Grzelcyk off to flashy start, adapting to BU hockey

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Grzelcyk off to flashy start, adapting to BU hockey

Matthew Grzelcyk should be sitting on top of the hockey world right now.

And the 18-year-old is, admittedly, for the most part.

Hes notched three assists in his first four games skating for the Boston University hockey team as a mere freshman on the Hockey East scene. Thats all part of the Charlestown, Mass native chasing down his puck dreams first borne while playing street hockey in the shadow of TD Garden. That dream was only augmented when his hometown Bruins team drafted him in the third round (85th overall) of this summers NHL draft, and turned those boyhood flights of fancy into a potential down-the-road reality.

Forget about great sports stories. Thats the stuff of Hollywood scripts bending the suspension of disbelief.

But even a fresh-faced college hockey phenom living out his puck dreams like Grzelcyk is feeling the pinch of the NHL lockout: his dad, John Sr., has drawn a paycheck as a part of the TD Garden bull gang for 45 years and isnt working any of the Bruins games that have obviously become a staple of his professional life.

Hes been there so long that any event thats going on there hes trying to be a part of, but hes definitely not getting as much overtime as he would normally, said Grzelcyk. Its not even just working the games, though. Hes had the luxury of watching all the games and getting to know the star players personally. Im sure hes feeling it just as everybody else.

To the credit of the Bruins TD Garden ownership led by Jeremy Jacobs, Grzelcyk and the rest of the bull gang are still drawing paychecks despite the two-month work stoppage. There might be a little less overtime or a collective tightening of the belts going on, but life is going on within the walls of the Garden on Causeway Street.

That has allowed the younger Grzelcyk to get off to a hot start with the Scarlet and White and jump right into the fold on Comm. Ave as a transitional offensive-defenseman that every hockey team is desperately seeking. His offensive instincts are clearly the product of fine coaching while coming up through the local youth hockey system playing with the Middlesex Islanders, coached by Jim Vesey and Mark Fidler, and at Belmont Hill.

But there is also God-given ability within his 5-foot-9, 175-pound that Grzelcyk is just starting to fully tap into.

He has what I call that Larry Bird court vision, said legendary BU head coach Jack Parker, who loves to marry the basketball metaphors into his hockey world. He sees things developing and is able to work the puck into a space before the window closes. Hes got great skating speed to go along with it, which doesnt hurt either.

But the instincts are something that you cant teach. That comes from watching hockey, studying hockey, thinking about hockey all of the time and playing plenty of street hockey as a kid growing up in Charlestown.

The passing instincts, the flair for the spectacular and the up-tempo pace to Grzelcyks game were all readily apparent during the Bruins Prospect Development Camp in July, and those are only improving with confidence and growing experience. Those all have to be there for a D-man with the size and stature of Grzelcyk to thrive as the levels of hockey become more challenging.

To hear Grzelcyk tell it, the speed of play in Hockey East hasnt actually risen dramatically from what he faced touring last winter with the US National Team Development Program. The USTDP played all of the best college programs across the United States, and he knew that he belonged within that.   

But there is a burgeoning part of the small-ish defensemans game. Its been slightly surprising to Parker and his staff that Grzelcyk has hit the ground running along with BU Finnish freshman defenseman Ahti Oksanen.

The five pounds of muscle added to his 5-foot-9 frame during a summer working with BU strength trainer Mike Boyle, however, has given him a little more of the man strength hell need battling against players as much five or years older than him at the NCAA level.

I just want to gain more strength and use the great facilities here to my advantage, said Griz, who spent the summer living on the BU campus taking classes and thrusting himself into early morning workouts to get ready for college hockey. All zones could use work, obviously, but the biggest thing for me on ice is using my assets to my advantage.

In the mind of Griz, his offensive game seems to take care of itself when he lets his instincts flow and starts piling up the nifty outlet passes and cross-ice dishes. The bigger challenge will come with turning his speed, intelligence and active stick into an effective defensive combination.  

The speed and size of players is definitely an adjustment, but the strength of the other players is a big one for me because Im a smaller D'. Ive got to move my feet as much as I can, said Grzelcyk, who said hes traded text messages with the Bruins front office since the season began. Im playing against guys that are six years older than me, so Ive got to use my smarts as much as I can. Positioning is huge and using gap control and angles to beat off bigger guys is important. If a bigger guy is allowed to get position on me then hell go right around me.

But there will be plenty of growth and development in Grzelcyks game over the next four years. He said the biggest adjustment in the first few games of this season was getting used to the large crowds packing into Agganis Arena after he routinely played for scattered friends, family and scouts in crowds past.

Even though his dad is a member of the bull gang, Grzelcyk has never even been to a Beanpot hockey game at the Garden. Hell need to get used to snapping off those crisp first passes on the biggest stage with the brightest lights trained directly on him.

Hell also need to learn consistency and find that tricky balance between offense and defense that earned puck-moving defenseman like Dennis Wideman, Tomas Kaberle and Joe Corvo one-way tickets out of Boston over the last five years.

But all of that stuff is far down the line for Grzelcyk, who is simply happy to be home playing in front of family and friends after being stuck watching Detroit Lions games while living out in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the US National Team Development Program. Life doesnt get much for Grzelcyk than heading back to The Town after his mom has cooked up her famous chicken, broccoli and ziti.

Getting the support of my family and getting to see them at least once a week was something I really missed out on the last couple of years, said Grzelcyk. I had never been able to play in front of a home crowd like this over the last couple of years, and it makes all the difference. Theres a reason we havent lost a game yet at home so far this season.

Now hes back in the heart of New England living out the first step of his hockey dream, able to watch Patriots games with his family every weekend and getting better every day as he starts living out the potential the Bruins recognized while getting in on the ground floor.

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.