelerating their progressions, and when Green Bay’s All-Pro caliber corners are playing off one another and in cohesion – as opposed to bickering among themselves – that D is a unit to be reckoned with (see: Packers 45, Vikings 7)

That said, Green Bay still has the feel of a 15-1 team with the potential to go 18-1 (the right way).

Celtics-Heat: The Main Course

There’s a reason the Celtics and Heat played on Opening Night, then again nine days later, and finally in Game No. 80. As soon as LeBron James packed up his talents and bounced out of Cleveland, the league knew this day was coming. So it charged up the hype-o-meter early, maxed out the hoopla and then let the teams go their separate ways in preparation for an inevitable May showdown.

Well, it is finally upon us. The Heat are favorites. No surprise there. The Heat Index is boiling.

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As for the Celtics, they’re merely stewing. For a team that has manned the door of the Eastern Conference for three years and counting, this will be the third time in the last four series that they’re being expected to kindly arrange their things in preparation for an early summer. James – either boldly or coldly – referring to them as “lunch” is more than likely tacked on a bulletin board somewhere in their Waltham, Mass., practice facility.

On one hand, there’s no reason LeBron shouldn’t be oozing confidence. Miami finished the regular season on a 12-2 run, waxed Boston in the teams’ final meeting to secure the No. 2 seed, and chewed up the young and feisty 76ers – aka “breakfast” – in five games in Round 1.

Because of that, a good deal has been made recently of how Miami has started to “get it,” which is part of the reason most Las Vegas sportsbooks list the Celtics as nearly 2-to-1 underdogs in the series. What, exactly, that means has this scribe mystified, though.

The Heat’s blueprint for each of its 58 wins in the regular season was uniform: Ride the two – or sometimes three – best players on the court to victory, with a smattering of supplemental support. Miami often led big and continued to pour it on, as evidenced by their NBA-best plus-7.5 point differential.

Not one time did the Heat win a game in which it was losing or tied with less than 10 seconds remaining. Furthermore, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were a combined 1-for-18 from the field in those scenarios. The one make came courtesy of James on Nov. 20 at Memphis, when he tied the game on a breakaway dunk with 5.5 seconds remaining. Rudy Gay then proceeded to un-tie it moments later.

But wait, proponents of the Heat “getting it” must be shouting, things have changed in the playoffs! Actually, they haven’t.

Not once in Miami’s four wins over Philly were they tied or trailing in the last three minutes of the game, let alone the final 10 seconds. Yet in their sole defeat, they watched a six-point lead with 1:35 remaining evaporate, culminating with James getting swatted by Elton Brand on an attempted game-tying layup with three ticks left. (For those scoring at home, make that 1-for-19.)

Success in the playoffs – when talent gaps are reduced and games are tight – hinges on two things: Late-game coaching and execution. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has proven incapable of drawing up crunch-time plays for his team (heck, he can’t even settle on which of his two stars should have the ball). And the game of improv that James and Wade have engaged in in such scenarios has failed to cover up the deficiencies of their coach.

Their late-game follies have simply underscored the importance of knowing what you want to do at the end of a game, and adding the necessary on-the-spot wrinkles to be successful on a consistent basis. It’s no secret Paul Pierce is going to have the ball in his hands at the top of the key, either isolating a weaker defender or waiting for a high pick from Kevin Garnett, on any Boston possession inside of two minutes. Or that Ray Allen will be run off a series of screens. Or a combination of the two. Great teams have their bread and butter, and dare the opposition to out-execute them.

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The Celtics have proven beyond any reasonable doubt throughout their run that they are the gold standard in terms of late-game execution, while Doc Rivers has established himself as the maestro of head honchos when it comes to putting his team in a position to prevail.

In Games 1 and 2 against the Knicks in the first round, the Celtics were outplayed for the vast majority of both contests but pulled them out on the strength of their discipline and execution in the waning seconds of each game.

Naturally, they can’t play like zombies for 46 minutes against the Heat and expect to bail themselves out late, because they will have already been run out of the building. For Miami to win the series, they will have to do just that: Run the Celtics ragged.

However, that means they must find an answer for a rejuvenated Rajon Rondo, who can run faster with the ball than anyone on the court. If Mike Bibby struggles to the degree that LeBron is forced to take it upon himself to hold Rondo – a plausible scenario – the game of whack-a-Celtic will officially commence, as Miami’s defense of Pierce will be reassigned to James Jones.

The Celtics have a lot going for them – a distinct advantage at point guard and a deeper and more experienced bench, first and foremost – but the difference in this series boils down to the systemic difference between the teams: The Heat are built to blow teams out and the Celtics are built to win close games.

LeBron may be anticipating lunch, but for the third time in four years, the main course of his postseason will be Boston in Round 2.

Celtics in 6.

Déjà vu for the Celtics?

It was nearly a year to the day that I took to my keyboard and made a case for the middling Celtics as title contenders. Despite their head-scratching inconsistency (put mildly) over the final four months of the 2010 season, I had refused to write them off.

