The Celtics’ Struggles: Inside the Numbers

The Big Three might be old, but a lackadaisical attitude may be more to blame for their struggles on second nights of back-to-backs. (www.bostonsportspulse.com)

The Celtics lost yesterday to the New Jersey Nets. It was their fifth straight loss of the second game of a back-to-back for Boston, and the eighth time this season. It was suggested yesterday that age was the likely cause. But is it? Were we to compare the Celtics’ performance on back-to-backs this year versus previous years (starting with the 2007-08 season, when the “Big Three” debuted), would we conclude that age was in fact the issue? Why doesn’t someone go figure that out?

Luckily, all you readers have such an analyst at your beck and call, one who’s happy to answer these very questions. It might take weeks. It might take days. It might a couple of hours when I have nothing else to do because I’m on Spring Break. But you all want, nay, demand, to know why the Celtics have struggled. And, to quote Starscream from Transformers, I live to serve you.

To see the raw data I used to figure all of this out, go here. I focused on the two factors most determinant of a game’s outcome: opponent record at the time (a signifier of physical skill), and home-court advantage (a suggester of opponent’s mental approach).

Now then, let’s make like George Dantzig (no, not the guy who wrote “Mother“) and analyze!

The Problems with the Age Argument

If we look only at wins and losses, the argument that age is the root cause becomes attractively simple. Every subsequent season since 2007, the Celtics have been a worse team on the second night of a back-to-back. In 2007, they won 84.2 percent of their second games (16-3). In 2008 that percentage dropped to 82.4 percent (14-3). Last season it fell to 76.5 percent (11-7). This season, it sits at a paltry 42.9 percent (6-8).

Such a natural decline prompts us to see a cause-and-effect relationship with similar naturally progressing factors, such as age. With age should come a loss of physical ability. This not only means players don’t play as well in any given game, but it also means they take longer to recover for the next game. When you get less than 24 hours between the games, and much of that is spent traveling (since 2007, the Celtics have never lost the second game of a back-to-back when both are home games), it’s even tougher to play well.

But if we focus on the “Big Three,” the three players who generate most of the scoring for the Celtics (defensively, the 2010-11 Celtics play fine on the second night of back-to-backs : opponents have only scored 100+ points against them twice so far, the fewest occurrences in four seasons), it becomes far harder to blame age alone as the cause of the Celtics’ struggles. Kevin Garnett is definitely getting old, with his shooting percentage dropping each year since 2007 (causing a decrease in points per game) and his offensive rebounding (1.3 per game) at its second-lowest ever. But Paul Pierce is shooting .499 and converting 85.5 percent of his free-throw attempts, both career highs. His point totals are down, but that’s because he’s taking fewer shots (12.8 per game, second only to last season for fewest) and is struggling from three-point range (.375, lowest since the ’05-06 season). And Ray Allen is playing better than ever, shooting .502 and .466 from three-point range, both career bests. Allen never seems to tire on the court. He isn’t fast so much as wily, constantly maneuvering around the court when he doesn’t have the ball, biding his time until he can get open for the trey or penetrate for the jumper.

The Celtics’ problems aren’t physical; they’re mental.

The Focus Argument

Every year since 2007, the Celtics have performed worse on the road against sub-.500 teams on the second night of a back-to-back. In 2007, they never lost to sub-.500 teams on either night (10-0 on the first night, 11-0 on the second). In 2008, they wen 6-2 against sub-.500 teams on the road on the second night. In 2009, they went 4-2. This season, they’re 1-5.

In theory, sub-.500 teams are physically easier to beat than plus-.500 teams. But this very notion may make them harder to beat mentally. When a winning team (and the Celtics have not had a losing record at any point during the last four seasons) comes to town against a losing team, the home crowd tends to be bigger. More stars draw more fans. This is even more the case with the Celtics. a pre-eminent NBA franchises, who seem to have unusually large fanbases in other cities. But no matter whom the fans come to see, more fans and a louder atmosphere tends to inspire the home team, who suddenly want to put on a show. Hence, the losing home team tends to play even tougher. The stronger, visiting team, meanwhile, knows it doesn’t have to play at maximum to win the game, so they tend to under-compensate and play worse. Thus the home team has a double advantage: an intensity-inspiring crowd and a mentally inattentive opponent.

Is this a good strategy? Of course not. But it makes sense, especially when your players are already physically tired from the night before. And as each subsequent year makes it harder on the aging “Big Three” (a combined 102 years old) to recover after a game, it becomes psychologically appealing to “check out” of an apparently easier game beforehand.

The Celtics’ home performance against sub-.500 teams on back-to-back second nights has not declined (3-1; best ever was 3-0 in 2007), which is further evidence that the team may be continually overlooking weak teams in hostile arenas. That the Celtics maintain a .500 record (1-0 at home, 1-2 on the road) against plus-.500 teams also suggests that mental preparation and focus may be a factor. They have no problem gearing up for tough opponents; it’s the easy ones that always bite them.

The Overuse Argument

We can’t discuss the second game of back-to-backs without looking at the first game as well. Players will change how they play knowing they have to play again less than 24 hours later.

The Celtics won over 70 percent of their first-games three out of four seasons. Their 8-10 2009 record is strange, but might be explained by the 11 plus-.500 teams on first nights (most since 2007) and four home games (fewest).

But if we compare Boston’s first- and second-night records, a telling disparity emerges. In 2007, the Celtics went 16-3 on both nights. In 2008, they went 12-5 on first nights and 14-3 on second nights (two-win difference). In 2009, they went 8-10 and 11-7 (three-win difference). This season, they’re 13-1 on first nights and 6-8 on second nights. That’s a seven-win difference. The Celtics had been continuously shifting their focus towards the second game from 2008-2009, then shifted dramatically in the opposite direction in 2010. It seems they’ve forgotten how to pace themselves through two games.

It’s possible that the Celtics, knowledgeable veterans that they are, know the second game is going to be a struggle before the first one starts. They then over-play the first one to make sure they go at least 1-1 for the back-to-back. Unfortunately, the talent-level of their opponents for first games doesn’t actually require that mental approach. So far,  the Celtics have only played six plus-.500 teams on first nights this season, the fewest since 2007.

Wrap-Up: Does Distance Matter?

The Celtics’ problems seem to be more mental than physical. The team plays too hard on the first night, then has nothing left to compete with on the second night. When the second night comes, the Celtics tend to look past the weak teams, especially on the road, in favor of harder opponents later in the season.

Of course, playing too hard is also affected by playing minutes, a coaching decision. Doc Rivers may be overusing his starters on first-games. Then again, Rivers might use the same rationale the players do: the team will struggle on the second night no matter what, so I may as well play them hard enough to at least win the first game.

The last issue to discuss is distance. Are back-to-backs harder when they require long travel-times? Results are inconclusive. The only team that has beaten the Celtics four times (with the Celtics on the road) since 2007 in either game of a back-to-back are the Denver Nuggets, who have won all four times on the first night. A normally strong Western Conference team, the Celtics’ struggles against Denver might be more physical than mental, but distance and altitude might matter.

One team that has had success against the Celtics on second nights are the Golden State Warriors. These losses are likely due to a lack of focus: two Celtics losses came during Warriors seasons in which Golden State did not win 30 games. Two of the losses also came the night after playing a Los Angeles-based team, so distance would not be a factor. The other home team to beat the Celtics three times on second nights, the Washington Wizards, is also a normally bad team. This helps the focus argument, but says little about the distance factor.

The other two teams to beat the Celtics three times on either night of a back-to-back are the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls. Neither team requires a long flight from Logan International. Both teams have had strong and weak seasons since 2007 (the Cavaliers from the 2007-2009, the Bulls this season).

