Balanced Attack Leads Celtics Past Jazz

The Boston Celtics played the Utah Jazz tonight. After enduring a grueling stretch of five games in seven days, the Celtics enjoyed three solid days off before having to take the court once again. The extra rest helped, as the Celtics simply trounced the Jazz, 105-86.

Offensively, the buzz words for tonight’s game were “balance” and “unselfishness.” All five of Boston’s starters scored in the double digits tonight, along with Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels from the bench. As a team, they shot better than 50% (53.2%). When you’re shooting like that, it’s easy to rack up the points. Not only that, but they passed as well as they shot. Already the league leader in assists per game, the Celtics recorded 30 assists tonight. One play in particular stood out for me as epitomizing the unselfishness of the C’s tonight. As the Celtics advanced the ball up court they executed a beautiful series of quick passes, moving from inside the paint to the perimeter over and over again. In and out, in and out. Every member of the starting five touched the ball during that possession, and it ended with a nice little layup to come away with two points. It was a gorgeous sequence to watch

Rajon Rondo especially had a strong game. He had a double-double tonight, scoring 14 and adding 11 assists. His assists were gorgeous, however, and they led to easy dunks for Kevin Garnett (18 points to lead all scorers) and Kevin Perkins, plus some easy threes for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Ever since the playoffs last year, Rajon Rondo has been playing at an entirely new level of basketball than what he was at before this. He deserves every penny of his new contract, and the idea of seeing him in green and black for the next few years gives me what the principal in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would call “a tingly feeling.”

Defensively, the Celtics were just as on as they were offensively. Not a week after getting torched by Phoenix from beyond the arc, the Celtics responded with the same stifling defense they’ve shown most of this season. They held the Jazz completely scoreless from behind the 3-point line, and with defense like that it’s easier to win games. They also forced 21 turnovers and converted them into 21 points, as opposed to their 15 which converted to 12.  It’s defense that wins championships, and this squad proved it has what it takes.

It’s fascinating for me to watch the Celtics bench this season. The age of the starting rotation (or at least the Big 3) means that they will have to play more minutes, especially early on in the season as Doc Rivers tries to stretch out his starters’ legs and keep them fresher for the playoffs. Luckily, the bench is playing exceptionally well. Rasheed Wallace could be a starter on most teams, and Marquis Daniels and Shelden Williams are proving themselves to be very competent both defensively and offensively. We have yet to see the fireworks from Eddie House that we’ve come to expect, but it’s still early in the season. He took off his headband during the 4th quarter tonight, and his next few shots went in. Perhaps it’s the start of a trend, both in fashion and in shooting.

Wakefield to Wear Red Sox for at Least 2 More Years

ESPN.com reported today that the Red Sox and knuckeballer Tim Wakefield have signed a two year deal worth $5 million over two years: $3.5 million for 2010 and $1.5 million for 2011. This was a good decision for both the Red Sox and Tim Wakefield.

How It Helps the Red Sox

Tim Wakefield has been a very good pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Up until very recently, he was a workhorse who could just eat up innings. He has proven himself to be a fairly reliable 4th or 5th pitcher in a starting rotation, and good starting pitching is hard to come by these days. This deal shores up one spot in their lineup and allows them to focus their attention on other players. It also was a kind gesture, showing loyalty to the pitcher who is currently third on the franchise all-time wins list. He needs just 13 to break the record, and this way he has two seasons to break it. Should he remain healthy (not likely given his recent history), he could probably do it in one season. The Red Sox also benefit from this because they get Wakefield cheaper than he would have otherwise been for the next two years. Let’s say they get the same out of him next year as they did this year: half a season, then injury. Well, at the very least the organization has saved $500,000 on the stats. Now, the trend of recent seasons of back injury is definitely troubling. But this lowers the hit they’ll take if injury happens again. And at $1.5 million in 2011, even half a season of decent production is getting your money’s worth. Basically, the Red Sox are getting a capable 4th-pitcher for less than they were already paying for him, plus they end up looking like a loyal franchise by giving their aging pitcher two more definite years instead of the perpetual maybe-one-year.

How It Helps Wakefield

Tim Wakefield gets security out of this deal, and at this age that’s a big deal. Each of his last few seasons have ended prematurely due to injury. Given that trend, there’s no guarantee the Red Sox would continue to pick up his option. Were it to happen again next year, in all likelihood they would part ways. So, given that he’s probably only pitching one more year on his old deal, he’s essentially making $1 million more for the same amount of years. 2011 becomes a bonus for him: if he’s healthy, he’s got a team he knows he’s signed to. If he’s sick of it, he can just retire and save the team $1.5 million for them to use elsewhere. Plus he gets two more years to try to become the all-time wins leader for the Red Sox, a record that he’s definitely wanted for awhile. He also gets two more shots at 200 wins, a figure that will cement his place among a higher echelon of pitchers than the group he is currently considered a part of.

