Beating the best

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Beating the best

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

After what happened last season, it was hard to take this regular season seriously.

You know, the old Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, Ill whack you below the waist band mentality?

The way the Celtics struggled last winter and then turned it on when it mattered went against everything that wed previously learned about sports. There were some things that were supposed to stand in the way of their success; irreversible, bad habits that were supposed that had the C's programmed to self-destruct. But it never happened, or at least not until the last 20 minutes, and in the end, it left us with a new perspective on the NBA regular season. (Or at least a new perspective on a team with enough credentials to fill its own wing in Springfield.)

If theyre healthy, theyll be fine. Its all about pacing for the playoffs.

The same words the Celtics had recited repeatedly the previous year became the rallying cry for the entire fandom. And thats pretty unbelievable when you think about it. How often do you see that level of trust and understanding, especially in a city like Boston? The Celtics were essentially, preemptively given a pass from the doldrums of an NBA winter.

The deal was:

OK, we know youre good enough to get back to the Finals. We know youre good enough to win. And if the regular season is just a necessary evil, then so be it. Do what you do. Make sure youre ready. In the meantime well just enjoy the ride, celebrate the highs, shrug off the lows and keep counting down until it really matters.

Meanwhile, the team itself never took that approach. They were more fired up and motivated than at any point since 2008. But the pressure around them had been lifted slightly. If they had to pull back the reins at any point to better position themselves (physically) for the playoffs, then that was OK. If they lost to Washington, Detroit or Toronto, it wouldnt be the end of the world. For fans, it just came with the territory. And while that wasnt ideal, if that was the only drawback to an extra year of competing for the title, then it was well worth it. Like Jermaine ONeal; only the exact opposite.

But for the unconditional faith bestowed upon them, there was one thing the Celtics could do. There was a way for them to reward the fans for understanding and make the regular season of perspective a little easier to cope with.

Basically, over the course of the year, there'd be handful of times when the Celtics would have the opportunity to reach down, step up and prove to Boston that their championship team was still there. Thats not to say that that team couldnt show up on a random Tuesday against the Bucks or on a Monday night in Memphis, but for it to really matter, for Boston to really love and trust in that team, it'd have to show up when it mattered most. When they were in a position to turn it up; where fans could watch them at a playoff level in a playoff atmosphere and think, Oh, there they are! Thats fantastic. Now lets get back to pacing for the playoffs.

Sunday afternoon against the Lakers was the latest and greatest example of these Celtics doing their part to ensure that no one waivers in their devotion to what this team can do if healthy for the next five months.

I dont want to make it seem like thats all the Celtics accomplished. I dont want to downplay the victory. CelticsLakers should never be just another example of the Cs going about their business. Given all that was involved, it was an amazing win for Boston.

As far as Sunday afternoons in January go, its almost impossible to be beat. What more could you ask for? A surprise comeback by Delonte West? Rondo posterizing Kobe on a break away? An in-game Brooklyn Decker Cam option on your remote?

Easy, tiger.

A double-digit win in L.A. will always satisfy expectations. Itll turn the grumpiest Celtics fan giddier than Dwight Howard during Saturday morning cartoons. To see the Cs (eventually) play that well, on that floor and against that team, provides a kind of rush that cant be duplicated in Boston sports. Beating L.A. in L.A., and doing in the style the Celtics did with defense, team and intensity vs. Hey, Im Kobe. Me shoot now! just makes you feel good. Better than it did after either of the games against Miami, or the last time against the Magic. In fact, the Heat could trade for Chris Paul, the Magic could move for Carmelo and Deron Williams, and it still wouldnt matter. Nothings as good as beating the Lakers.

At the same time, I dont want to say the win was perfect, either. There are still some issues.

For instance, Rajon Rondo still doesnt have an answer for the Sag-off-Rondo defense. Were in year four that hes been facing it, and it still creates serious problems. I know he finished with 16 assists, and had 15 in the second half, but thats because the Celtics were able to get out in transition and open the game up (plus Kobe wasn't always guarding him). If these two teams meet in the Finals again, there will be times when the transition game is stagnant, and Rondo will be forced to contribute in the half court set while Bryant is guarding him. Right now he cant do it.

But thanks to another big-time, big-game performance by these Celtics, theres still no doubt that they can. In fact, aside from the Christmas Day in Orlando, this team has responded nearly every time they had to. Any opportunity to make a statement, and reward that faith has been seized and delivered upon. And then some.

For now, thats all you can ask for.

And for now, all you can do is keep that perspective. A lot can happen between now and the playoffs. With games coming up against Orlando, the Lakers (again) and Miami, a lot might happen between now and the All-Star Game.

But as long as they're healthy, so will be Boston's spirits.