Does distance matters? Who knows. But it can’t be controlled. Mental approach, focus, attitude, pacing, these factors can be controlled. And if the Celtics want to salvage any of the five remaining back-to-back series left this season, they need to get these factors under control. Soon.

Eleven Nets Three-Pointers Snap Celtics 9-Game Win Streak at New Jersey

New Jersey Net Anthony Morrow shoots against Paul Pierce during Monday's game at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The only time the Boston Celtics don’t dominate is on the second night of back-to-back games. This has been the pattern throughout the season, and it continued Monday night in New Jersey, where the Nets beat the Celtics, 88-79. With the loss, the Celtics fell into a tie with the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics are now 6-8 on back-to-back second games, having lost their last five.

Reigning 3’s

Despite the height of Nets power forward Kris Humphries (16 points, 15 rebounds) and center Brook Lopez (20 points, five rebounds, a steal and three blocks), the Celtics still out-played the Nets underneath basket. Boston out-rebounded New Jersey offensively and defensively, and out-scored New Jersey in the paint 30-24.

Unable to win the battles underneath the basket, New Jersey turned to the perimeter. The Nets drained 11 three-pointers against the Celtics, seven in the second half. Starting point guard Deron Williams was the most successful, knocking down four, including two in the fourth quarter. He drained a 28-footer off a timeout with 35 seconds left in the game to push the Nets lead to 86-79, killing the Celtics’ final push.

Williams finished the game with 16 points, nine assists, six boards and three steals.

The Nets also sank two three-pointers withing the final minute of the third quarter, turning a 61-61 tie into a six-point lead that they never relinquished. Starting shooting guard Anthony Morrow (15 points, 3-8 from beyond the arc) knocked one down, then guard Sundiata Gaines hit a 30-footer as time expired.

Through the first half, the Nets were shooting just 33 percent overall. But a 31-point third quarter in which the Nets shot 57 percent helped bump it up to 39.7 percent by the end of the game. The Celtics shot only slightly better, connecting 41.2 percent of the time.

Davis Strong Off the Bench

In his second game back from injury, Glen Davis made a strong case for the NBA’s Sixth Man award. Davis scored 16 points off the bench and grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds.

In the second half, Davis twice hit jumpers after fighting through the pack for the offensive rebound. His first gave the Celtics a 52-51 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter. His second cut the Nets lead to 81-79 with 3:09 left in the game.

Davis also saved an offensive rebound as it was going out of bounds on the New Jersey end-line in the fourth quarter. Davis leaped across the line, caught it and passed it behind-the-back to Jeff Green underneath the basket. Green laid it in to cut the Nets lead to 77-71.

Green finished the game with seven points, including a 16-foot fade-away jumper with 0.5 seconds left in the first quarter.

Davis finished the game with five offensive rebounds, tying for his season-highest (March 2 vs. the Phoenix Suns). His career-best is six offensive rebounds, accomplished against the Nets in a November 2007 game, then twice in March 2009 and once in March 2010.

Allen and Garnett Lead the Starters

Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett also scored in double digits for the Celtics. Allen led the team with 19 points, also grabbing three rebounds and dishing out four assists. He was the only Celtic to hit a three-pointer, knocking down two. His first killed an 8-0 New Jersey run in the second that saw a Celtics 29-22 lead become a 30-29 deficit. He also sprinted cross-court in the third to hit a quick-release 25-footer to give Boston a 59-58 lead.

Allen’s most emphatic bucket came in the fourth quarter. Garnett picked off a Lopez pass, then threw a long pass to Rajon Rondo (nine assists; left early in the third with what appeared to be a twisted ankle, but later returned) on the fast-break. Rondo waited for Allen to catch up, then handed it off to Allen for the slam dunk, cutting the Nets lead to 77-73.

Garnett scored 18 points on a team-best 9-14 shooting night. He scored the first six of Boston’s points, including knocking down a jumper for the 4-0 lead after Rondo stole Lopez’s inbound pass. in the third, Garnett set a pick for Paul Pierce (seven points, seven rebounds, five assists) at the top of the arc, then broke off the pick for the alley-oop dunk from Pierce. He also grabbed 8 rebounds.

Don’t Blame the Refs

The Nets took 16 more free-throw attempts than the Celtics, with Boston being called for 22 fouls to New Jersey’s 13. Three Celtics starters finished the game with four or more personal fouls, whereas none of the Nets starters did. Combine all this with two missed goal-tending violations by the Nets on Celtics shots that had already touched the backboard, and it is tempting to blame the Celtics’ loss on poor officiating.

The fact remains, however, that the Celtics, even when they can rest their starters the night before, are just not good on the back end of back-to-backs. Age seems the most likely cause: the Celtics were 11-7 in such games last season, 14-3 the year before and 16-3 the year before that (2007-2008, the first year for the “Big Three”).

Whatever the cause, the Celtics need to figure this problem out, and quickly. The Celtics have five more back-to-backs among their 17 remaining regular-season games. Two back-to-backs feature teams with winning records on the second night (New Orleans Hornets on Mar. 19, Atlanta Hawks on April 1). Now tied for first place with the Bulls, these five games could prove crucial in the final seeding before the playoffs.

Red Sox Spring Training (3/7-3/13): Roster Trimmed, Gonzalez Debuts Saturday

Welcome back to Goose Gabs’ continuing coverage of the Red Sox’s Spring Training! Opening Day is less than four weeks away, and we’ll be be right there every day leading up to it. Nine games in seven days is a lot of games, but we’ve got recaps for every one of them. But even before we take on the epic task of summarizing nine preseason games, Goose’s Gabs is happy to announce the return of Adrian Gonzalez! The biggest acquisition of the off-season, Gonzalez returned to the starting lineup Saturday against the Florida Marlins. In two at-bats, Gonzalez went 1-1 with a single to left and a sacrifice fly.

The Red Sox also announced Saturday that 10 Red Sox were re-assigned to minor league camp. In addition, pitcher Stolmy Pimentel and infielder Oscar Tejeda were optioned to double-A Portland. In two Spring Training starts, Pimentel was 0-1 with a 9.82 ERA. Tejeda batted .375 in 13 games, driving in eight while striking out six times. It’s unlikely Pimentel will be at Fenway anytime soon, but Tejeda might find a place as a utility infielder in the next couple of years.

Now then, on to the games!

Red Sox 6, Orioles 5

John Lackey had a stellar Monday afternoon, limiting the Baltimore Orioles to a single hit over four innings.

The Red Sox scored three runs in the first on four hits, including RBI singles by Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew. But the Orioles scored five runs off the Red Sox bullpen in the fifth through eighth innings, including two on three hits off Dan Wheeler in the fifth, and the game went to the ninth tied 5-5. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, third basemen Yamaico Navarro drove in Tejeda for the winning run.

Dustin Pedroia went 2-3 with a double against Baltimore. Tony Pena Jr. got the win, pitching a scoreless ninth despite giving up two hits and a walk.

Red Sox 3, Astros 2

The Red Sox rotation, partially depleted last week by minor ailments and injuries, welcomed back Josh Beckett Tuesday against the Houston Astros. In 3 2/3 innings, Beckett gave up just one run on three hits and a walk. He struck out four.

At the plate, leadoff center fielder Ryan Kalish went 3-4, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 2-2. But the most damage came at the hands of third baseman Nate Spears, who drove in two, including the winning run in the eighth.

The win went to non-roster invitee Dennys Reyes, who allowed just a walk while striking out one in a scoreless eighth. Another non-roster invitee, Matt Fox, struck out all three batters he faced in the ninth for the save.

Red Sox 8, Cardinals 7

Let it be known: the man of broken ribs is back. In his strongest Spring Training game yet, Jacoby Ellsbury led Wednesday’s split-squad Red Sox over the St. Louis Cardinals. Ellsbury went 3-4, scoring and driving in a run, and also stealing a base. Non-roster catcher Ryan Lavarnway also showed some pop, going 2-2 with a run and three RBIs. Lavarnway’s two-run home run in the eighth capped a four-run inning that turned a 7-4 deficit into an 8-7 lead.