All in all, this is an excellent deal for both the Sox and Tim Wakefield. It could potentially save the Red Sox $3 million if Wakefield remains healthy, and $1.5 million if he doesn’t (and retires after 2010). It provides stability and security to an aging pitcher who is close to several pitching milestones. And it makes the organization look loyal to one of the more beloved Red Sox players in recent history. I love the knuckleball, and I’m excited for two more years of it.

Patriots Sink Dolphins, 27-17

Today’s game against the AFC East division rival Miami Dolphins could not have started out more poorly. The Patriots received the ball at their own 27-yard line. They advanced the ball a few yards, but then Tom Brady, while trying to hit Randy Moss, threw an interception to Vontae Davis, Dolphins cornerback. On the ensuing Miami possession, a potential fumble that was returned for a TD was called back after review showed Dolphins’ quarterback Chad Henne had been in the act of throwing when he was hit. The Dolphins got the ball back and came away from the turnover possession with a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.

The Patriots did not panic however, and responded with a score of their own on their next possession. After a squib kick gave them good field possession to start things off, Brady tossed a 36-yard pass to Randy Moss, who leapt into the air, grabbed the ball with one hand, and came down with it at Miami’s 1-yard line. A Laurence Maroney run promptly gave the Patriots the lead back at 7-3. This Brady-Moss connection would play itself out over and over again this game, as Moss caught six passes for a total of 147 yards, plus a touchdown pass later in the game (which he helped create by giving a beautiful stiff-arm to the man covering him.

The rest of the quarter went uneventfully, as both teams traded possessions without scoring any points. The second quarter began with a Dolphins 3-and-out, which led to a Patriots field goal that made the score 10-3. It was during this drive that Tom Brady started heating up. All in all, he had an excellent day, going 25/37 with 332 yards, 1 touchdown pass, and 1 interception. Another player who had a solid day was Stephen Gostkowski, who went 4/4 on field goal attempts and booted several of his kickoffs for touchbacks, helping to neutralize Dolphins wide receiver and kickoff specialist Tedd Ginn Jr.

The dolphins used the second quarter to feature their wildcat offense, using Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams as their twin running backs. While this did not work all that well, they also featured the option play using Pat White at quarterback. He was able to rack up 45 of Miami’s 133 rushing yards via the option play, and it worked very effectively. In fact, it led to a Ricky Williams touchdown run. However, the Patriots responded with a solid drive, aided by two pass interference calls against Miami, and were able to come away from the half with another field goal that pushed their lead to 16-10. This drive featured the game debut of Wes Welker, who went on to have a solid day with 9 catches for 84 total yards.

The ‘Fins began the second half with a beautiful drive that ate up over 10 minutes of clock time. They picked up several key first downs on 3rd or 4th and short, and seemed to rely on Pat White for short yardage situations and Chad Henne for longer yardage situations. The possession ended with a fake wildcat play, with Ronnie Brown connecting for a touchdown pass. This gave the Dolphins a one-point lead, but the Patriots remained unfazed. In only 1:36 the Pats responded with a touchdown drive of their own, with Brady connecting with Moss for a 71-yard touchdown pass. Brady also hit Moss for the 2-point conversion that gave the Pats a 24-17 lead through three quarters.

The fourth quarter was marked by more of the same from both sides. The Patriots had several promising drives that stalled out around mid-field, but the Dolphins could not respond with any scores of their own. When the Patriots got the ball back a little more than midway through the quarter, Miami burned up all of its timeouts. With none left, they had no choice but to take a delay-of-game penalty on their next possession. This backed them up deep in their own territory, and they turned the ball over on downs. A fourth Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots a two-possession lead with only a minute to play, and the score held up through to the end.

Overall, New England played a very good game on both sides of the field. Offensively, Brady had a field day picking on the rookie cornerbacks of the Miami Dolphins. While they never really established a running game, what else is new with this team? And defensively I think they did an excellent job bending but not breaking in the face of Miami’s strong running game. All in all, it was a very complete effort on both sides of the field, backed by excellent special teams play, and the Patriots truly deserved the victory. Next week they play the Colts, which is always an exciting and challenging game for New England. I’m looking forward to it.

