Good times keep rolling in Boston

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Good times keep rolling in Boston

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last winter, I really thought it was over.

After all, we knew it wouldn't last forever. It had been such an amazing run, so much greater than anyone imagined. And while no one was necessarily ready to come back down to Earth, if the time had come, you'd have understood.

Hey, six titles in 10 years. Not a bad stretch!

But now it was over.

Last January, the Patriots suffered the most embarrassing loss of the BelichickBrady era -- the 33-14 beatdown at the hands of the Ravens, at home no less, in the first round of the playoffs -- and the future of the organization suddenly looked darker than a Coen Brothers movie. The inmates were running the asylum and, as opposed to a collection of veterans who were mad on pride, grit and the Patriot Way, these Pats were led by recluses. Players who had long given up on the "team" and had a hard enough time taking care of themselves. By the end of the season, these guys had poisoned the culture.

Meanwhile a series of poor drafts had poisoned the talent pool, and it didnt help that Wes Welker, one of their most skilled and positively charged weapons, had just suffered a potentially career-altering injury. There was just an awful vibe coming out of Foxborough and the Jets looked poised to take over the AFC East. Awesome!

Over at Fenway, the term "bridge year" was being tossed around in preparation for a somewhat somber offseason. This, fresh off a playoff series which saw the Sox swept by the "Hey, We're Supposed to Own You in October!" Angels of Anaheim. Beckett, Ortiz and Papelbon all looked out of sorts, and that damn phrase "bridge year!" felt so wrong. These were the Red Sox. The only time you expect to hear the word "bridge" uttered within that organization is if John Henry's describing his favorite pasttime, or Larry Lucchino's saying "We've built a new bridge which gives fans better access between their seats and our over-priced souvenir shop."

Even if the team did sign John Lackey that winter, the idea that they'd ever use money as an excuse not to do whatever it takes to improve was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Like a DayQuil. They told Boston to wait, but Red Sox Nation was unaccustomed to waiting, and many became resigned to the fact that the Sox would be the A.L. East's third-best team. (And they were)

Oh, yeah, and the Yankees had just won the World Series. Good times!

At the Garden, the Celtics were a mess. A combination of KG's knee, Rondo's attitude, Rasheed's effort, plus overall age, health, bad luck and worse chemistry had turned the team upside down. A year earlier, they'd been one of the happiest, most fun-loving teams in the league. Now they walked around like a bunch of disgruntled postal workers.

By January, and into February and March, the idea that the Celtics could contend for a title was as believable as Cam Newton's innocence, which was especially frustrating because that season was supposed to be it. Since the Big Three had first joined forces, everyone assumed it would just be a three-year venture; as the third season slipped away, so would the Big Three. It was the end of an era. One title; one Finals appearance; certainly satisfying, but, all things considered, not as great as it could be.

It's not that they were about to fall back down into the Lottery gutter. After all, Rondo, KG and, very likely, Pierce would all be back; that's still a playoff team. But there's no doubt that they were starting down on a pretty steep slope. Especially considering all the cash that would be tied up with the aforementioned three guys.

And oh yeah, the Lakers were reigning World Champs, and still the consensus best team in the world. Yes!

As for the C's roommates at the Garden, the Bruins were in the middle of an underachieving season of their own. The year before, they'd finished tied for the most wins in the NHL. They were upset in the second round, but we saw it as part of the growing pains of this young team. They would learn from it and get better.

But halfway through last year, that wasn't the case. The Bruins couldn't score. They couldn't find a rhythm. They couldn't get on the same page as their coach. They were the same old Bruins. And like the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics at least by Boston's newfound standards they were in trouble.

And that was that. That was the vibe in Boston last winter. Those are the things we wasted the days talking about, and it was depressing as hell.

But again, at the same time, it wasnt entirely unexpected.

The city was disappointed, but still very grateful for all that had happened, and starting to accept that things were about to be different. Still fun. Still competitive. I mean, if I'd asked you last winter, "Hey, what do you think things will look like around here Christmas 2010?" you probably wouldn't have been completely doomsday about it.

But you just never would have predicted this. At least I wouldn't have.

The Patriots defense, which was so uninspiring in that awful loss to Baltimore, and struggled so much to develop an identity, has come into its own. They're far better than anyone imagined, and are only getting better. Not just this year, either. They have a defensive foundation that will carry the load for seasons to come.