Starter Pimentel struggled, giving up two earned runs on five hits and a walk in just 1 2/3 innings. The win went to Clevelan Santeliz, who pitched a scoreless sixth and seventh, giving up two hits and striking out three. Kyle Fernandes picked up the save, giving up a hit and walk while striking one out in the ninth.

Red Sox 2, Orioles 1

The Red Sox continued their preseason dominance (now 2-0-1) of the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, needing only half a roster and an ace to beat them. Clay Buchholz started and went four innings, giving up just four hits while striking out three. In nine Spring Training innings this year, Buchholz has yet to give up an earned run.

Drew went 2-2 Wednesday night with a solo home run in the second. The Red Sox won when Navarro was hit  on the wrist with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Navarro suffered a contusion.

The win went to Pena Jr., who pitched a scoreless top of the ninth.

The Orioles were down 1-0 heading into the top of the eighth, but tied it up when non-roster invitee Randy Williams gave up a triple and a sacrifice fly.

Rays 8, Red Sox 6

It was another tough start for Daisuke Matsuzaka. After giving up five earned runs to the Tampa Bay Rays on five hits (including a home run) and two walks in 3 2/3 innings on Thursday, his ERA currently sits at 11.42. The Red Sox almost overcame the start, however, going up 6-5 in the ninth inning on two solo home runs, including one by Tejeda. But Alfredo Aceves couldn’t hold the game, giving up a game-tying double and then a two-run home run to Rays catcher Robinson Chirinos in the ninth.

Spears had another strong game for the Red Sox, going 3-4 with a triple and a stolen base, driving in two and scoring once. Jose Iglesias went 2-2.

In his first game against his former team, Carl Crawford went 1-3 with an infield single. He also made a pretty diving catch in left field.

After struggling in his first few preseason innings, Daniel Bard bounced back with a perfect sixth inning, striking out two.

Twins 3, Red Sox 2

After missing a start due to flu, Jon Lester returned Friday for a split-squad afternoon game against the Minnesota Twins. Lester continues to impress this preseason, this time striking out five in four scoreless innings.

Lester handed the ball to Jonathan Papelbon in the fifth, but Papelbon could not hold the 2-0 Boston lead. Papelbon gave up three runs on a hit and three walks, and the Red Sox did not score again.

Ellsbury had another strong afternoon from the leadoff spot, going 2-3. David Ortiz also went 2-3, driving in one of Boston’s two runs, both of which came in the third inning. Navarro drove in the other.

Papelbon’s performance marred an otherwise strong pitching day from the Boston bullpen. The Twins scored three runs in the fifth inning, but none before or after. Hideki Okajima and Tim Wakefield scattered two hits and a walk over three scoreless innings.

Red Sox 9, Astros 3

The second half of the split-squad Red Sox fared far better Friday against the Houston Astros. The Red Sox scored five runs in the first two innings, then piled on four more from the fourth through the eighth.

Pedroia led the charge, hitting a double and triple, reaching on a walk, driving in two and scoring once. Daniel Nava, playing designated hitter, also had two hits and a walk, along with an RBI. Catcher Mark Wagner went 2-2, both triples, driving in one and scoring twice. Marco Scutaro scored once and drove in two from the leadoff spot.

The win went to Kyle Weiland, who gave up three runs in 1 1/3 innings on four hits and a walk. More impressive was the bullpen, which, led by Wheeler (1 1/3 innings) and Michael Bowden (2 innings), did not allow an earned run.

Red Sox 9, Marlins 2

The Red Sox welcomed Gonzalez back Saturday against the Florida Marlins with their most lopsided Grapefruit League victory this preseason. The Red Sox offense poured it on Saturday, notching 16 hits to go with their nine runs.

For Ellsbury, everything came up threes: Three at-bats, three hits (two doubles), three RBIs, three runs scored. One of his hits was a home run.

Pedroia also went 3-3 Saturday and drove in one. Ortiz went 2-3, but both hits were doubles.

Lackey followed up his solid outing Monday with another on Saturday. In 4 1/3 innings, Lackey gave up six hits but just one run. He struck out six and did not walk anyone. Williams continued Lackey’s domination, striking out three in 1 2/3 perfect innings.

Lars Anderson rounds the bases after his home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates during Sunday's Spring Training game at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Pirates 9, Red Sox 4

Through the first four innings of Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Beckett was cruising. He gave up a solo home run in the second, but allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out five. In the fifth, it all went to hell. Beckett gave up a solo home run, a double, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch to the first four batters of the fifth inning, then was lifted for Scott Atchison. But Atchison gave up four hits of his own in the fifth inning, and all three base runners Beckett left scored and were charged to him.

Beckett finished the game having been charged with five earned runs on four hits (two home runs), two walks and a hit-by-pitch. Atchison was charged with two runs of his own.

The lone bright spot from the mound was Bard, who struck out two in a perfect sixth inning.

At the plate, first baseman Lars Anderson went 2-3 with a solo home run. He also singled and scored. Leading off in right field, Mike Cameron doubled in two in the third for a 2-1 lead.

Final Thoughts

Six wins, three losses this week. Overall record: 9-8-1. Nice to see the Red Sox on the positive side of .500.

This was a fantastic week for the starting rotation. Pitchers who will likely be on the Opening Day major-league roster started seven of the nine games. In five of them, the starters allowed one run or fewer. And Beckett’s bad outing was solid through the first four innings. So there was really only 1.5 bad starts by a major-league starter this week.

Lackey is clearly having the best preseason of any Boston player. In three starts (10 1/3 innings), Lackey has an ERA of 1.74. He’s allowed just two earned runs, hasn’t walked anybody and has struck out four.

The same can’t be said for Matsuzaka, a player who is fast running out of excuses. In 2009, Matsuzaka blamed his regular-season struggles on the World Baseball Classic disrupting his preseason development. He blamed his 2010 struggles on injuries, some of which he suffered during Spring Training (he only pitched six preseason innings in 2010). This year, Matsuzaka is neither injured nor playing in an extra-curricular tournament. Should his preseason struggles continue during the regular season, what will he blame it on this time?

The best hitter this week was definitely Ellsbury, with eight hits. Ellsbury leads the Red Sox with 11 hits and eight runs this preseason, which means he’s doing the two things a leadoff hitter is supposed to do: get on base (second among Red Sox with 10+ at-bats with an OBP of .462) and score.

Great to see Pedroia back and hitting with pop. Three of his seven hits this week were for extra bases. Suddenly, that Red Sox lineup is looking awfully lengthy.

Four weeks to go, and the team is definitely rounding into shape. More players will be re-assigned, starts will go longer, players will get more at-bats. As long as they stay healthy, the Red Sox should be ready to go by April 8.

Whoa, Canada

It was an awful, horrific, breath-draining, stadium-silencing hit. A man slammed face-first into the vertical edge where the bench ends and the glass begins, fell instantly to the ice, and lay there until a stretcher carried him away. Had Bruin defenseman Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal Canadien left-winger Max Pacioretty during Tuesday’s game come a split-second earlier, Pacioretty likely would have tumbled into the Bruins bench (or been stopped from doing so), gotten up and skated back into the game. Had it come a split-second later, Pacioretty would’ve been momentarily flattened against the boards, and Chara would’ve skated by with Pacioretty in hot pursuit. But the hit occurred at exactly the wrong time, and this was the result.

No matter what we might believe about violence’s place in hockey, this hit was bad for the game. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture in the fourth vertebrae of his spinal column. He is out indefinitely. Chara received a five-minute major interference penalty for his actions. The hit was reviewed by the NHL, and Chara was not suspended or fined. The league ruled that Chara did not intentionally go for Pacioretty’s head, nor did he do anything more than try to angle himself in front of Pacioretty. The result was unfortunate, and the call on the ice just, but that was all.