Wisconsin Rushes Past Indiana

Woohoo, 50th post! Seems like I just started this thing! Well, the Badgers continued the trend they showed last week in relying more and more on their running game and trying to limit Scott Tolzien’s passing attempts. Today, the ratio was 20 passing attempts to 52 running plays, almost 1:3. Basically for every 4 plays, 3 were rushes. And it worked. John Clay and Montee Ball had phenomenal days, combining for 249 rushing yards and 3 TDs. This strong rushing game led to long scoring drives that translated to the Badgers winning the possession game. Their time of possession was almost 8 minutes more than the Hoosiers’ (36:45 vs 23:15). It’s these kind of long scoring drives that the Badgers will need to generate over and over again if they want to finish the season strong and make it to a respectable bowl game.

What was different this game was the passing game. I can honestly say this was the best I’ve seen Scott Tolzien play. I’m not sure if his stats were his best for this season, but he looked more comfortable and stronger than I’ve ever seen him look before. He threw for 194 yards, didn’t give up an interception, and recorded a touchdown pass. Those are pretty good stats, especially considering the Badgers wide receivers dropped a few easy passes from him, and a touchdown pass was called back on offensive pass interference. All in all, Tolzien looked like a leader during this game. He especially impressed me during the final possession of the game. The Hoosiers had just scored a touchdown and brought the game to within 3. While Wisconsin used the run game primarily to run the clock down, the Badgers still found themselves in a third and long situation. But Tolzien didn’t panic. He dropped back in the pocket, found the open man, and hit Nick Toon for a key first down that allowed the clock to keep running and forced the Hoosiers into using the last of their timeouts prematurely.

The passing game on the whole looked very strong today. Nick Toon had a fantastic game, racking up over 100 yards on just 5 receptions. Although five receptions doesn’t seem like a lot, all of them were for first down yardage, and many of them came in 3rd-down situations. That’s clutch play if I ever saw it.

Defensively, I feel the Badgers took a step back today. The entire second half they looked tired. They started missing tackles and giving up extra yards. The cornerbacks looked slow and inferior. And the front line didn’t have anywhere close to previous games’ success at putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. I’m not sure entirely what the cause was today. It’s not as if they really had to play all that hard in the first half, since Wisconsin put up 24 points on several long, defense-resting drives. It might have been a combination of an off day combined with a strong game by Hoosiers quarterback Ben Chappell.

All in all, this was the most complete and efficient offensive effort I’ve seen from the Badgers. Their offense is rounding into form at exactly the right part in the season. As long as they remain healthy, I think they’ll do well in whatever bowl game they wind up in.

Celtics Survive in Minnesota, 92-90

Tonight’s game began with the Celtics and the Timberwolves trading baskets, which led to an early 6-4 lead. Unfortunately, it would not last, as the Timberwolves’ shooting got hot just as the Celtics’ went ice cold, about midway through the first quarter. The strong shooting was led by Ryan Gomes, Oleksiy Pecherov (who finished with a career-high 24 points), and former Celtic Al Jefferson. The T-Wolves actually shot over 50% in the first quarter, and this, combined with generally sloppy play from the Boston’s starters, led to the Celtics being down by five at the end of the first. This is beginning to become a trend for the Celtics, these slow starts. They started slow yesterday as well. This is not such a big deal with lower-caliber teams such as the Wolves or last night’s 76ers, but against good teams this won’t fly. The Celtics starting five must come out of the gate harder if they want to be able to contend with better teams.

The Celtics began their second quarter with their second rotation in the game, counting on them for some of the same magic that they showed through the first five games. This was the first time, however, when it felt like they might really need it. The early goings of the quarter were marked with multiple missed three-pointers until Rasheed Wallace hit one to tie the game up. Unfortunately, as soon as the subs came out, the game starting getting away from the Celtics again. Minnesota went on a 16-8 run in the last five minutes of the half to close things with an 8 point lead that at the time seemed insurmountable. The Celtics played poorly, without rhythm, the entire half, and it looked like it would cost them the game.

The third quarter was marked by the Celtics getting open looks at the basket but not getting their shots to fall in. The offense was working, it was just not converting into very many points. The bright spot of the quarter, though, was Rajon Rondo, who connected for a whopping 14 points in the 3rd quarter alone. An Eddie House 3-pointer at the buzzer tied up the game. All in all, the Celtics’ 3rd quarter can be seen as the turning point in the game, even if it was a very gradual turn. In the first half, they looked completely out of sync and were not scoring. In the third, however, their offense began to come alive, even though they weren’t make all of their shots. Despite this, they still put up 31 points in the quarter, their most of any of the four quarters of play.

