Blakely: Celtics vs. Nets preview

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Blakely: Celtics vs. Nets preview

NEW YORK Much has been said about the Boston Celtics' current back-to-back-to-back set of games and how challenging it will be.

Well as much as it will test the C's physically, overcoming the mental hurdle of facing a trio of teams with no playoff hopes to speak of, may be even more imposing.

It certainly was a factor in Boston's 84-79 loss at Toronto on Friday, a game in which the Celtics needed to win a lot more than the Raptors who now have 21 wins on the season. Things won't be any easier tonight against the New Jersey Nets (22-38) or the Charlotte Bobcats (7-51).

Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged after the Raptors loss that his team may have not taken Toronto as seriously as they should have in order to be successful. Making that even more complicated was the Raptors playing without starters Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani who were each out with an injury.

"I'm sure that is some of it," Rivers said. "You don't have guys on the floor, you could see there was no sense of urgency. There certainly was none. You could see that, even when they got a lead our guys played like 'oh, we'll come back.' You can't play that way because someone is going to make a shot eventually."

Although the New Jersey Nets are among the NBA's worst teams record-wise, the Celtics shouldn't have the same issue in terms of taking them seriously. The Nets are led by Deron Williams, one of the top point guards in the NBA. They have former Celtic Gerald Green developing into a reliable offensive spark off the Net's bench. And of course, there's winning which the Nets have done in three of their last four games.

How the C's approach the game will indeed weigh heavily in its outcome. Here we'll examine a few other keys in tonight's matchup as the C's try to get back on track after a disappointing road loss at Toronto and continue to secure a top-four seeding by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR - Boston's scoring defense has been solid as a rock, win or lose. It will be put to the test tonight against a New Jersey team that's showing signs of improvement in every area, notably scoring. They have a 6-4 record in their last 10 games, which has been fueled in part by their improved scoring. Although they rank No. 22 on the season in scoring, they're actually up to No. 13 over the last 10 games. Meanwhile the Celtics have the No. 3 scoring defense (89.5 points) this season, but have given up a league-low 84.1 points per game over the course of the last 10.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Rajon Rondo vs. Deron Williams: You have two of the NBA's top point guards which is sure to bring out the best in both players. Rondo is coming off a 12-assist, zero-turnover night which has run his consecutive game streak with double-digit assists, to 20. And Williams, who will be a free agent this summer, is the seventh-highest scoring point guard over the past 10 games, with a 17.4 average. He has also averaged 11 assists in that span, second only to Rajon Rondo (14.2).

PLAYER TO WATCH - The Celtics were out-worked on the boards by Toronto, and it will again be a concern heading into tonight's game. As much as the Celtics will key in on Deron Williams, they might want to keep close tabs on former Celtic Shelden Williams. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 41 percent of Shelden Williams' rebounds have come off the offensive end which means the C's have to be on guard for the Nets getting multiple scoring opportunities.

STAT TO TRACK - When the Celtics reflect on what went wrong in the Raptors loss, you can bet that not scoring more points in the paint was one of the problems. Fortunately for them, they face a New Jersey teams whose points-in-the-paint woes are just as bad as their own. Boston is averaging an NBA-low 33.6 points scored in the paint this season. Right ahead of them are the Nets with a 34.6 points in the paint average.

Freeman, Coleman lift Falcons past Saints, 45-32

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Freeman, Coleman lift Falcons past Saints, 45-32

NEW ORLEANS - Devonta Freeman practically wore out the Superdome turf with one long gain after another, Tevin Coleman wouldn't be denied near the goal line and the New Orleans Saints hardly looked like the team that made an emotional homecoming nearly 10 years ago to the day.

Cheers turned to boos, and many fans filed out early.

Coleman rushed for three touchdowns, Matt Ryan passed for two TDs and Deion Jones returned an interception 90 yards for a score to help the Atlanta Falcons beat the winless New Orleans Saints 45-32 on Monday night.

"It was real fun. Everybody was doing their job and everybody was playing for each other," Coleman said. "Everything clicked, and we got it done. It's a real big win for us to beat this team here."

The game coincided with New Orleans' celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Saints' memorable return to the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006, 13 months after Hurricane Katrina. But there would be no reprise of New Orleans' dominant and emotional 23-3 triumph over Atlanta a decade ago.

The Saints' depleted defense struggled to slow Freeman, who rushed for 152 yards and caught five passes for 55 yards. Coleman also was effective in the passing game out of the backfield, with three receptions for 47 yards to go with his 42 yards rushing.

"We have to stop the run better," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "They were over 200 yards in situations where you knew the run was coming, even at the end of the game."

Ryan finished with 240 yards passing for Atlanta (2-1), which did not turn the ball over and moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

Drew Brees put up his usual big numbers - 376 yards and three TDs passing - and hit tight end Coby Fleener seven times for 109 yards and a TD. But Brees' tipped pass that resulted in Jones' TD return early in the fourth quarter gave the Falcons a 45-25 lead that proved too much for New Orleans to overcome.

Hayes knows he's a good player, wants to silence the critics

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Hayes knows he's a good player, wants to silence the critics

BOSTON, Mass. – There’s a long way to go toward a complete resurrection from last season’s misdeeds, but Jimmy Hayes made a nice little statement that he’s learned some lessons in Boston’s preseason debut. The Bruins lost the game, 3-2, in the shootout to the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Hayes scored one of the two goals for the Black and Gold as one of the few veterans in a very youthful lineup for Boston.

The Hayes goal was a nice give-and-go with Jake DeBrusk at the end of a nice transition play in the second period, and was the highlight of a night playing on the right wing with DeBrusk and center Austin Czarnik. The score and a team-high four shots on net for Hayes represent a good start for what he hopes is a gigantic rebound season after last year’s disappointment.

Clearly Hayes heard some of the unflattering chatter about him on sports talk radio and otherwise last season, and may even understand how his difficult season in his home city of Boston -- whether he actively expressed it to him or not -- might have been a factor in his buddy Jimmy Vesey ultimately choosing New York over Boston.

It appears the former Boston College standout is looking to change the conversation in Boston. 

“Yeah, sure am. I’ve got a lot to come out here and…[there were] a lot of comments about myself, but I know I’m a good player. I got to this level for a reason,” said Hayes, who dropped from 19 goals and 35 points with the Panthers to 13 goals, 29 points and a career-worst minus-12 for the Bruins last season.

“To be able to play at the NHL level and continue to play at that level on a consistent basis is what I expect out of myself. I do it for myself and our teammates, and to help our team win. I’ll continue moving forward.

“It’s funny being the old guy on the line. It’s nice to see those young guys and see how excited they are, and how excited I am to get back out there. That’s what I said to the guys, they still have the jitters and they still have them for the first preseason game. It shows that these guys want it and it’s been a lot of fun skating with those guys. They’ve got a lot of speed and to keep pushing the pace. Trying to keep up with them has been a lot of fun.”

There is still a long way to go for the 26-year-old winger, and his willingness to stick around the danger areas on Monday night was a welcomed one for a Bruins team that needs his 6-foot-6 body in front of the net. Hayes paid the price with stitches and a fat lip after taking a Dalton Prout high-stick to the mouth in front of the Columbus net that went uncalled on a Bruins PP at the end of the second period.

That’s all part of the big man’s game on the ice, however. It’s also the kind of battle and determined fight that Hayes will need to show much more consistently in his second season with the hometown Bruins if he’s truly looking to bounce-back from last year’s mediocre performance.