It’s at this point that this story takes a turn for the bizarre. Pacioretty was disgusted with the NHL’s lack of further action, a reasonable opinion given how badly hurt he had been. But the citizens of Montreal have taken up Pacioretty’s cause to a degree that even Pacioretty is now uncomfortable with. An online petition has already gotten nearly 1,600 signatures calling for Chara to be criminally charged with assault causing bodily harm. This petition, coupled with a flood of complaints to the Montreal police (Sgt. Ian Lafreniere believes someone in the media has been encouraging Habs fans to call in), has led to an actual criminal investigation of Chara’s hit.

Now, no experts actually think this investigation will go anywhere. In order to prosecute something like this, you’d have to prove that Chara’s hit was above and beyond the normal violence of the sport. Hockey players knowingly accept the risk of a sport that promotes physical play and even fighting. This hit was terrifying, certainly, but can anyone honestly say it was more than an unhappy accident? This hit, at any other spot on the hockey rink, would have barely affected Pacioretty. But at this spot, where the the glass rises unprotected from the bench, the hit snapped his neck back sent him off the ice in an ambulance. So who’s really to blame for this? Chara, or the layout of the Bell Centre?

But even if you could argue Chara was to blame for this, let’s not pretend for one second that this is anything more that vindictiveness disguised as justice. What would have happened if the players were reversed? What if a Canadien had badly injured another player? Would there be a hue and cry for his arrest then? We don’t actually have to wonder about that, because it happened. During Game 1 of the 1989 Wales (Eastern) Conference Finals, Canadien defenseman Chris Chelios slammed his elbow into Philadelphia Flyer left winger Bryan Propp, crushing him against the glass in the process. Propp crashed to the ice, like Pacioretty, and was taken away on a stretcher, like Pacioretty.

Chelios was not suspended for a hit that cost Propp a playoff game and the Flyers possibly the series. So, Montrealers, where was the call for Chelios’s arrest, his blood and his head? Or (gasp) was that hit fine since it happened in a hockey game? How convenient: when the Canadiens badly injure someone, it’s part of the game. When someone else does it, it’s criminal.

Chara is not a dirty player. In his 12 years in the NHL, Chara has never received supplementary discipline (fines or suspensions) for any of his many, many hits. He’s a big, strong guy (6’9″, a conservative 255 lbs.), and he plays big, strong hockey. He has publicly said that he did not intend to injure Pacioretty, that he feels bad about the result of his hit, and that, once time has passed, he will reach out to Pacioretty to personally apologize. You all might hate Chara, and that’s fine. He’s the toughest, most violent player on your most hated, rivaled team. It’s o.k. to hate your rivals, but any time sports fanaticism spills into other areas of life, it’s a recipe for disaster.

You can’t have it both ways. You can either let the law penetrate into the sport you invented, or you can accept that sometimes accidents, even terrible ones, happen. Sometimes they happen to others, sometimes the happen to you. It’s part of the game. You don’t like the violence? Go to Canada.

Oh wait, you’re already there.

Got My Mo-Jo Working: Williams’ 28 Too Much For Celtics

An optimist would say that the Boston Celtics, down 23 points with less than a half left against the Los Angeles Clippers, showed a lot of heart, never gave in, and put forth a monumental effort in nearly coming all the way back to tie the game. A pessimist would say that, had they not allowed the Clippers to shoot 68 percent in the first half while shooting just 40 percent themselves, they never would have needed such an effort in the first place, and they were lucky not to get blown out.

Whichever way one might look at it, there’s no denying that the Clippers beat the Celtics, 108-103, Wednesday night in Boston. The loss snapped a five-game Celtics winning streak and let the Chicago Bulls climb to within 1.5 games of first place in the Eastern Conference.

Williams and Jordan the Twin Killers

The Celtics had no answer for Clippers point guard Mo Williams, who in a team-high 41 minutes scored 28 points on 9-17 shooting.

Williams was especially lethal in the fourth quarter, seemingly killing every potential Celtics rally single-handedly. When the Celtics brought the game to within three with 5:22 left in the fourth, there was Williams, drawing a three-shot foul on Rajon Rondo and knocking down all three. When the Celtics responded with two Paul Pierce free throws to make it 89-85 Clippers, there was Williams draining a three-pointer, one of his five. When Ray Allen laid it in with 3:12 left in the game to cut the lead to two possessions, there was Williams, knocking down a 25-foot trey to make 100-91 with 2:46.

Even when he wasn’t scoring, Williams hurt the Celtics. When Kevin Garnett responded to Williams’ 25-footer with a 13-footer of his own, making it 100-93, Williams found center DeAndre Jordan for the slammer, pushing the lead again to nine.

Jordan was Williams’ second fiddle Wednesday night, but only barely. Jordan missed one shot all night long and was a monster underneath the basket. Of Jordan’s nine baskets, six were dunks, and another was a point-blank tip shot. Jordan finished the night with 21 points and nine rebounds. A career .402 free-throw shooter, Jordan missed four of his first five free throws. But up 104-100 with 15 seconds left in the game, Jordan drained his last two to effectively kill the last Celtics rally.

Double-Digit Starters

All five Celtics starters scored in double digits Wednesday night. Allen led the team with 23 points, including three three-pointers. His second of the night cut the Clippers lead to 86-80 with 7:35 left in the fourth. His third cut it to 97-91 with 3:12 left. But he missed another from 24 feet with just under two minutes left in the game that would have cut the lead to 100-96 Clippers, and power forward Blake Griffin dunked it on the other end (he does that) for the five-point swing.

Nenad Krstic had his best game yet for the Celtics, scoring 20 points on 7-10 shooting while collecting nine boards in 38 minutes of play. Twelve of his points came in the fourth quarter, including the Celtics’ first seven. He is quickly integrating into the Boston offensive schemes and has already shown why Danny Ainge traded for him.

Garnett scored 16 points while collecting eight rebounds. Normally, this would be a solid offensive showing. Only problem is, it took him 19 shots to do it, only knocking down five.

Pierce kicked in 19 points, while Rondo came close to a triple-double, scoring 13 while rebounding 7 and notching 9 assists in 43 minutes. Rondo also stole three Clippers passes, but the Celtics never got their transition offense going. Despite forcing 16 Clippers turnovers, the Celtics could only convert them into seven points. They scored just 12 on fast breaks.

Final Thoughts

The Celtics’ starters out-scored the Clippers 91-82, but their bench was not able to match the offensive production. The Clippers bench more than doubled up the Celtics bench, out-scoring them 26-12.

It was inevitable that the Celtics would eventually lose, especially now that they’ve clinched a playoff spot. On paper, the then 24-40 Clippers seemed unlikely to be the ones to do it. But the Clippers came into this game on a three-game winning streak themselves, and it took the Celtics too long to take them seriously.

Boston will next take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers are 12-5 since Feb. 1. With the Bulls and Miami Heat still in the hunt for the top spot in the East, the Celtics must be careful not to suffer an extended letup down the stretch.

The Ice-Cold Heat

There’s a rattlesnake in the Miami Heat bandwagon, and fans and media alike are jumping off before they get bit.

The Heat are already on their second four-game losing streak of the season. This one features a blown 24-point lead against the Orlando Magic, a 30-point thrashing by the San Antonio Spurs, and a one-point loss to the Chicago Bulls that cost them second place in the Eastern Conference and left them, literally, in tears.

The Heat have enough talent to manhandle crap teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers, but against good teams they’ve struggled all season. They’re 0-6 against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and have already lost both season series, costing them the tie-breaker if they finish with identical records. Against the five best teams in the NBA (Spurs, Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers), they’re 1-9. They have a sub-.500 record against teams with winning records.

