Stellar third quarter could turn C's season

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Stellar third quarter could turn C's season

ATLANTA It usually takes more than a half of good play to win a game. But for the Boston Celtics, one half of exceptional play may have turned around their entire season.

The Celtic's dominant third quarter performance against the Atlanta Hawks not only propelled them to a 89-81 comeback win, but may have been just what this team needed to jumpstart their season.

In the third, Boston outscored the Atlanta Hawks 33-9 with Paul Pierce leading the way with 17 of his team-high 26 points in the third.

"Coming out there and throwing that first punch" was how Celtics guard Courtney Lee described the C's efforts in the third. "They were too comfortable ... way too comfortable."

Lee was speaking specifically about Lou Williams and Jeff Teague who had 21 and 13 points, respectively, in the first half. In the third quarter, Williams had five points while Teague missed his lone shot attempt from the field.

The ease at which Williams and Teague were scoring was something that
Lee and the rest of Boston's perimeter defenders took to heart coming out to start the half.

"We wanted to pick up the intensity, try to make everything hard on their guards," C's guard Avery Bradley told CSNNE.com. "Pick up the tempo on defense."

Added Jason Terry: "We took it personal. You come in at halftime, Lou Williams has 21 points, primarily on easy baskets. He was in rhythm, just catching it and letting it fly. And so we wanted to invade his space; we wanted to get up in Teague and make him work a little bit harder. And as we did that, our bigs were playing great 'D' all night. As we did that, we started to get more and more stops. And with stops, we got some of the best offensive weapons in the game."

The most lethal of those weapons was Pierce. But as impressive as his scoring binge in the third quarter was, the C's are mindful that their success on Saturday - and to a large degree this season - will have to be in their defense which was on full display in the third quarter.

"We're starting to commit ourselves towards the defensive end," said Kevin Garnett. "Defense takes a lot of energy, takes grit and each guy was willing to do just that. These last two games, you've been seeing us a lot more firm than we had been in the previous. These last two games, we have been firm, aggressive, going for steals and it starts with Rondo and Avery."

At the half, Rondo and Bradley stayed in the locker room a little while longer than the rest of their teammates watching film, looking for ways to limit dribble penetration by Teague and Williams which was the primary reason the C's were in such a deep hole.

"We wanted to make them playmakers," Rondo said. "They're both scoring guards. We tried to make them make plays."

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.”