Patriots defense thriving on big-time turnovers

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Patriots defense thriving on big-time turnovers

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rob Ninkovich made a good point Thursday night.

"I think the turnovers are more important than the total yards that we give up."

For this game, anyway.

New England's defense gave up 405 yards of total offense to the Jets Thanksgiving night, including 306 on the arm of quarterback Mark Sanchez. Same old song for the league's 27th-ranked 'D.' It's a unit that surrenders 388.7 yards per game as well as the most pass plays of plus-20 yards.

But in this game, the Patriots also forced five fumbles and recovered four. Two of those turnovers resulted in touchdowns.

One reporter noted to Ninkovich, who has a career-high five forced fumbles this season, that Jets fans were booing the home team by halftime.

Think New England wouldn't notice the noise?

"It started in the second quarter, actually," Ninkovich corrected with a smirk. "It's a good feeling; you know that you're doing something right on the defensive side of the ball to get them so frustrated that they're leaving early. So I think that's always a great feeling when you come to another place and, at the end of the game, there's more Patriots fans in the crowd then there are Jets fans."

That was definitely the case by the time he recovered a ball in the fourth quarter. The score was 42-12; most of New England's damage was already done.

As nose tackle Vince Wilfork pointed out, the lead was big enough early on.

"When we play together -- play well -- good things will happen. It gets fun. It starts getting fun. We're up 28 points in the first half and all you can say is, wow," he marveled.

"This team is a tough, tough football team, mentally and physically. We preach from Day One: Be mentally tough, be physically tough, and play smart football."

It didn't hurt that the Jets were comically bad.

In the second quarter, Mark Sanchez faked a first-and-10 handoff and then made to run up the middle. He instead motored into the brick-walled butt of Jets offensive lineman Brandon Moore and landed flat on his back. The ball came loose. Patriots safety Steve Gregory scooped it up and ran back 32 yards for the touchdown.

He shrugged off personal praise in Thursday's postgame.

"I think Vince did a good job of knocking somebody back on that play, so it all works together. It was a team effort. Guys did a great job up front getting pressure on the quarterback, and hitting those guys. We were really physical tonight and I think it helped out."

It was indeed Wilfork, "fighting pressure with pressure," who backed Moore up into the charging Sanchez.

And wouldn't you know it? The big tackle returned the nod in kind.

"Gregory, what a hell of a game he had. Last week before we played the Colts, he had three interceptions in practice and I said, 'You can get three interceptions in a game. You can get three turnovers in a game.' It didn't happen that day, but he came out today and made some big plays for us."

We've seen it before: This defense is opportunistic. The Jets just showed what New England can do with many, many opportunities. 

Gregory alone added a forced fumble and an interception to his two recoveries and touchdown.

"It was good one for me today," he said. "Some of that was the ball popping out and you being in the right place at the right time."

That's been happening a lot lately. Gregory's first quarter pick marked the team's fifth interception in the last three weeks.

Do the turnover numbers alone make the Patriots a "good" defense by conventional standards? No. But maybe there's something to the 14 interceptions and 18 fumbles -- the 32 big play takeaways.

Maybe it makes them good enough.

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.