And, not a bad complement, they also once again have the best quarterback in the game; the same guy whose efficiency absolutely blows your mind and consistently makes one of the hardest jobs in sports look easier than doing multiplication tables with a calculator. The bad apples were thrown in the garbage and Belichick turned out his best draft since at least 2003. Welker made an insane comeback, and while it took him a little time to fully find his groove, is once again among the leagues reception leaders.

Theyre 11-2 and the best team in the NFL.

The Red Sox told their fans to wait, and then told them to wait a little more, then tortured them even more with the Victor Martinez deal before dropping two of the biggest offseason bombshells of the last decade. They're World Series favorites. It only took five days to win back an entire nation of baseball fans.

The Celtics changed everything with last spring's historic run to the Finals. And although the season still ended in disappointment, that disappointment birthed a level of constant energy and optimism that's rare in any sport. That loss brought Doc back for one more shot, and then Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West and Shaq. Kevin Garnett is closer to his 2008 self than we ever imagined. Ray hasn't aged a day. Rondo's grown up. Big Baby's getting close. And Paul is still doing his thing he's now without a doubt one of the greatest Celtics of all-time. And for the most part especially and most importantly with Garnett the Celtics are happy.

Basically, through a series of amazing events between last spring and this fall the Celtics added two years to the Big Three era, and did so without falling off at all. And while the somewhat distant future is still a little cloudy, you can make the case that they're better equipped to win the title today than at any other point in the last four seasons. I know it's only December, but it's also basically 2011 and the C's are still major contenders. Maybe even the favorites.

As for the Bruins, you know, theyre still trying to completely find that groove, and it turned out that the disappointment of the 2009 playoffs couldnt hold a Zamboni to what went down in the spring of 2010. But they're in a better place. They have the best goalie in the league. A rookie class that's already paying dividends and a crew of other young players who've gained valuable experience over the past two post seasons and are starting to shed that "young player" label.

They're still trying to gain the same level of respect of the other three teams, but you can see it happening. It feels closer than it has in a long time.

In all four cases, success feels real. It feels very attainable. Just like it did for all those years before last winter's unraveling.

Basically, the good times are back. Or maybe it's that they never left.

Either way, I thought it was over.

And I thought very wrong.

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

Thomas excited for reunion with Green

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Thomas excited for reunion with Green

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When the phone rang this summer, Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas had to do a double-take when he saw the name on the caller ID.

It was Gerald Green, his ex-teammate in Phoenix.

Although they only shared a locker room for 45 games in Phoenix, the two became quick friends.

On the court they developed instant chemistry while coming off the Suns bench. And that bond spilled off the court as Green would later spend time with Thomas in the Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. area in the summer months.

They were cool with each other, cool enough to where Thomas knew it wasn’t in Green’s nature to pick up the phone and call just to say hi.

“Gerald doesn’t call anybody,” Thomas said. “When he called I knew something was up.”

Green said Boston, the team that drafted him in 2006 straight out of high school, was interested in bringing him back for a second stint with the club.

“I tried to put my two cents in and he got here,” Thomas said.

There were several factors that led Green back to Boston, with a chance to reunite with Thomas being high on that list.

Green, already in Phoenix at the time the Suns signed Thomas in 2014, was impressed with the way the 5-9 guard carried himself.

“He was a genuine guy, came in really humble,” Green said. “I saw the talent was there. I knew he had the potential to be one of the best point guards in this league.”

Thomas certainly made a case for such lofty praise with how he performed last season, good enough to earn his first all-star selection.

What really stuck out to Green was that Thomas’ mentality and approach to the game was almost a carbon copy of his own.

“When we stepped on the court we had the same mentality,” Green said. “By any means necessary, get a bucket and play harder than the next team; just try and push the first team, make the first team better every day.”

Thomas was coming off the bench, showing lots of potential and promise that he could carry a heavier load if given an opportunity to do so.

He averaged 15.2 points, 3.7 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 25.7 minutes off the Suns bench in 46 games. Even more significant was that when Thomas did play for the Suns, they were 26-20.

In the games without him, they were just 13-23.

Green was admittedly disappointed they traded away Thomas, believing that season would have had a very different outcome had they not sent him to Boston.

