New lineup sparks Celtics past Pacers, 94-75

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New lineup sparks Celtics past Pacers, 94-75

BOSTON The Boston Celtics have had impressive wins this season, with most doing little to build momentum going forward.

But Friday's 94-75 victory over Indiana felt different if for no other reason than the lineup being different ... sort of.

Boston's impressive performance was fueled in part by Doc Rivers' decision to put Brandon Bass back in with the first unit, giving the Celtics the same starting five it had when it closed out last season with a 14-5 record that catapulted them into the postseason where they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

It was a strong game for the Celtics (15-17), a night that could not be dampened even by the ejection of Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter after he was whistled for a flagrant-two foul (automatic ejection) on Tyler Hansbrough.

Boston, snapping a four-game losing streak with the victory, still have quite a ways to go before they are a legitimate contender again.

But Friday's win was certainly a step in that direction.

The Celtics could not make shots in the first quarter, which has usually led to a huge early deficit that they would spend the rest of the half trying to cut into.

But despite shooting just 29.2 percent from the field in the first, Boston was only down 16-15 courtesy of some tough, gritty defense.

That defensive intensity was sustained in the second quarter. And when you throw a slew of shots starting to fall from several Celtics players, the C's pulled ahead by as many as 15 in the first half before settling on a 47-35 lead.

Two important developments in the first half were critical to Boston's strong play.

For starters, Rajon Rondo was as aggressive as we've seen in weeks offensively, tallying all 10 of his first-half points in the second quarter. He finished with a team-high 18 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

In addition, Boston was getting a much-needed boost of energy from its bench and Courtney Lee was leading the way.

Lee's defense coupled with some timely shots around the basket gave the Celtics a lift that seemed to energize both his teammates as well as Celtics Nation. He would finished with 13 points.

The third quarter featured the C's missing several shots in the first few minutes. But for a change, it didn't matter because the Celtics defense refused to allow the double-digit cushion built up in the first half to shrink.

And as the fourth quarter rolled along, the Celtics continued to play solid defense while most of their core guys spent most or all of the quarter on the bench, resting up for Saturday night's game at Atlanta.

There will be many theories as to how the Celtics were able to blow out an Indiana team that had won eight of its last 10 games leading up to Friday's game.

But more than anything else, the Celtics finally had players in roles that head coach Doc Rivers envisioned them being at the start of the season.

So it's not a coincidence that Friday's game was arguably their most complete performance of the season.

But Friday's success won't mean much unless they can use it similar to how they did last season and that's rack up multiple wins, home and on the road.

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

FOXBORO – Griff Whalen was at the epicenter of one of the stupidest, funniest, most “did that just happen?!” plays in NFL history.

So indescribable it never even really earned a name, it was the fourth-down gadget play the Colts tried to run against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football in the first meeting between the teams after Indy ran to the principal’s office to start Deflategate. 

Whalen was the center on that play (I tried to call it “Fourth-and-Wrong” but it didn’t take) and the millisecond between him snapping the ball and the three players processing that the ball had indeed been snapped is perhaps my favorite moment of the past several seasons. 

Whalen is a Patriot now, brought in this week in the wake of Danny Amendola’s knee injury presumably to fill Amendola’s role as a punt returner and wideout. The Colts released him last January, the Dolphins picked him up and cut him at the end of training camp and the Chargers had him on their roster from mid-September until releasing him last month after eight games, two catches and 22 yards. He returned kickoffs for San Diego but no punts since 2015.

The primary area of need for the Patriots is on punt returns. Rookie Cyrus Jones’ transition to appearing comfortable remains glacially slow. It was Jones’ muff last week that brought on Amendola in relief. When Amendola hurt his ankle on a late-game return, the Patriots were forced to decide between Jones, wideout Julian Edelman (who doesn’t need extra work) and making a move.

Whalen is a move they made.

The slight and baby-faced Whalen indicated he had fielded some punts in practice, saying it went, “Fine.” Punt returns are something he’s done “since I was a kid.”

His first impression of the team was, "A lot of what I expected to see. A lot of detail. A lot of effort in practice. Good coaching all-around. I am excited to be here. I was excited to come into a good team that I’d gone against a few times. Hopefully come in and help out the team with whatever I can.”

I asked Whalen if he saw much of the commentary or creativity last year’s failed play spawned.

“I wasn’t paying too much attention,” he said. “When it’s during the season guys are pretty locked in on what they’re doing inside the building. But I heard more about it later on afterwards.”

Asked if he’d heard anything about the play since being here, Whalen replied, “I haven’t. Kinda was [expecting it].”

The Patriots will be hoping Whalen remains as productive for them on fourth down this year as he was in 2015.

 

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

BOSTON – When it comes to winning basketball, keep it moving – the ball that is – has become a staple of the Celtics this season. 
 
And lately they’ve had to do it without Isaiah Thomas, the team’s leading scorer at 26 points per game as well as their top assists guy (6.2) who will miss hish third game in a row Sunday in Oklahoma City because of a right groin injury.
 
The Celtics have split their first two games without Thomas, with the most recent being a 101-94 home loss to Toronto on Friday.
 
When it comes to this team and ball movement, fans are just as divided when it pertains to whether the Celtics move the ball better without the high-scoring Thomas in the lineup. 
 
Regardless of what fans think they know about this team and how they move the ball, the numbers paint a very clear picture that this team’s ball movement is among the best in the NBA, with or without Thomas in the lineup. 

And that will be important on Sunday against an Oklahoma City team that doesn’t rely on the ball swinging from one side of the floor to the other, nearly as much as the Celtics. 
 
The Thunder, led by MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, are dead-last in the NBA when it comes to passes made per game (267.1). 
 
Meanwhile, the Celtics are at the opposite end of the passing game spectrum, averaging 331.7 passes per game, which is second in the NBA (Philadelphia, 354.3).
 
And in the two games without Thomas, Boston has averaged 347.0 passes per game, which ranks second in the NBA in that period of time. 
 
In addition to missing his points and assists, the Celtics must also find ways to make plays in filling the void left by a player who has the ball in his hands a lot of the time. 
 
Thomas’ usage percentage (percentage of plays used by a player while he’s on the floor) of 32.9 percent ranks seventh in the NBA, ahead of notable stars such as San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (30.9 percent), Portland’s Damian Lillard (30.8 percent), New York’s Carmelo Anthony (29.5 percent), as well as Cleveland’s LeBron James (29 percent) and Golden State’s back-to-back NBA MVP Stephen Curry (28.2 percent).
 
So, considering how involved Thomas has been in the team’s offense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the numbers in terms of passing and ball movement are better without him than they are when he’s on the floor playing. 
 
What should be surprising is that the gap statistically without him, isn’t greater. 
 
Boston has been a top five team when it comes to assists this season, currently third in the league with 24.7 assists per game. In the past two games without Thomas, the Celtics’ assists numbers have risen to 26.5 per game, but that only ranks fifth in the league in that span.
 
When it comes to potential assists and secondary assists (a.k.a. the “hockey” assist), Boston’s numbers have improved slightly without Thomas as well, but in each category Boston is ranked second in the league. 
 
And that ranking is with, and without Thomas in the lineup. 
 
While it’s not clear if Thomas knows just how close the numbers in terms of ball movement are with and without him playing, he is acutely aware that there are some who believe they are a better team in terms of keeping the ball moving without him.
 
“I can’t control that,” Thomas told reporters on Friday. “At this point, I laugh about it. I know what I mean to my teammates. I know what I mean to this organization, to Brad Stevens.”