Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

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Blakely's Celtics-Heat preview: The Barometer

BOSTON Kevin Garnett is playing his best basketball in years, Paul Pierce is setting the tone early in games and the Celtics bench has come alive. The Miami Heat will surely look to slow down the Boston Celtics (29-22) on all those fronts. But if there's a barometer of late as to how the C's will fare, it has to be Rajon Rondo. His ability to set the tone of the game with his playmaking has been a huge factor in Boston's success which has catapulted them to the top of the Atlantic Division.

He comes into today's game having racked up double-digit assists in 12 straight games. In Boston's 100-79 win at Minnesota, Rondo had 17 assists -- two more than the entire Timberwolves team.

"It's really a credit to my teammates," Rondo said. "I'm passing them the ball, but at the end of the day, they have to make the shots."

Rondo's ability to break down Miami's defense will go far in determining if the Celtics can continue on their winning ways against a Miami Heat team that's trying to get to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.

Here are a few other keys to consider as Boston (29-22) plays the first of three games against Miami in this final month of the NBA season.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR This will be the second time these two have faced off, but much has changed since their matchup back on December 27. Paul Pierce (right heel) did not play in that game. Kevin Garnett, who now plays center, was playing primarily at the power forward position then. And Greg Stiemsma was just another rookie big man at the end of an NBA bench who didn't play. Today, he's the C's best shot-blocker who is now one of the first reserves to see action. "We're definitely a better team now than we were at the start of the season," Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. "Hopefully we'll just keep improving, and go into the playoffs playing our best basketball." Miami has a slightly different look as well with the recent addition of Ronny Turiaf who signed with the Heat on March 21 after being waived by the Denver Nuggets. It'll be worth monitoring how the new faces who weren't around or were in different roles the first time these two met, will fare today.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Avery Bradley vs. Dwyane Wade: Bradley's abilities to cut to the basket and (more recently) knock down jumpers will be put to the test against Wade, who is one of the more under-rated perimeter defenders in the NBA. Bradley's aggressive style defensively will face the ultimate challenge in Wade, a big-time scorer who has a way of getting the best defenders in early foul trouble. Whether Bradley starts or comes off the bench in place of Ray Allen -- he's questionable to play after missing the last five games with a right ankle injury -- this will be an interesting matchup.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Kevin Garnett's last two games at center pitted him against Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, easily two players Garnett had no problem getting amped up to face. Joel Anthony? Not quite the same sizzle. But Anthony potentially poses an even greater problem. He is a high-energy, all-out hustle kind of player -- the kind of player whose strengths work against what Garnett does best. Keeping Anthony from controlling the boards should be Garnett's primary responsibility today.

STAT TO TRACK -- Boston has been a lot more efficient offensively around the basket lately, aided largely by their dribble penetration which has resulted in a slight spike in points in the paint. That'll be key against a Miami Heat team that has been among the NBA's best all season in limiting opponents scoring around the rim. Teams have averaged just 36.9 points in the paint against Miami this season, the third-fewest allowed in the NBA. Although Boston's 34.8 points in the paint average ranks just 29th in the league, the C's have increased their points in the paint scoring to 40 per game during their current four-game winning streak.

Patriots OL coach Scarnecchia feels refreshed after two-year retirement

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Patriots OL coach Scarnecchia feels refreshed after two-year retirement

FOXBORO -- Dante Scarnecchia wasn't looking to get back into coaching. He wasn't sitting at home for the last two years, living and dying with each Patriots offensive snap as though he was still the team's offensive line coach. 

He was spending time with his wife and his grandchildren. He was traveling. He was going to bed early. He was retired, and he was loving it. 

But he got a call over the winter, soon after the Patriots lost the AFC title game to the Broncos, asking if he would return to his old job at One Patriot Place. He discussed it with his wife for more than a week before coming to the conclusion that he'd make his return. 

The team announced that Scarnecchia had been re-hired, replacing Dave DeGuglielmo, in March.

"It is a tough decision because you become very used to a very nice lifestyle," he said on Monday. "I like retirement, now. Retirement was great. A lot of fun. We saw things we hadn't seen ever. Took trips, spent a lot of time with our grandkids. All that was great. To a degree, it's very, very hard to give up.