Though the Celtics went down by three early on, Eddie House hit his other 3-pointer to tie it up almost immediately. Once again, the experienced bench was bailing out the starting rotation. But as the bench substituted out, the starting rotation finally started to heat up. All 5 starters finished the game with double-digits in points. For some reason, the Timberwolves continued to play off Rondo in the 4th, and he continued to make them pay by hanging out under the rim and receiving numerous passes for easy put-backs. Minnesota’s strategy of forcing Rondo to shoot worked against them and definitely cost them the game. It was close up until the end, but a Kevin Garnett tip off a jump-ball at 3.6 seconds pinned the Wolves in their back-court with just 0.9 seconds to go. They inbounded successfully, but the final shot was blocked and the Celtics came away victorious.

So, what did we learn? Well, we learned that the Celtics are not going to win every game via a blowout. Back-to-back games are difficult to win, especially with both on the road. And the Celtics Big 3 are getting older. These games will be especially tough for them as they will have to fight through the lack of rest that comes with such games. But we also learned that this team does not panic, even when it gets down. Eight or ten points can seem insurmountable to us as fans, but the experience of the Celtics teaches them differently. As long as they continue to execute their offense and their defense, they can overcome early game sluggishness, at least against bad teams. Their next game is against Phoenix, a much tougher opponent. This will be a far better test of their abilities and a greater measure of how they rate compared with the rest of the league. At least this time they’ll get a day off first.

Celtics Eighty-Six 76ers

Celtics 105, 76ers 74. This was a very easy game to watch. Despite a slow start, the C’s took a lead into the second quarter and never looked back. They played stifling defense that forced sixteen turnovers. Paul Pierce followed up his 27 points against New Orleans with a solid 22 points last night. They also defended the three-point shot especially well, only giving up one three the entire game (and that was after the Celtics had already taken a 30 point lead). All in all it was a total blowout, an utter domination of one team by another.

What we’re beginning to see is how deep this Celtics team is. When you have shooters the caliber of Eddie House and Rasheed Wallace coming off the BENCH, you know you have a quality team. And both of their talents were on display last night. Wallace had 20 points on 6 3-point shots made, and Eddie House had 12, all via the 3-pointer. Wallace and House scored more than several starters for the Celtics. Both of them could probably start on other teams and dominate, but they decided to stay in Boston and be bench players. The best bench players. Right now I like both of them for the Sixth Man award, but my edge goes to Wallace because he also contributes to the stifling defense the Celtics are playing these days.

This might actually be a better team than the 2007 NBA Champion Celtics were. I know that’s saying a lot, but look at it position by position. Yes, the Big 3 are all getting older, however that hasn’t seemed to stop Paul Pierce, who has been in double digits for points every game so far (he’s actually averaging over 20 points in his first 5 games). Kevin Garnett can still move and defend with the best of him, and now he and Rajon Rondo are on the same page offensively. Look for more alley-oop passes and no-look passes from Rondo to Garnett. And Ray Allen is in a contract year. He’s actually averaging 15 points a game despite looking out of rhythm. So while he has had a slow start so far, a player with career numbers like his won’t stay quiet for long. And when he starts to heat up, the Celtics will be all that more dangerous. And Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins are both two years more experienced in the NBA, and this can only help their play. Rondo especially has come light-years from where he was in 2007 to where he is now. Then he was a player. Now he’s a leader.

Now compare the benches for 2007 and 2009. Eddie House is the same sharpshooter as he was in 2007, and he’s a veteran, so it’s not like the extra game experience will really help him. But we have upgrades along the bench everywhere else. Compare Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels with P.J. Brown and James Posey (and for good measure, Shelden Williams with Sam Cassell). Wallace is a more complete player than Posey was. He shoots the three just as well if not better and plays far better defense. Daniels is better than Brown both defensively and offensively, scoring more often and racking up the steals. And Williams is an NBA player, whereas Cassell is some kind of bug-like alien monster.

So there you have it: position by position, this 2009 Celtics team is stronger than the 2007 Celtics team. And that is kind of scary to think about.

Favre Undaunted by Lambeau Boo-Birds

I’ve said it before, for a real long time Brett Favre was my sports hero. He was a major part of my sports childhood, and I have numerous happy memories of watching him play when I was a kid and even as a recently as a few years ago. Remember his Monday night game against Oakland after his dad died? Wasn’t that amazing? So I found it incredibly difficult to watch him in a Vikings uniform playing at Lambeau Field. Part of me still wanted to root for him. I would’ve been one of the few doing so.

