Belichick gives his slant on the slot

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Belichick gives his slant on the slot

FOXBORO - No team has ever wrung more offensive production from their slot receiver position that the New England Patriots.

Their reliance on the position predates Wes Welker's arrival in 2007 with the stylings of Troy Brown who, because he was the Patriots best offensive player from 2000 to 2003, forced the Patriots and Tom Brady to become slot-focused.

This week, the Patriots will deal with one of the best slot receivers not named Welker, Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins.

Bess, who's signed through 2013 with Miami, is an intriguing player. At 5-10, 190, he's a little more solidly built than Welker. He's also a little faster. Bess is a player I used to think could be plugged into the New England offense in place of Welker and give identical production.

The 2011 season Welker submitted moved me off that stance, but I still wonder if slot receivers aren't virtually interchangeable. Could Bess do what Welker does if the Patriots part ways with Welker and court the 27-year-old Bess in 2014? Could Danny Amendola do what Welker does if the Rams slot receiver comes available after this season (speculation is, Amendola will be franchised)? Will the Patriots simply let Julian Edelman assume the slot and expand the position's "route tree" because of Edelman's superior straight-line speed (but inferior guile working the middle of the field)? Or do the Patriots find a way to make sure the 31-year-old Welker sticks around a while longer?

Bill Belichick spoke in-depth about the position Wednesday, stating plainly that slot receiver and wide receiver are wholly different positions.

"I think its a little bit of a different world in there (for a slot receiver)," Belichick said when asked if slot receiver was a simple position to fill. "There are a lot more people involved you have linebackers, you have safeties, you have corners, sometimes defensive linemen coming out and blitzing on those."

Looking at the contracts of wideouts compared to slots, it's plain that - even though slots can generate more production and handle the ball more often - teams are willing to allocate more money to pay their best outside receivers than they are going to pay the slot.

That may be, in part, because teams can't teach the kind of speed, strength and athleticism players like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald possess. Measurables matter and a player like Welker simply could not do the things Johnson or Fitzgerald does if you put Welker on the edge.

In the slot, guile and guts trump measurables. Most outside receivers probably COULD play slot at a serviceable level (although long-striders are a liability inside) but they wouldn't have the belly for it.

There's an incredible amount to process when you play in the slot.

"You have different combinations of coverage and its really important that that receiver and the quarterback see things exactly the same when to keep going, when to slow up, when to stop, any kind of option routes, which way to break, when to come out of it. It definitely takes some work," Belichick explained.

"The visual communication between those two players is, I think, more difficult," Belichick added. "Im not saying its easier outside; there are just more variables inside. Again, especially when you get into option routes and decision making, youre just going to run five yards and run across the field and thats fairly straight forward although there is some, Do you go over? Do you go under? Do you slow down? Do you speed up? Do you stop? Do you throttle? What are your rules? What tells you to do what? Most importantly, it has to be exactly what the quarterback thinks youre going to do so you dont go behind the linebacker when he thinks youre going in front of him and its a bad interception, that kind of thing. I think theres a lot to that, yeah. I think it takes a lot to play that position.

If there were a slogan for slots it would be, "We try harder, do more stuff and take more risk for less!" Not really something you'd want your son to sign up for, but, indispensable.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.