"We talked about it, my wife and I, and we decided this would be a good thing on a lot of different levels, as far as the grandkids being able to come to the games for free and just be a part of it all. And I like coaching football. I love coaching football. I didn't retire because I didn't like coaching football. I retired because I got tired of the lifestyle. Two years off, I'm OK."

Scarnecchia was clear: He wasn't getting back into it if any other team came calling. 

"I think the No. 1 thing is, if you decide to go back into coaching, you're kind of at the mercy of the business. That is to say, who's going to hire you and where are you going to go? What makes it unique here is everything is the same. That really makes it easy.

"Honestly, I probably would not have gotten back into coaching had I had to go somewhere else. Because I was going by myself. [My wife] ain't going. Let's get that straight. I can't leave my kids and my grandkids. I'm not doing that."

Though he feels good, feels refreshed, Scarnecchia has been reminded very quickly of what the job entails. During one of his first days back on the job, the Patriots held a 14-hour personnel meeting. 

That part of the yearly routine, he did not miss. 

"It wasn't like I was sitting at home thinking, 'Boy, I wish I was there and I wish I could do this.' It wasn't any of that," Scarnecchia said. "I know what the job entails. Yeah it's fun being out on the field, it's fun being in the meeting rooms, it's fun being a part of the whole situation, but you know, the hours are long, the days are long. It's a tough business, it's a really tough business, and I was willing to step back into it despite all that."

Scarnecchia will have a few familiar faces in the offensive line meetings that take place during Phase Two of the offseason program, including Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Josh Kline. Most of the others, though, have been added to the team since Scarnecchia retired following the 2013 season. Centers Bryan Stork and David Andrews, as well as guards Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason will all have to adapt to a new voice. 

Scarnecchia explained, however, that the system is still the same as it ever was under DeGuglielmo. And even though he's been gone for two years, the game itself -- and offensive line play in particular -- is as it always was.

"The game's pretty much the same," he said. "Get off the ball. Hit him. Do a great job of setting. Put yourself between the launch point and them, with inside out leverage . . . . We ain't building rockets."

Betts not afraid of slumping in sophomore season

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Betts not afraid of slumping in sophomore season

Rookie seasons are no small task for players -- regardless if it’s a pitcher or hitter. It’s the major adjustment of facing guys who have better control with multiple pitches, or hitters who’ve seen just about everything.

However, if you ask some players, the real adjustment comes in the second full season, when organizations have developed extensive scouting reports on players.

The “sophomore slump” is something hitters deal with during that stretch. Numbers tend to drop because scouting reports expose flaws, something that minor league pitchers don’t often have access to.

Mookie Betts, however, doesn’t entirely agree with the notion that it calls for a major slump.

“I mean I don’t know if it’s necessarily a thing,” the sophomore right fielder said. “You hear about it and whatnot, but I think it’s just an adjustment period guys go through. Everybody’s done it. Some people just get out of it faster.”

Early on it appeared Betts was falling into the stages of a “sophomore slump,” going through a 1-for-19 rut after opening day, then 2-for-21 stretch through mid-April.

Since that last slump ended on April 20th, Betts has boasted a .321 clip with two home runs, two triples and three doubles. He’s knocked in eight runs in the process, scoring 14 times himself.

So -- needless to say -- he doesn’t think it was the aforementioned slump

“No, I think it was just adjustments,” Betts explained. “I pretty much think it was just more adjustments that I had to make. Fortunately I was able to make a couple of them. That’s all it is. They make a move and we’ve got to make a move back.”

The adjustments weren’t a mechanical issue either -- it was more related to his approach at the plate.

“It’s important for me to go be aggressive,” Betts said. “They’re not trying to walk me, they aren’t trying to walk anybody -- except David Ortiz.”

One thing Betts has done a better job of since his last slump was shoot pitches to right field. He has to do that if he hopes to hit well because most, if not all, pitchers know he’ll clear out any inside pitch to the Monster seats faster than they can blink.

“They still make mistakes, too,” he said on pitchers working away from him. “I think the part is being aggressive and being ready for those mistakes.”

Like most hitters, Betts doesn’t expect to go though a major slump in 2016, but he knows there are more factors in play than the contact he makes.

“It just depends,” Betts said. “A lot goes into balls falling. I think I’ve hit the ball well this year and haven’t gotten a lot to fall. But then again, I have gotten some to fall. I think I’ve done pretty well, even through the time I was struggling I thought I did all right. [It’s] just [about] trying to get out of those little slumps quickly.”