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

Patriots may get help from Foster . . . but not the one you think

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Patriots may get help from Foster . . . but not the one you think

As Patriots fans across New England worked themselves into a fine lather at the sight of Arian Foster in Boston over the weekend, another running back of the same last name prepared himself for his first-ever week of OTAs. 

D.J. Foster may not have the resume that Arian Foster has racked up over the course of his seven-year career, but the undrafted rookie running back's skill set is intriguing nonetheless. And he's healthy, whereas the former Texans Pro Bowler is coming off of a season-ending Achilles ailment and hasn't played a full season since 2012. 

Foster could be considered one of the players on the Patriots roster who stands the most to gain from this phase of the team's offseason program. Not only will he be taught to put into practice that which he's learned during his brief time in Foxboro this far, but there could be valuable reps available to him as Dion Lewis works his way back from a season-ending ACL injury suffered last fall. 

Foster, who played receiver during his final collegiate season at Arizona State, may slot in behind veteran sub backs James White and Donald Brown, but he'll still have an opportunity to show what he can do this spring. This is considered a "teaching camp" by the Patriots, not a "competition camp," meaning the lines between first, second and third string are a bit more blurry than they might be during training camp. Everyone gets a shake. 

At 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds Foster may be considered slight to run between the tackles, but his quickness could help him make defenders miss in the hole. He ran a 6.75-second three-cone drill at this year's combine, which was fourth among wideouts. Had he been considered a back, he would've topped the list at that position for that drill. 

Foster worked primarily with running backs coach Ivan Fears when he first arrived at Gillette Stadium, making it sound as though he'll be in the mix as one of the team's pass-catching backs. But knowing the Patriots, they'll be open to splitting him out wide as well. 

Wherever he's used, Foster will have his work cut out for him as he learns the offense and tries to develop an on-the-field rapport with his quarterbacks. Slow going as his development may be, his ceiling is exciting. 

One thing's for certain: At this point, he's of more use to the club than a veteran back coming off of a major injury who isn't quite ready to pass a physical. 

Despite discord, Goodell's reign may not be nearing end

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Despite discord, Goodell's reign may not be nearing end

Monday may have marked a low point in the relationship between the NFL and its on-field employees.

The fight between the league and its best player of the past two decades was in the headlines again. Tom Brady, tied to the NFL’s bumper and dragged around for almost 500 days, had his NFLPA legal team baring its teeth again in the Deflategate mess. The eye-gouging and hair-pulling in that imbroglio over a puff of air allegedly being removed from footballs has cost the league and the PA about $25M so far.

Meanwhile, NFLPA President Eric Winston was saying the league "cannot be trusted to do the right thing when it involves players.” That comment flowed from a Congressional report alleging the NFL tried to exert influence over who would conduct studies regarding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the condition that’s been blamed for a myriad of former players winding up addled, incapacitated or dead.

I say “may have marked” because the relationship between the two sides has cratered so frequently over the past two years, it’s hard to know exactly what the low point has been. Or how much lower it can go.

And, with the 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement only half done, there is ample opportunity for things to get worse. Because, really, why would they get better?

With the NFL’s owners safe knowing that their emperor/puppet/human shield is still in place to take the hits and do their dirty work, there’s seemingly no groundswell among that group to relieve Roger Goodell of his duties. Despite reports of growing owner discontent over Deflategate, the Ray Rice investigation, and an appeal of a case in which the league was found to have withheld $100M from players, there is no Sword of Damocles dangling over the league to cut ties with Goodell.

He was able to oversee the league’s re-entry in Los Angeles (though that “triumph” was fraught with owner acrimony), is going to get a game played in China, keeps edging closer to getting a franchise based in Europe and may even land one in Las Vegas, has enhanced the league’s reach on social media (the announcement of some games being aired on Twitter) and keeps making billions hand over fist.

Goodell’s presence won’t be an impediment to a new labor deal getting done for another five years. By then, when the issues of Goodell’s role in player discipline, drug testing and his relationship with the union come to the fore, the owners might feel compelled to cut him loose after 15 seasons in charge.

But even then, the league’s owners will be in the business of pointing out to the players how good they’ve had it under the current CBA. The league’s salary cap structure – decried as a disaster in the first years of the deal – has seen the cap grow from $120M in 2011 to $155M this year. Players’ practice time and the wear and tear on their bodies has been reduced thanks to the new limits on contact enacted. Benefits are better. Retired players are getting better care. Players have more off-field marketing opportunities with companies that want to affix themselves to the most popular sport in the United States.

As bad as the headlines have been for Goodell, in five years (or probably fewer since negotiations on a new CBA will begin in 2020) who will remember the disaster that’s been Deflategate? How inspired will players be to miss games and paychecks for the satisfaction of knowing Goodell can’t be his own arbitrator anymore?

To sum it up, Goodell’s dark disciplinary reign may well continue unabated for a few more seasons. But as long as the league rains money on its players through the end of this decade, the clock isn’t ticking on Goodell and the owners in the form of labor strife.