Although three more big wins certainly wouldn't hurt.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Quotes, notes and stars: Swihart flashes power and speed

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Quotes, notes and stars: Swihart flashes power and speed

BOSTON - Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 10-3 win over the Colorado Rockies:

 

QUOTES

"I felt a little cramp. I'm fine. I appreciate John and everybody looking out (for me). We obviously don't want anything to happen like last year, but I'm good.'' - Dustin Pedroia, who left the game in the fifth after experiencing some tightness in his right hamstring.

"It's nice to be able to get deep into the game. That's my goal every time. My goal is nine innings, so if I don't get nine innings, I'm a little disappointed because I want to be able to go out there and pitch as many innings as I can.'' - Steven Wright.

"I think my release point was just a little off. That definitely makes it hard, especially when it's moving, because it's not a consistent release point.'' - Wright on the early-inning unpredictability of his signature pitch.

"Even when I was catching, I pride myself on running. I want to be an athlete back there. I want to run the bases, steal bases, things most catchers aren't known to do.'' - Blake Swihart, who hit two triples.

 

NOTES

* Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his hitting streak to 29 games.

* Xander Bogaerts extended his hitting streak to 18 games.

* David Ortiz tied Paul Molitor for 12th on the all-time doubles list with 605.

* Ortiz has driven in multiple runs in three straight games

* Dustin Pedroia has a career batting average of .340 in interleague play, the highest ever for someone with 500 or more at-bats.

* Travis Shaw drove in three runs and now has 68 RBI in his first 111 games since Fred Lynn and Jim Rice in 1974-75.

* Blake Swihart became the third Red Sox hitter this season to post two triples in the same game.

* The Red Sox clinched their fifth straight home series win.

* The Sox are 21-8 since April 24 and are 13-2 in their last 15 home games.

 

STARS

1) Steven Wright

Backed by some rare run support, Wright evened his record at 4-4 with seven-plus innings and his eighth quality start this season.

2) Travis Shaw

Shaw produced two hits and knocked in three runs, making him the fourth Red Sox player this season to reach 30 RBI.

3) Blake Swihart

Swihart got to flash both his power and his speed by hitting two triples to the triangle, motoring around the bases.

 

Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

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Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

A day after the Bruins announced a much-maligned four-year contract extension for defenseman Kevan Miller, B’s general manager Don Sweeney held court with the media to equal parts explain/defend the $10 million deal. Sweeney pointed to the very high character of a hardnosed player in Miller, and the relatively low mileage given that he’s played only 159 games at the NHL level.

There was also mention made of the room to grow in Miller’s game, though it’s difficult to imagine a much higher ceiling for a 28-year-old player than what the former UVM produced showed in 71 games last season.

“Kevan brings incredible character. His signing provides us with the necessary depth on our defense that all teams need. His relative low-mileage, having just played 160 games, we identified that we think Kevan has room for continued growth and development,” said Sweeney. “We certainly saw that in his play this year when he had an expanded role. Relative to the free market place, very, very comfortable with where Kevan fits into our group, and this provides us with the opportunity to explore the marketplace in every way, shape, or form, in having Kevan signed.”

Here’s the reality: Miller is a 5-6, bottom pairing defenseman on a good team, and a top-4 defenseman on a team like last year’s Bruins that finished a weak 19th in the league in goals allowed. The five goals and 18 points last season were solid career-high numbers for a player in the middle of his hockey prime, but he barely averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game as a front top-4 defenseman. Miller struggles with some of the fundamental needs in today’s NHL if you’re going to be a top-4 D-man: the tape-to-tape passes aren’t always accurate, there’s intermittent difficulty cleanly breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and Miller was exploited by the other team’s best players when paired with Zdeno Chara at points last season.

Certainly Miller has done some good things racking up a plus-55 rating during his three years in Boston, but executives and officials around the league were a bit surprised by the 4-year, $10 million contract extension. It’s viewed as a slight overpay in terms of both salary and term, but it’s more the redundancy of the contract that’s befuddling to some.

“Miller is certainly a rugged guy, but you already had one of those at roughly the same value in Adam McQuaid. I believe that you can’t win if you have both McQuaid and Miller in your top 6 because they are both No. 6 D’s in my mind,” said a rival NHL front office executive polled about the Miller contract. “You look at the playoffs and the direction that the league is headed in, and you need to have big, mobile defenseman that can quickly move the puck up the ice. You have too much of the same thing with Miller and McQuaid, and I think you can’t win with that in this day and age.”

The one facet of the four year Miller contract that might make it okay for some Bruins fans: the tacit connection to the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes. According to several sources around the league, the Bruins taking care of Miller now will very likely have a positive impact on their chances of landing Vesey when he becomes a free agent on Aug. 15, and makes them the front-runner for the Harvard standout’s services. Both Miller and Vesey are represented by the same agent in Peter Fish, and those are the kinds of behind-the-scenes connections that many times factor into free agent signings and trades around the NHL.

So many, this humble hockey writer included, may owe Sweeney a slight apology if paying a $10 million premium for a bottom-pairing defenseman in Miller now pays dividends in landing a stud forward like Vesey that’s drawing interest all around the league.