Contrary to the product they had put on the hardwood throughout a 27-27 finish, I could not believe the championship swagger and enduring will that had been the driving force behind all their successes since the Big Three came together had simply vanished into thin air. There was a monster lurking just beneath the on-the-surface mediocrity of that team, and it was waiting for the charged atmosphere and bright lights of the playoffs to unleash itself.

Lo and behold – and to the chagrin of a few so-called titans of the East – the Celtics showed their face in the playoffs, charging all the way to LA in June, with two chances to hang their second banner in three years. Then Kendrick Perkins tore his knee apart in Game 6 and the team ran out of gas with six minutes left in Game 7.

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The offseason arrived suddenly and painfully, and the ball entered the court of Danny Ainge, who had to decide if he was going to blow up the Big Three – the “three-year window” had expired, after all. Ray Allen was in a walk year and Paul Pierce exercised his opt-out clause soon after the Finals, which made him a free agent.

With a lockout looming after the 2011 season, Ainge had the option to begin the rebuilding around Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett right then and there, or reload the chamber for one last run. His decision was loud and clear. Over the following weeks and months, he dizzied us all with an array of moves that included re-upping Allen, Pierce, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson while bringing aboard Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West.

There was to be one last rodeo for this crew, after all, for a group whose rallying cry of never having lost a playoff series with its starting five intact still held true.

With Perkins quite literally putting the Finals loss on his own two shoulders (or one busted right knee), the big man – drawing further inspiration from Wes Welker, who made a swift comeback from the same devastating injury – embarked on a furious and painstaking rehab process that stretched through the first chunk of the new season.

To a layman following the Celtics during that time, it would have been understandable to arrive at the conclusion that the team was taking on the form of a juggernaut. Ainge, obviously, is no layman. On the contrary, he’s a basketball tactician with a business acumen. And while what he saw was indeed an outfit head and shoulders above the field – Shaq’s immediate chemistry with the Core Four had the team humming along to a 23-4 start – he also saw one glaring weakness: A lack of depth on the perimeter (read: Miami Heat, playoffs). Which precipitated the blindsiding deal that sent Perkins and Robinson to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.

(Yes, a case can be made that the one player Ainge chose not to bring back last year, Tony Allen, was the first domino that ultimately culminated with the Perkins trade. In reality, though, it was Daniels’ season-ending injury that forced his hand, as the team was essentially left with nobody behind Pierce and Allen to defend Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.)

In any event, the trade tore the core apart, both literally and psychologically. Basketball teams talk about being families, brothers etc. all the time, but in reality – and in a best-case scenario – they are friends off the court who work well together on it in pursuit of a common goal. The Celtics are/were the exception to the rule. From the Rome trip to Ubuntu to their regular blowouts and reconciliations that are commonplace occurrences in families but typically fracturing catastrophes on pro sports teams, the Celtics were different.

Professional athletes are unique in that they have an ability to compartmentalize their emotions, but this team was actually too close, if that makes sense. The loss of Perkins sent them into a grieving state, the ripple effects of which were felt for weeks after the trade. It’s no coincidence that Rajon Rondo slipped into an abyss not long after his best friend departed.

Add to that Doc Rivers’ formidable task of integrating new components on the fly and you have the ingredients of a 10-11 limp to the finish line and tumble from first place in the East to the No. 3 seed.

So, the question now is can they do it all over again, can they flip that switch and finish the job that eluded them at Staples Center 10 months ago? Can they once again use the playoffs as a focusing mechanism that syncs them back up and fixated on the next 16 wins they must have?

There were two immediate conclusions I drew in the aftermath of the trade:

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1) Ainge essentially double-downed on Shaq by moving Perkins. He had seen all he needed over the first third of the season to be convinced that a healthy Shaq made Perkins expendable, and thus gave him the flexibility to shore up what he believed to be the team’s Achilles heel. However, a healthy Shaq is not what the team has had.

2) The only way the Celtics would truly be able to get over the loss of Perkins would be to actively visualize and even prepare for the very real eventuality that the only way they’ll be hanging Banner No. 18 come June is by going through Perkins.

On the latter conclusion, it’s impossible to know if they’ve come to grips with the fact that they may have to battle Oklahoma City with a championship on the line and Perkins standing in the way.

On the former, it’s pretty simple. As presently constructed, the Celtics are in the best possible shape to navigate Rounds 1 and 2. Both the Knicks and Heat are perimeter-heavy teams with no legitimate post threats, which means Shaq will be a tangential component. Having the 6-9 Green will enable Rivers to go small in crunch time (à la 2008, when James Posey was around) with a lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Green and Garnett. That five is ideally equipped to deal with the Chauncey Billups-Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire and Wade-James-Chris Bosh trios.

Beyond that, the team’s fate will rest on the legs of a 39-year-old center. The Bulls will be waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals, and there’s simply no way the Celtics can expect to beat them four times with Jermaine O’Neal and Krstic flanking Garnett in the paint. Ditto for the Lakers or Thunder in the Finals.

Ainge has made no secret that parting with Perkins was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. But he did it, and in doing so he assumed the reins of the season and invited the ire of a rabid fan base. Whatever the outcome, it’s on Danny Ainge. His legacy in Boston, along with the legacies of a handful of future Hall of Famers, hangs in the balance.