So what’s to blame for this Heat team that has fallen far short of (possibly unfair) preseason expectations? Certainly, talent cannot be blamed. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the #3 and #4 scorers in the NBA, averaging 26.2 and 25.4 points per game, respectively.The Heat offense is ranked ninth overall with 101.5 points per game, and eighth overall with 42.5 rebounds per game. Not bad numbers.

And it’s not as if this is just a run-and-gun Heat squad. They play decent defense, holding teams to 94.8 points per game (sixth overall) on .430 shooting (second overall). They don’t force a lot of turnovers (13.4 per game, 26th overall), but they play so physically in the paint that they limit opposing teams to difficult shots, then they collect the rebounds. Teams average 1.17 points per shot against the Heat, fourth best in the NBA.

Passing is the Heat’s worst attribute, and it’s here we find the possible cause of their struggles. Averaging 19.5 assists per game, the Heat rank 29th in the NBA. They are an awful passing team, preferring to score as individuals, not as a team. Since their current starting point guard, Mario Chalmers (although recently signed Mike Bibby might take his spot), can’t run an offense (6.7 points per game, .360 three-point shooting, 2.2 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game), they pretty much have to.

Passing and assists are a good indicator of team chemistry, the reason why the Heat struggle. Some of this is simple inexperience: Wade and James (and Chris Bosh, the black sheep of the trio) are playing in their first season together. The other elite teams in the NBA have had years to settle into a rhythm. The Celtics have had the same four players in their starting five since 2007 (except for time missed due to injury).  The Bulls’ Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose have had two years together. The Spurs have had basically the same lineup for over a decade. The Heat are still learning how to play together, how best to take advantage of their many talented players.

But experience alone doesn’t explain why the Heat are struggling so. The 2007 Boston Celtics had never played together before either (not just the Big Three, but also Rajon Rondo, who took over as starting point guard in 2007), but they never lost four games in a row that season, let alone twice.

Chemistry isn’t just a factor of experience, but also compatibility. Can James, Wade and Bosh actually play with each other? Can their playing styles and personalities be meshed?

The Celtics’ Big Three have three very different personalities: Paul Pierce, the joker with the troubled past; Kevin Garnett, the crazy loner, just as likely to go live in a shack as drain an 18-foot jumper; and Ray Allen, the consummate professional, always meticulously (perhaps compulsively) groomed. But no matter how different they may be as people, they understand how much they need each other on the court.

From the start of preseason through Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals, The Big Three talked about nothing but support, teamwork, sacrifice. Garnett wouldn’t do a post-game press conference without Pierce and/or Allen side-by-side. They even did a SportCenter ad essentially making fun of themselves for being so team-oriented. But the end result of all of this was that fans and the media really believed that these three players, all of whom had been the only stars on their previous teams (Allen in Seattle, Garnett in Minnesota, Pierce in Boston), were willing to give up points and celebrity if it meant a championship. And that’s exactly what happened.

Have we seen the same selfless talk coming out of the Heat camp? Doesn’t seem like it. What little there has been has sounded false. Every James statement about teamwork has been countered by something like his self-centered, self-inflated Nike commercial. Neither Bosh nor Wade have said much at all to suggest that they like playing with each other.

Wade is the most interesting player in all of this. The Celtics’ Big Three knew that their “selfish” style of play hadn’t worked, hadn’t brought them a ring. But for Wade, that’s not the case. He has won an NBA Finals (after the ’06-’07 season). He has been named Finals MVP. And he did it on his own, without needing anyone’s help (other than an aging Shaquille O’Neal). Now, James comes to Miami and, by doing nothing other than being LeBron James, takes Wade’s crown as the king of Florida sports celebrities. If you were Wade, what would you do? Would you see James as your best chance to win another ring? Or would you see resent him as a hired gun, a carpetbagger, here to benefit himself and no one else?

The Heat have 19 games left in the regular season. Eleven are against teams with winning records, including the next seven. If the Heat can’t figure out how to play with each other, and fast, they may find their path to the NBA Finals too difficult to cross. And with the talent level, fanfare and money connected with this team, anything short of the Finals would be a colossal disappointment.

Red Sox Spring Training Wrap-Up: 2/28-3/6

Welcome back to the Goose’s Gabs weekly recap of all things spring training. After sweeping Boston College and Northeastern University, the Boston Red Sox began Grapefruit League action with an 8-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins to round out opening weekend. This week the team played a full slate of games, and we’re happy to bring you the results:

Red Sox 7, Twins 6

The Red Sox continued their battle for the Mayor’s Cup on Monday. Daisuke Matsuzaka started, giving up a first-inning home run but otherwise looking sharp in two innings of work (14/25 first-pitch strikes), and Tim Wakefield gave up three unearned runs on an error by shortstop Brent Dlugach in the third. Daniel Bard also struggled, giving up two runs on three hits and a walk in the fifth.

The win went to Michael Bowden, who pitched a scoreless seventh, giving up just one hit while striking out two.

At the plate, David Ortiz hit a three-run home run in the third inning to cut the Twins’ lead to 4-3. The game went back and forth between the middle innings, with first basemen Drew Sutton hitting a two-run single in the fifth to make it 6-5 Twins. In the seventh, right fielder Josh Reddick hit a two-run shot to take a 7-6 lead.

Making his spring training debut, Carl Crawford went 0-3.

Red Sox 5, Twins 0

After two slug-fests, the Red Sox were looking for an easy win, and they turned to ace Jon Lester to deliver it. And deliver it he did, pitching two scoreless innings, giving up a hit and a walk while striking one out, for his first win in spring training.

Equally or perhaps even more impressive was Jonathan Papelbon, who needed just six pitches (five strikes) to finish off the Twins 1-2-3 in the fifth. Walks have been a recurrent problem for Papelbon in the last two seasons (52 since 2009, 53 from 2005-2008), as much to blame for his drop in performance as anything else. This outing suggests that Papelbon might be overcoming that issue this season.

At the plate, Josh Reddick drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the second, and Mike Cameron went 2-3 playing DH. Minor league center fielder Juan Carlos Linares went 2-2 with an RBI and two runs.

The Red Sox did most of their scoring in their last two innings, putting up one run in the eighth and two in the ninth.

Braves 6, Red Sox 1

The Red Sox struck first Wednesday, but the Atlanta Braves struck every time after that. Even the rare David Ortiz stolen base could not will the Red Sox to victory against a Braves bullpen that pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and three walks.

Ortiz went 3-3 Wednesday with an RBI, but otherwise it was a lackluster showing by the Red Sox offense. Of the 17 other Red Sox to have an at-bat Wednesday, only three had hits. Only one – third basemen Nate Spears – reached base twice, on a hit and a walk. Spears also stole a base.

The Red Sox took the lead after one inning, but starter John Lackey gave it back in the second. In two innings of work, Lackey struck out one while giving up a run on four hits and no walks. He did not factor in the decision.

The Red Sox bullpen paled in comparison to the Braves’, giving up five runs on seven hits and four walks in seven innings. The loss went to non-roster invitee Kyle Weiland, who gave up a two-out RBI single to Braves’ non-roster invitee Brent Clevlen in the fifth. In two innings of work, Weiland gave up three hits and an earned run. He struck out three.

Phillies 2, Red Sox 0

Thursday’s game paired the two MLB teams that made the biggest off-season splashes against each other. As of now, the Philadelphia Phillies look like the stronger team. Phillies starter Cole Hamels pitched four scoreless innings of one-hit, one-walk ball, striking out three. The Phillies’ bullpen finished off the one-hitter, giving up just two walks while striking out five in five innings of work.

Mike Cameron had the Red Sox’s lone hit: a double in the third. No Boston player reached base twice, and only four reached base at all.