Brett Favre ran onto Lambeau Field to a chorus of boos from the Green Bay crowd, and it never let up. All game long, Favre was booed. Unfortunately, it did nothing to affect him. Because what we saw tonight was vintage Brett Favre, or as close as he can come to it today. Against a decent Green Bay secondary, Brett Favre still managed to pass for 244 yards and a whopping 4 touchdowns. Despite having one of the best running backs in the game in Adrien Peterson, this was still the Brett Favre show all day long.

To be fair, the Packers stayed in this one until the bitter end. Despite being down by as much as 21 points, they never gave up. The problem, once again, was protection for Aaron Rodgers. You can’t give up six sacks to the opposing team and expect to win. Sacks are, to use a commentator’s words, turnovers without the change of possession. They eat up the clock, kill the crowd, and force much longer offensive plays than would otherwise be necessary. God knows how many yards were lost in sacks alone.

The Packers showed some life in the second half, to be sure. Their running game got a lot better, and they started sustaining some nice long offensive drives. Meanwhile, the Vikings looked like they were finally starting to tire. I saw numerous missed tackles by Minnesota in the second half, and it led to several plays that should have gone for little or no gain instead going for big gains. All this led to Green Bay only being down by four midway through the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, a first down here, a ridiculous Adrien Peterson screen there, and the Vikings did just enough in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. When Favre connected for his fourth TD, you knew the game was not going to go Green Bay’s way.

The Vikings are a very good team this year, there’s no doubting that. They have a great quarterback, an amazing running back, and an incredibly solid defense that gets even tougher when opponents get into the red zone. Green Bay, on the other hand, has a decent QB, a decent RB, and a pretty solid defense as well. This has earned them second place in the NFC North and hopefully will get them into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they won’t go anywhere if their offensive line can’t tighten up (and if Aaron Rodgers can’t smarten up) and stop opposing lines from penetrating quite so much.

This game was about Brett Favre’s return. Unfortunately, he returned the villain, and no one likes seeing the villain win. But in my heart, I still have problems rooting against him. Hopefully, the Packers and the Vikings won’t meet again, and I won’t have to worry about it.

Badgers Blow Out Boilermakers

After two consecutive losses to ranked opponents, the Badgers finally found themselves facing a less formidable opponent in Purdue. This was evident in the lack of crispness to Purdue’s offense and the weakness of their defensive line. Offensively, Purdue was never able to get anything going. They had no running game that I could see, and they had numerous dropped passes. All of this contributed to zero offensive points to go along with their zero total points for the game. Honestly, this game was kind of a joke. What was nice to see was my advice being taken for once (not that Brett Bielema reads my blog, I’m sure).

I’ve been saying for awhile that I don’t trust Scott Tolzien’s ability to carry a team if the pressure is put on him. It seems that for this game, the Wisconsin coaching staff agreed with me. Their offensive game plan was run first, run second, then do some more running, then occasionally pass just to keep the defense honest. The Badgers racked up just 115 passing yards to their 266 yards gained on the ground. John Clay rushed for 123 yards and 3 TDs in comparison to Tolzien’s 87 passing yards and no TDs. He actually only dropped back to pass 13 times the entire game. This was a game based on the run, and it worked to a T. Purdue simply didn’t have a defensive line capable of hanging with the Badgers’ front line, and it resulted in numerous opportunities for successful running plays. And when Clay couldn’t bust it up the middle, he was fast enough to get to the outside, turn the corner, and head upfield that way. It was a dominating performance from the Wisconsin running game, mixed with the foresight to not overly rely on the pass.

What also worked about this game was Wisconsin’s ability to sustain long offensive drives. This not only ate up clock time (36:45 minutes of possession vs Purdue’s 23:15) but also allowed the defense to not have to play quite as much as they did in previous games. This meant they were fresher for the second half and it showed. The defense finally played a complete game, keeping up the first-half intensity they featured all season with a second-half to match. The result: a shutout.

Overall, this was a nice statement game by the Wisconsin Badgers. The win made them bowl-eligible, and this win showed they deserved to be there. The offense features a more-than-competent run game that, when on, can be very difficult to stop. The defense is strong and filled with play-makers, capable of making the big play when necessary and able to hang with strong offenses when they’re rested and refreshed. The key to Wisconsin’s future is consistency in its offense. As long as Tolzien is not relied upon, I think Wisconsin will do just fine. He is a competent quarterback, to be sure, and he sees the field decently well. But Wisconsin is absolutely a run-first kind of offense, and that’s ok with me.