Belichick is seeing secondary gains

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Belichick is seeing secondary gains

Two games ago, the Patriots picked off three Andrew Luck passes and returned two of them for touchdowns.

Last game, safety Steve Gregory snuffed some building Jets momentum by stepping in front of a red-zone throw by Mark Sanchez in the first quarter of the Patriots blowout win.

Opposing wide receivers left desperately and totally alone along the sidelines for 20-something gains are becoming less frequent. Late-arriving defensive backs arriving without brakes and plowing into receivers have become scarce.

The Patriots secondary is making incremental improvement. Just like it did last year. Bill Belichick sees it too.

"I think over the last couple of weeks we've made improvement there," Belichick said on a morning conference call Monday. "Steve (Gregory) coming back, Devin (McCourty) at safety and with (Aqib) Talib and Alfonzo (Dennard) switching sides; with Talib coming (to the team) in the past couple games . . . there's some moving parts there but I think those guys have worked hard to try to improve it and I think there are some positive signs and they need to continue to do that."

Belichick said that, although the Patriots' track record has been to build momentum and efficiency as a season progresses, improvement is not automatic.

"It can increase as the season goes along," Belichick said, speaking of the secondary's intuitiveness and anticipation specifically. "I don't think that's a given or something you can take for granted. The people that are involved in the rotation and the amount of opportunity that they get to practice, prepare, play and communicate together (leads to improvement)."

Belichick cited practice reps as being indispensable to being able to effectively carry out a game-day plan.

"If your scout team gives you a really good look at a play in practice and you get that play in the game it can really build your timing and help your anticipation," Belichick noted. "That can make a difference too. All those little things add up. Where one stops and the other starts, they're all interrelated and all a part of the end-result product. We just try to incrementally (improve) and hope that in the end the product (is effective)."

The Patriots have cycled through a slew of defensive backs this season. Injuries, ineffectiveness and skipping on from ineffective combinations have forced their hand into moving guys around. But it now seems the intangible and invaluable attributes of confidence, aggressiveness and trust are starting to emerge.

"You know how quickly it moves and how fast the game is, especially at that position," said Belichick. "Just a split-second of anticipation or of saved reaction time can make the difference between making a play and giving up a play and those split-seconds are very hard to measure but the difference can be the difference in a game. So if you think that it's improving, I think it should continue to improve, it needs to continue to improve. We've gotta really work hard at it. That's everybody."

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

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.

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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

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.

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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.