Stolmy Pimentel started for the Red Sox in place of Josh Beckett (concussion), giving up a two-run double to third basemen Jeff Larish in the second. In a two-inning loss, Pimentel gave up two earned runs on three hits. He struck out one and walked one.

The Red Sox bullpen pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up four hits and three walks. Dan Wheeler worked around two hits in a scoreless third inning. Bobby Jenks made his spring training debut, giving up just a hit in the fifth. The bullpen’s performance was a small silver lining to an otherwise-unmemorable spring training game.

Red Sox 5, Yankees 3

Another sign that power might be shifting in the AL East away from the New York Yankees occurred Friday night, when a Red Sox squad composed almost entirely of minor-league players beat a Yankees lineup that featured most of its major-league hitters. The Red Sox offense was led by center fielder Juan Carlos Linares, who went 2-2 with an RBI and two runs scored, and second baseman Orlando Tejeda, who went 2-2 with three RBIs and a run scored. Tejeda drove in two with a seventh-inning triple and another with a ninth-inning single.

Top-prospect Jose Iglesias also reached base three times, going 2-3 with a walk and a run scored. When he reaches the majors, he will be a superstar.

The Red Sox played several players with modest major league experience, but only three were bona fide major leaguers: Jason Varitek, who went 0-3, Clay Buchholz, who started, and Matt Albers, who pitched the seventh and eighth. Buchholz pitched three shutout innings, allowing one hit and two walks while striking out two. He did not factor in the win, which went to 35-year-old non-roster invitee Brandon Duckworth. Duckworth pitched two innings, allowing a sixth-inning earned run while giving up three hits and a walk and striking out one.

Albers looked very impressive against the Yankees, striking out three in two perfect innings of work. But his replacement, non-roster invitee Tony Pena, was far less impressive. Pena gave up two earned runs on two hits, two walks and a hit batter in the ninth, and Terry Francona was forced to use a fifth reliever with two outs and the bases loaded. Luckily, Eammon Portice induced a weak grounder to second from Yankees second baseman Ramiro Pena, and Tejeda charged it and threw it just in time for the force-out at first.

Red Sox 4, Orioles 4 (10 innings)

The long wait is over: Carl Crawford, hitless in his first nine at-bats in a Red Sox uniform, went 2-3 in a split-squad tie with the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday. He hit singles in the first and fifth inning and also walked. He was one of only two major-league players to make the trip to Sarasota to play the Orioles, the other being Jacoby Ellsbury, who went 0-3 with a walk and a run scored.

Once again, the dynamic infield duo of Orlando Tejeda and Jose Iglesias were the offensive stars for the Red Sox. Tejeda went 3-5 with a triple and drove in three for the second straight game. Iglesias went 3-4 with an RBI and two runs scored.

Alfredo Aceves started for the Red Sox, giving up two hits and an unearned run in three innings. Scott “Old Man” Atchison had a rougher outing, giving up two runs on three hits and two walks in an inning of work.

The Red Sox took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Orioles catcher Jake Fox homered off non-roster invitee Matt Fox to tie the game. Neither side scored in the 10th, after which the game was called.

Marlins 11, Red Sox 2

The Red Sox minor leaguers had a far more successful split-squad outing than their major-league teammates. The Florida Marlins lit up Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka for seven runs (five earned) on six hits and two walks in three innings of work. He struck out one. In two spring training games, Matsuzaka is 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA. After the game, Matsuzaka gave his usual “working on personal mechanics, not concerned with the outcome” summary. Maybe it’s time Matsuzaka became concerned with the outcome.

Daniel Bard also had another rough outing, giving up two earned runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning.

Boston’s best offensive players were once again minor leaguers. Shortstop Yamaico Navarro went 2-2, including a solo home run. Right fielder Darnell McDonald went 2-3 with an RBI.

The Red Sox were out of this game after the third inning. While the Marlins were having their way with Matsuzaka, former Red Sox pitcher Anibal Sanchez held the Red Sox to just a hit and a walk while striking out three in three innings.

Mets 6, Red Sox 5

With Jon Lester suffering from the flu and unable to start, the Red Sox turned to Michael Bowden to start against the New York Mets. Bowden went two innings, giving up two earned runs on three hits and a walk. The Mets had more success against non-roster invitee Andrew Miller, who gave up three earned runs on four hits in two innings.

Despite being down 5-1 after three innings, the Red Sox clawed back into the game. Daniel Nava and Jed Lowrie each had two hits (Lowrie also scored a run), as did catching prospect Tim Federowicz, who hit a solo home run in the seventh inning. Also homering were Josh Reddick (two-run) and Juan Carlos Linares, and the Red Sox went into the bottom of the eighth tied 5-5. But non-roster invitee Alex Wilson gave up an earned run on three hits, and the Red Sox could not score in the ninth.

Hideki Okajima rebounded nicely from his earlier games, pitching a perfect fifth inning.

Final Thoughts

3-4-1. Not good, not bad. It’s clear the Red Sox minor leaguers are off to a faster start than the major leaguers, which makes total sense. Crawford could go hitless through March and he’d still be the Red Sox’s number two hitter when the regular season starts. Players like Tejeda, Linares and Reddick, meanwhile, are playing for a potential spot on the bench, either on Opening Day or as mid-season or September call-ups. At the very least, they’re trying for better placement within the farm system. They have far more to gain, so they’re trying hard early on. The starters can take their time getting ready for April, assured of their spots.

Speaking of minor leaguers: how good does Jose Iglesias look? Shortstops have always been Theo Epstein’s Achilles’ heel. For some reason, he can never find and then hold onto good ones. But Epstein is also a better judge of young talent than he is of established veterans. Iglesias is the best of both worlds: a young player with unbelievable potential who can develop in a farm system that has produced countless superstars. The only key will be to not rush him to the majors too quickly and risk a setback. Red Sox fans will likely see Iglesias in September, if not sooner. The Red Sox will be set at second base for years, but Lowrie will have a battle for starting-shortstop when Iglesias reaches the majors for good.

You never know what to expect with Matsuzaka, so it’s impossible to determine from two starts what kind of season he’ll have. But more concerning is Bard, who has struggled in two appearances so far, giving up four runs on five hits and three walks in 1.2 innings. His ERA is currently 21.60. This is not the start fans were hoping for from the Red Sox’s future closer. Then again, Bard had a poor spring training last season as well (five earned runs on eight hits and a hit batter in 9.0 innings), and it didn’t seem to affect his regular season at all.

Pierce’s and Allen’s 27 Each Lead Celtics over Warriors and Ellis’s 41

The old song goes, “make new friends, but keep the old.” The Boston Celtics got contributions from players both new and old Friday night against the Golden State Warriors, winning 107-103.

Newcomers Show Their Games

Nenad Krstic started at center Friday, making his presence known almost immediately. With the game tied 4-4, Krstic overpowered Warriors power forward Ekpe Udoh for an up-and-under basket. On the Celtics’ next possession, Paul Pierce penetrated into the lane, drawing double-coverage before dishing the ball to Krstic at the last possible minute. Krstic slammed the pass home for an 8-4 Boston lead.

Later in the quarter, Pierce again penetrated into the lane and passed from beneath the basket, this time to Kevin Garnett. Garnett caught the ball at as his sweet spot at the top of the key, but instead opted to hand off to Krstic and let the new guy try the jumper. Krstic did not disappoint. Krstic finished the game with 11 points in 26 minutes, fewest among Boston starters. He grabbed six rebounds while blocking a shot and stealing a pass.

Krstic finished the game with the highest plus-minus (whether a team scores or gives up points when a player is on the court) on either team with plus-12. But Jeff Green had the far superior shooting night. Green was the most accurate shooter on the team, going 8-11 for 21 points. He also had three steals.

