Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans

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Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans

FOXBORO -- It sounded as though the Patriots had nothing to lose. Vince Wilfork stepped in front of his locker, shared a belly laugh with the reporters huddled around him, and wasted no time when asked about the importance of Monday night's game against the Texans.

"They're the best team in the NFL," Wilfork said, "so it's not a big deal for us."

It sounded as though the pressure was on Houston to maintain its standing as the top team in the AFC, that it was just another game for the Patriots.

But when the 11-1 Texans visit Gillette Stadium, it won't be simply the latest game on the schedule for New England. It will be a chance to gauge.

The Patriots have played just one team (Indianapolis) in the last six weeks with a realistic shot to make the playoffs. In that time, their defense has appeared to make marked improvements, especially in its ability to create turnovers, while the offense has proven to be capable of withstanding injuries to key players, like Rob Gronkowski and Logan Mankins.
 
But how good are they, really? Monday could provide an answer as the Texans will be New England's best test in almost two months. They may be the best team that Bill Belichick's bunch faces all season.

Still, the Patriots say, they'll handle it like any old week.

"Our biggest thing is to treat it like another game," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "We understand what's at stake, but we have to go out there and prepare each week just like we do in the past weeks that we've done. This week is like any other. We have to go out there and execute."

It's a tact that will keep the Patriots from becoming at all psyched out or distracted by the time ESPN's Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico enter the broadcast booth. But the reality is that this game may well reveal more about their team than any of their previous 12 regular-season matchups. Will Houston's talent -- the Texans rank fourth in total offense and sixth in total defense -- provide a clear picture of New England's warts? Or will the Patriots defense prove that it's up to the task against elite teams? That their banged-up offense can survive an upper-echelon 'D'?

The Texans, on the other hand, appear to be the ones without much to lose. They've established themselves as one of the best in the AFC -- if not the best, as Wilfork knighted them. A loss to another one of the AFC's best, on the road, shouldn't crush their confidence. They would remain the top seed in the conference, and depending on how the rest of the regular season shakes out, they could have a chance for a rematch with New England, in the playoffs, at home.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak was asked on Thursday if he sees Monday night's game as a measuring stick for his team. 

"I really dont," he said. "First off, every game is big here coming down the stretch. Were in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny moving forward . . . Were going to play in a lot of big games, and coming into New England, obviously thats a big, big game. Were really trying just to stay focused on our football, trying to improve. The key once you get there is how youre playing. It doesnt matter who you play or where you play, you have to be playing good football when you get to the playoffs. Ive learned that through my years. Were really just trying to stay focused on us, trying to get some guys back healthy. We know well have to play extremely well this weekend. We see every week as a big game, and obviously in December theyre all huge."

For Houston, this game is important, but it may not be much more important than any other at this time of year. For New England, Monday night will serve as a legitimate litmus test.

Though not all Patriots were willing to admit it, one did.

"I think for us as a team, theres not really much more you could ask for than that," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "To play Monday Night Football in December against one of the best teams in the NFL and see what were capable of."

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

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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.

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

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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.

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.