Panthers won't sneak up on B's this time around

607806.jpg

Panthers won't sneak up on B's this time around

WILMINGTON, Mass. It was truly one of the few down moments over the last two months for the Bruins, and its something theyll be looking to avenge Friday night in their final home game before a post-Christmas West Coast swing.

The Panthers frustrated the Bruins with their lane-clogging defensive system and goaltender Jose Theodore stepped in for a performance that had old-time Bs fans flashing back to his days with the Habs. While the Bruins also dropped a game in Winnipeg, that game was the second half of back-to-back games after an emotional victory in Pittsburgh, so that gave the team a built-in excuse for defeat.

Florida just plain outplayed the Bruins as they have many teams en route to their high seeding within the Eastern Conference, so the motivation should be there for the Bruins where it might have otherwise wouldnt.

It was one of those games where we felt like we played great and didnt get the result that we wanted, said Milan Lucic. Weve got to do a lot of the same things we did last time against them, but we need to find a way to beat their goaltender. Theyre obviously a team thats played great in the first 35 games of the season, and theyve found some new life with the additions that they made this summer with players and the coaching staff."

After all, anybody looking at the schedule prior to the season would have circled a home game against the Florida Panthers on the Friday before Christmas as the kind of game that wouldnt raise anybodys heart beat. But the Panthers are much improved and the Bruins will have a challenge getting motivated with a few days off after defeating their arch-rival Habs Monday night.

Its a game that we should be able to use as a measuring stick because they've proven to be one of the big teams in the East this year, said Lucic. Its a bigger game than its been in the past against the Panthers because theyve elevated their game and theyve beaten us once already this year.

So they should be a properly motivated Bs bunch whether Rich Peverley plays or sits it out with a nagging undisclosed ailment. The matchup could also see a Florida team thats regressing to the mean after a nice run. The Panthers have dropped a pair of games (to the Senators and Coyotes) as they wing their way into Boston, and have one of the weakest goal differentials among playoff teams with a plus-4.

Florida is average in every category aside from goals against average (8th in the NHL at 2.4 goals allowed per game) and that is partially due to the hard work and disciplined system of head coach Kevin Dineen and top assistant coach Craig Ramsay. In many ways this years Panthers are reminiscent of that first Bs team under Claude Julien, which was long on effort and discipline, while coming up a little short in the offensive firepower category.

The bottom line on all of this: the Panthers still sit only two points behind the Bruins in the standings, and it will be exactly the kind of challenge that Pittsburgh or Philadelphia provides without any of the usual fanfare.

Its tough to sell the game down there. When you have the choice between the beach or a hockey game its a tough sell, said Gregory Campbell, who was dealt from the Panthers to Boston prior to last season. But if they win which theyre doing now theyll always attract fans. I know that organization works really hard to put fans in the stands, and the easiest way to do that is to win.

Theyve made the right moves and to be honest there arent a lot of guys that are still there from when Nathan Horton and I played there. A lot of teams might not be taking them seriously, so theyve gotten a win here or there because of that. But they are for real and theyre a good team. Their system is good.

Not bad for a Florida hockey club that hasnt made the playoffs in the last 10 years.

It will most likely be a chess match like the last game was at TD Garden with the two teams locked in a scoreless tie until Florida finally scored a few minutes into the third period. That broke the deadlock and became the difference in a contest of defensive wills and conservative execution.

Theyre a young thats coached well and they work hard, so we have to be prepared to compete, said Campbell. Theyll be playing their third game in four days with some travel in Ottawa, so thats something weve got to take advantage of.

One harrowing thought for the Bruins: they would have to hope they dont see this Florida team in the playoffs given their style of play and ability to frustrated opponents with hustle and strict, fundamental defense.

The Panthers may not be able to score much, but theyve been playing hard hockey games nearly every time out.

The Bruins will get another firsthand look in a rare Friday night hockey game in Boston, but nothing should surprise them this time around.

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

celtics-al-horford.jpg

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

celtics-isaiah-thomas.jpg

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.