Green dominated the second quarter. With just over 10 minutes left in the second, Green dunked a Ray Allen pass for a 36-29 Boston lead. Rajon Rondo (16 assists) then found Green with a half-court pass, which Green laid in while drawing the foul. Rondo found Green later in the quarter with a scoop-pass for the alley-oop dunk.

Green also converted a second-quarter broken play into Celtics points, culminating an absolutely chaotic sequence in which Rondo picked off a leaping-out-of-bounds Warriors pass, lost the handle and then recovered it, then found Garnett at the top of the arc. Garnett then passed it to Pierce in the corner, who threw to Allen. Instead of taking the wide-open three, Allen dished it to a wide-open Green under the basket for the dunk and a 50-43 lead.

Green had such success under the basket that Golden State eventually started double-covering him even when he didn’t have the ball. This cleared the way for other Celtics, such as Rondo, who scored an easy layup with 3:47 left in the half after Green cleared the lane for him.

Veterans Still Have Something to Say

Fouls derailed Green in the second half and he fouled out (although replay showed three of his fouls to be questionable), but by then the experienced Pierce had found his shooting groove. Of Pierce’s 27 points, 20 came in the second half.

Pierce was especially good at getting himself to the foul line, where he was a perfect 8-8. Six of those free throws came in the third quarter, including four in two consecutive possessions. In the fourth, Pierce hit a nice dribble-jumper, then drained a second jumper after swinging his arms in a wide circle to draw the foul. His biggest basket came with 1:31 left in the game, when Rondo found him with a bounce-pass underneath the basket. Pierce’s layup put the Celtics up 105-101, and two Allen free throws after rebounding a missed Garnett jumper were enough to seal the victory.

Allen, meanwhile, was sensational from start to finish. He didn’t miss a shot until there was 1:19 left in the first half, finishing 9-13 for 27 points with three rebounds and three assists. He was 5-8 from three-point range, not missing from beyond the arc until fewer than five minutes remained in the game.

Allen’s first three-pointer was a runner in traffic, but otherwise Allen was wide open for almost every three-point shot he took. This is surprising, considering he’s the best three-point shooter ever. But Allen was a wide-open presence on just about every Celtics fast break. Even in the third quarter, after Allen had already drained four treys, the Warriors still were unable to keep track of him, and he drained another for a 77-61 Boston lead.

So locked in was Allen that even his bank shots looked easy, scoring high off the backboard twice in the second quarter. The only knock against Allen might be that he missed a technical free-throw. But given his shooting performance, we’ll let that one slide.

Ellis Almost Wins It Single-Handedly

Allen’s, Pierce’s and Green’s scoring barrage was almost overcome by a single Warrior: shooting guard Monta Ellis. Ellis went 13-24, scoring a whopping 41 points, including 28 in the second half. Every time the Celtics extended their lead, Ellis responded with a basket to keep it tight. With the Celtics up 100-93 with just over four minutes left in the game, Ellis drained two consecutive three-pointers to cut the lead to 100-99. He also drew a three-point shooting foul on Green early in the fourth.

Ellis’s performance was spectacular, scoring both from the paint and from the perimeter almost at will. He was backed up by center David Lee, who scored 26 while rebounding 12. The Warriors out-rebounded the Celtics, 39-28, including 15 offensive rebounds that kept far too many possessions alive for Golden State.

The Warriors’ biggest issue all season has been that while they don’t hesitate to shoot (second in the league with 85.2 attempts per game), they’re not accurate (.460 shooting percentage, 13th in the NBA). The Celtics, meanwhile, are the most accurate team in the NBA, and their 53.4 percent shooting was a good night even for them. So while Ellis and the Warriors took 11 more shots than the Celtics, the Celtics made more of their shots count.

When all is said and done, that’s all that matters.

The Biggest Staring Contest in Sports

Staring at a midnight expiration date for the current collective bargaining agreement, the NFL and NFLPA agreed Thursday to a 24-hour extension. Player transactions (releases, signings, extensions, etc.) still freeze at 11:59 Thursday night, but now the two sides have another day to negotiate or seek decertification of the league. Should that happen, the NFL Players Association has already confirmed that Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and the Patriots’ Tom Brady and Logan Mankins will be among the nine name plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.

You know what the best thing about arbitrary deadlines is? If you don’t like them, you can just set new ones. We shouldn’t be overly surprised by this bullshit “extension,” nor should we take it as a sign of progress. The CBA could expire tomorrow, or another “extension” could be granted. The NFL and NFLPA can keep stalling as long as they want, because there isn’t really an agency that can compel them to do anything. And given the choice between extension and capitulation, the NFLPA would obviously choose extension. Every day the current CBA is extended is another day players have access to team facilities and health care for them and their families. The owners, meanwhile, don’t really lose ground by extending, so they’re happy to do so as well.

The two sides fight over a series of small issues, and one big one. The small issues include the proposed 18-game regular season, a new wage scale for rookies, and more benefits for retired NFL players. But the big issue is revenue sharing – how much of the league’s total revenue is initially given to owners to help cover costs such as stadium maintenance. Currently, owners get about $1 billion of the NFL’s $9 billion in revenues “off the top.” Now, they want another billion. The players want a bigger cut and more fiscal transparency by owners and the league.

Neither side wants to back down from this issue, because the potential power shift could have even longer-lasting effects than the revenue shift. If the owners back down, it will embolden the NFLPA. Say what you will about the way the MLB Players Association has dealt with the steroids issue, but it is undeniable that baseball players enjoy far greater earning potential and union protection. Given how easily MLB suspensions are reduced, one might argue that the MLBPA is more powerful than the MLB. That’s great for the players, bad for the owners, and fans are left in the middle, confused. Owners and the NFL don’t want to see the NFLPA become like the MLBPA. Conversely, if the NFLPA can’t flex its muscles with its new director DeMaurice Smith and president Kevin Mawae, when will it ever? Hence the staring contest.

Ultimately, the players have far more to lose than the owners. Should a lockout occur, a scab league will likely take its place, since the stadiums will still be there, the players just won’t be allowed in. Anybody who watches the United Football League, Arena Football League or Canadian Football League knows two things: there are some pretty good football players not in the NFL, and they don’t make nearly what their brothers in the NFL do. Owners could easily build cheap teams of B+ players. It won’t be NFL football, but it will give the owners enough bang for their buck to make it worthwhile. Some players in other leagues may resist, but many won’t turn down the offer of better facilities and far better salaries. These are still family men, after all, and players who once dreamed of playing in the NFL. Now, they can.

Yes, the NFL will suffer a blow to its image, just as the MLB did after the 1994 strike (it took the McGwire-Sosa home run race to restore its popularity). But the NFL will eventually recover.

The players, however, might not. They’ll lose money – approximately $140 million is due in bonuses and other compensation to about 74 players – and, worse, they’ll lose a year. The average shelf-life of an NFL player is just three years. Much of that is due to the wear-and-tear of the season. But at least a small portion is also due to the limited number of years a player has when he can perform at an elite level. The players who are in their mid-20s will be fine. But anybody 29 or over is probably nervous about giving up a year, especially when nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. A year later, doesn’t that hair look just a bit grayer? Don’t those knees feel just a bit creakier? Doesn’t the future look just a bit darker?

On the flip side, the ultra-young should also fear a lockout. It appears that there will still be a draft, but without a collective bargaining agreement, contracts can’t be signed. And then the draftees will enter into a quagmire of signing rights and earning potential. Meanwhile, a year will go by and a new batch of college students will get in the game. If teams don’t retain signing rights to 2011 draftees, then suddenly all those rookies will be competing for jobs not just against each other, but also against the 2012 draftees, who aren’t a year removed from competitive play. Every 2011 draft-eligible quarterback that breathed a sigh of relief when Stanford’s Andrew Luck didn’t declare will suddenly turn white at the thought of having to compete against him for a contract.