And just like Green recognized Thomas’ skills and how much his team could have benefited from keeping him around, Thomas speaks in glowing terms about Green and what his return to Boston means for the team.

“We needed someone like him; a guy that could shoot the ball, a guy that could space the floor; instant scorer whether he starts or comes off the bench,” Thomas said. “Where the he starts or come off the bench. He’s going to really help us.”

Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

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Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

CINCINNATI -- For most of the game, A.J. Green piled up more yards than the entire Miami Dolphins offense in a virtuoso performance. As an encore, he thrilled the crowd by juggling some Florida citrus.

The Bengals receiver followed his disappointing game with a dominating one - 173 yards and a touchdown - and a Cincinnati defense that was inspired by Vontaze Burfict's return clamped down on the Dolphins for a 22-7 victory Thursday night.

The Bengals (2-2) rebounded from a 29-17 home loss to Denver on Sunday with a solid all-around game against a depleted team.

Green led the way, beating the Dolphins (1-3) on every type of route . He was upset with himself after he dropped a pivotal third-down pass and failed to make an impact against the Broncos.

"I hold myself to a very high standard," said Green, who had 10 catches. "I know what I'm capable of. Last week I didn't perform to that level. I had to refocus on a short week."

During the first three quarters, Green had 166 yards on catches while Miami had 152 total yards. The Bengals' season-long problem of stalling out near the goal line forced them to settle for Mike Nugent's season-high five field goals.

Afterward, Green and Andy Dalton appeared on the postgame show, and the receiver entertained the dozens of Bengals fans who stayed around by smoothly juggling three oranges at the interview desk.

"Any time he was one-on-one, he was able to make the play," Dalton said.

The Dolphins were missing four starting offensive linemen, two linebackers, running back Arian Foster and tight end Jordan Cameron. They had one big play - Ryan Tannehill threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills - but couldn't do anything else on offense.

"We've got to get it fixed and quick, and by that I mean Monday," Tannehill said. "We're kind of in a dark spot right now. It's squarely on our shoulders."

The Bengals' defense expected to get a lift from Burfict's return. The volatile linebacker was suspended by the NFL for the first three games because of his illegal hits. He got a loud ovation when he ran onto the field during introductions wearing a baseball cap. Burfict knocked down a pass and had three tackles.

"He's amazing," end Carlos Dunlap said. "Did you see the plays he made? Those aren't plays you can coach. He came off his couch and played great. It's good to have him back."

Mostly, it was Green's show. He caught a 51-yard pass off Dalton's scramble in the first half, and had a 43-yard catch that set up another field goal in the third quarter for a 19-7 lead.

REMEMBERING FERNANDEZ

A large fan banner in the upper deck at Paul Brown Stadium honored Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died with two friends in a boat crash early Sunday near Miami Beach. The banner read: "Jose 16 Heaven's Bright."

STILL CAN'T RUN

The Bengals rushed for 77 yards and only a 2.1-yard average against the second-worst run defense in the league, one missing two starting linebackers.

SLOPPY DOLPHINS

Miami had seven penalties for 68 yards. The most egregious was by Terrence Fede, who pushed Kevin Huber to the ground after he punted in the third quarter. The penalty gave Cincinnati the ball, and the Bengals got a field goal out of it.

INJURIES

Dolphins: LT Branden Albert and C Anthony Steen were inactive with sprained ankles. Also missing were LBs Koa Misi (neck) and Jelani Jenkins (groin). C Mike Pouncey has missed all four games with a hip injury.

Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert was inactive again, contributing to the Bengals' trouble close to the goal line. He's recovering from offseason ankle surgery and returned to practice on a limited basis last week. CB Dre Kirkpatrick was inactive with a hamstring injury suffered Sunday. G Clint Boling sat out most of the fourth quarter with an injured left shoulder.

ANTHEM STATEMENTS

Stills and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas knelt with their hands over their hearts during the anthem.

FANTASY IMPACT

Tannehill was 15 of 25 for 189 yards with a touchdown, an interception, a fumble and five sacks. Dalton was 22 of 31 for 296 yards with a touchdown and a sack.

UP NEXT

The Dolphins begin a stretch of four straight home games against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Jets.

The Bengals have a tough two-game stretch, playing Dallas and New England on the road. They're 1-5 in Dallas, dropping their last three. They've dropped their last six at New England, last winning in 1986.