By Tom E. CurranSEATTLE - Close to three weeks ago, after the Patriots failed to close out the Baltimore Ravens, I took a deep look at the team's recent failures to lock things down at the end. Three games later, they've failed twice more in closeout situations. And it's getting to the point where the Patriots are either going to blow teams out or tighten up at the end. The defense is what it is. Flawed in the secondary, susceptible to stupidity. The offense? It's the league's best with the league's best quarterback. It should be able to play keepaway in the final minutes. But Sunday, with two chances to shut down Seattle and win a game they outplayed the Seahawks in, they spit the bit. First, they took over with 7:21 remaining and - after picking up two first downs and burning 3:14 - they punted. They got a quick three-and-out from Seattle and then went three-and out themselves and Seattle got the ball back with 2:38 left. The rest is ugly history. Last week, it was a Stevan Ridley fumble that ended the Patriots' first closeout drive. This week, it was a little of everybody. BRANCHThey didn't do nothing. Everything, all the mistakes made on the field were by us. They were self-inflicted mistakes. As the game went on, they really didn't do anything to stop us. The flags, the interceptions, the dropped balls, things of that nature. That's stuff that we control. The game's never over. We never really took 'em out and we had the opportunities. We had turnovers, defensive things. It was like we never finished them when we had the opportunity and it was there. That's how it goes. I'm one of the last guys that'll complain. There were a couple in the end zone that were flagrant. But I spoke to the guys and that's football. It's hard for them to see everything on the field. Regardless of what you see on paper, we gotta win the games, we gotta be able to finish the game and that starts with mistake-free football. MANKINSWe're 3-3. Not ideal but I know one thing about the team we won't quit and the coaches won't quit. We'll try to improve this week and get back on the right track. We had chances in the red zone right before half we don't score. We were down there again and turned it over. We had our chances and we didn't score enough points. We shoulda been in the 30s and we didn't get it done. Faltered on four-minute again at the end of the game. When it was time to make plays we didn't make 'em. It's mistakes. We could put more pressure right before halftime and let it get away. Got the ball in a great spot and didn't get any points out of it. Got the ball down there again and turned it over. When you get down there, you gotta score points. That's the difference in this league. There's 11 guys out there. We gotta do it as a unit. Everyone's gotta be on the same page and doing things the right way and sometimes not all 11 are doing it. WELKER"We talk about playing a good 60 minutes of football and we seem to come up a loittle bit short. These close games like this, espeially one where youhave the lead int he fourth, you have to put them away and we weren't able to do that today. It's really frustratinjg. We just gotta get back to work and work on these things and make sure we're pushing through and win the games in the end.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.