All of this means that the NFLPA will likely blink first. The key to negotiations is being able to walk away, and the owners are just more comfortable with walking away than the players. It’s a sad situation when management beats down labor, but without the support of the fans, the NFLPA just doesn’t have the backing to pull the kind of power move necessary to secure a more player-friendly CBA.

The current CBA is terrible, and if the owners get their way, the next one will be as well. The NFLPA can stall all they want with extensions, but ultimately, the rich will just get richer.

Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2007”

Having now read both “The Best American Sports Writing of 2010” and “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”, I’ve decided to back-track and read all 19 other volumes of the series, dating back to 1991. There’s no particular order I plan to read them in; “The Best American Sports Writing 2007” was given to me as a gift over a year ago, so it’s the first one I’m tackling.

The “Best American Sports Writing” series is edited by Glenn Stout, with a different volume editor each year. For the 2007 volume, Stout chose Washington Post editor David Maraniss to choose its contents. Maraniss has written several sports books, including a biography of Pittsburgh Pirate and Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente and a look at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but he may be best-known for his coverage of Bill Clinton and the 1992 presidential campaign, which won Maraniss a Pulitzer Prize.

Every volume editor introduces the chosen stories (28) with an original essay; Maraniss’s shifts his in tone midway through. The essay starts with a pseudo-nostalgic look back at how journalism used to be done, and how the permanence of typewriters required far more conceptualization for a story before any words were put to paper. With word processors, essays can be written, re-written, structured and re-structured in moments. While this may give writers more freedom to experiment, it also lets editors make last-second changes without worry. Maraniss concludes that newspaper writing today runs the risk of becoming over-edited, to the point where any style or individual voice is washed out.

Maraniss leaves his diatribe midway, however, to tell a sweet story about his father, and how his father’s teachings affected which stories he chose for the volume. The essay reads as two disparate article squished together, and you finish it (and thus enter the actual articles) in an odd state of mind. When the opening article is about a boy going raccoon hunting, finding a rare albino, killing it, then deciding to toss the carcass in the woods instead of bringing it home, you don’t leave that state of mind for awhile.

Strong Articles From Running to Racing

One of my major complaints about the 2010 volume was that it was over-saturated with articles about injury and death, to the point that an overwhelming sense of despair creeps up on and then overwhelms you. The 2007 volume does not fall into this trap. Yes, there are a few tragic articles, such as Bruce Wallace’s “In Iraq, Soccer Field is No longer a Refuge,” about a budding Iraqi soccer superstar shot dead while going up for a header. But these are the outliers, not the norm, and they’re balanced against stories of recovery or inspiration. John Brant’s “Team Hoyt Starts Again,” about a father who runs marathons with his son, who suffers from cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia, actually gave me goosebumps when I read it. I felt better about the world knowing a father this devoted and a son this determined exist (or existed in 2007).

But even better than Brant’s story is Steve Friedman’s “A Moment of Silence,” a profile of John Moylan, a competitive runner who was in one of the Twin Towers when the planes struck, but survived. This is the best September 11 story I’ve ever read. What makes this story so great is that it doesn’t try to do anything more than tell one man’s story. There’s no infusion of patriotism or nationalism, fake or honest, no exploitation of one man’s story to further a cause. The story is actually kind of pointless: Moylan used to run, survived September 11, found he couldn’t run, then later found he could. So how can a pointless story about September 11 be any good? Because Friedman makes Moylan come alive. Friedman characterizes Moylan as a person who only acted after carefully weighing his options, so that each choice he made was a calculated risk with the least risk for the most reward possible. As he exited the Twin Towers, Moylan saw bodies on the ground, and realized that people on higher floors had to choose between burning alive and jumping to their deaths. For man where every move is a conscious and clearly analyzed decision, it makes perfect sense that that – what Friedman calls repeatedly the “terrible choice” – is what would traumatize him. Friedman gave me such a clear understanding of who Moylan is that I could deeply empathize with the trauma he went through, even though I’d never gone through anything that horrific. Friedman also writes a charming set of sentences that make Moylan’s running route come alive, not just in description but in Moylan’s thoughts while running it: “He’ll run past one dairy farm and its herd of cows, and he’ll make mooing sounds and wonder why they never moo back. Later, he’ll pass another dairy farm and moo at those cows, who always moo back. One of life’s mysteries.” Great color. Plus, I like cows.

There were also two very strong profiles: Michael Lewis’s on Bill Parcells, and Robert Huber’s on college basketball coach John Chaney. And Mimi Swartz does such a fantastic job entering the world of Brazilian formula-1 racing that I found myself Wikipedia-ing the story’s focus, young racer Bia Figueiredo, just to see whatever happened to her (she’s doing well, since you asked). Great journalism makes you interested in something you’d never otherwise think about, and Swartz’s essay does just that.

Words, Not Writing

The two weakest articles in the 2007 edition are written by people who don’t know the difference between using a lot of words and being able to write. Jeff MacGregor’s “Let Us Now Raze Famous Men” is as ridiculously written as its title. The message of the story, I think, is that Don King’s self-contradictory nature makes him the quintessential American. But in all of MacGregor’s pompous, bomastic language (even King would probably tell him to calm down), I don’t think I learned anything about King or America.

Eric Neel’s “The Saturday Game” is ostensibly about a New Rochelle, NY, pick-up basketball game that’s been played by the same group since pretty much forever. But his writing stinks of an inferiority complex, and Neel tries far too hard to show us how hip he is, how much basketball slang he knows, how much he’s like these guys, who are so cool, so he must be also be so cool. Hunter S. Thompson inserted himself into most of his stories, but he was up front about it. He either wrote about himself, or he wrote about someone else. He never pretended to be writing about someone else. Neel doesn’t write about these players so much as exploits them. It’s dishonest journalism, and it makes the characters in the story seem muted. In the next story in the volume, Bryan Smith’s “Playing 4 Keeps,” about a group of elderly African Americans and the Chicago billiard hall where they gather, the story flows naturally and the main characters jump off the page, and the writing is better for it.

Both of the Washington Post articles are surprisingly weak. Sally Jenkins’s “Only Medal for Bode is Fool’s Gold” is well-argued, it just doesn’t stand the test of time, given how Miller transformed himself for the 2010 Winter Olympics, shedding his “bad boy of skiing” persona while winning a gold, silver and bronze medal. And Michael Wilbon’s “The Real Deal in So Many Ways,” a tribute to Celtics legend Red Auerbach, was a loving tribute at the time (it was published just two days after Auerbach’s death), but three years later reads as “too easy.” Arguing Auerbach was the greatest coach of all time is like arguing Ted Williams was the greatest hitter of all time. Where’s the nuance?

Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe gives us another long-form exposé, this time about two Amateur Athletic Union basketball coaches in New England who also are sneaker representatives. It’s not a bad article, but his “Failing Our Athletes” in the 2010 volume is far more comprehensive and emotionally resonant. Michael Sokolove’s “Allonzo Trier Is in the Game,” also in the 2010 volume, is a better look at the AAU, taking the reader to the level of the children actually playing, which is really all we should care about). So in two ways Hohler’s 2007 entry reads as weaker than later writing.

Final Thoughts

Maraniss may be a strong political writer, but his sports-writing abilities are dwarfed by 2010’s editor, Peter Gammons. Consequently, the 2010 volume packs more of a punch than the 2007 volume. The overall writing quality is just better in 2010. However, the 2007 volume doesn’t leave you feeling like a truck ran you over when you’re done with it. There’s far more balance between the tones of the submissions, and the characters themselves feel a little livelier. “The Best American Sports Writing 2007” is an easier read than the 2010 volume – the writing is a little bit weaker, but more of the articles entertain as well as educate. And ultimately, shouldn’t reading be entertaining?