Bradley continues to improve

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Bradley continues to improve

BOSTON The Boston Celtics would love to have all their guys healthy and ready to play, especially point guard Rajon Rondo.

But if there has been a positive associated with his absence -- and we're not talking about their 6-2 record without him, either -- it has been the development of Avery Bradley.

The second-year guard continues to get better and better with more playing time, with the latest example of his steadily improving game being on display in Boston's 100-64 win over Toronto.

Bradley, who has started every game that Rondo has missed this season, finished with a season-high tying 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting.

The fact that he's becoming a more active participant in the C's offense is encouraging.

Celtics head coach Doc Rivers recognized that in some ways, teams were beginning to play off him akin to the way they do Rondo who has had his share of ups and downs shooting the ball, something Bradley can relate to.

Becoming a better cutter without the ball, Bradley said, has been a steady message Rivers has been delivering to the former first-round pick.

"That's one thing I focused on coming into the game, on the offensive end," Bradley said. "Cuts not only get me open, it gets my teammates open. I'm just getting better at cutting every single game."

Of Bradley's five made field goals, four were lay-ups.

And the fifth?

An eight-foot jumper.

While Bradley says he wants to be as good a cutter at the basket as Rondo, Rivers has another point guard in mind he would like Bradley to emulate when it comes to making cuts.

"I told Avery, 'he has to be (Denver Nuggets guard) Andre Miller,' who I think is the best cutter without the ball," Rivers said. "No one guards him, and he keeps scoring 15, 16 points a game. Teams keep doing what they're doing, and he back-cuts."

And now, so does Bradley.

"I just have to keep on improving, and learning every game," Bradley said.

Once Rondo is healthy enough to return, Rivers has reiterated that Rondo will be back to starting and that Bradley will return to coming off the bench where he will compete for playing time with rookie E'Twaun Moore.

And while no one questions the C's as being a better team with Rondo, at least now Rivers knows he can look elsewhere at that position, if needed.

"Well, it is a benefit," Rivers said. "I mean, the amount of games and listen, Rondo's healing and getting rest. The way he plays, it's only a benefit for us, You know, E'Twaun and Avery are gaining confidence, and that's good for them as well. So in every way it's a benefit."

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots will go with four receivers against the Steelers as Michael Floyd has been listed as a healthy scratch for the AFC title game. 

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

The Patriots had all five of their wideouts -- Floyd, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola -- available to them for Sunday's matchup, but they're opted to use the four who are most experienced in the team's offense. 

Hogan (thigh), Mitchell (knee) and Amendola (ankle) were all listed as questionable going into the weekend, but all have been deemed physically ready to play as their team vies for a Super Bowl berth. 

Floyd had his worst game as a member of the Patriots last week in the Divisional Round against the Texans. On two routes, both slants, Floyd ran the pattern in such a way that there appeared to be some miscommunication between him and quarterback Tom Brady. One was picked off and the other was almost picked. 

Floyd admitted as much last week, saying that there are still intricacies to the Patriots offense that he needs to pick up -- including exactly how Brady wants certain routes run.

Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week but felt optimistic soon thereafter that he'd be good to go for the conference championship. Mitchell hasn't played since suffering a knee injury against the Jets in Week 16. 

Other Patriots inactives for Sunday include quarterback Jacoby Brissett, running back DJ Foster, offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, safety Jordan Richards and corners Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones.

Haggerty: For better or worse, Bruins need to make a call on Julien

Haggerty: For better or worse, Bruins need to make a call on Julien

The Bruins coach and leaders in their dressing room spoke out this weekend, and their words all basically spread the same supportive message.

Claude Julien and his longtime players aren’t ready for a change at the head coaching position for the Black and Gold and they hope the longtime bench boss is in Boston for as long as possible after 10 mostly successful years on the job.

Still, it may not go down that way this season with real pressure on B’s management, coaches and the players to end a two-year playoff drought. Things are currently going pretty badly with the Bruins in the middle of a three-game losing streak before facing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon.

The heat has been dialed up as high as it’s ever been on Julien in his 10 years of employment with Boston and everybody seems to know it.

“Right now we’re all confident in Claude, and we all want to be here and play for him. If [saving Julien’s job] is the extra motivation you need for the games then so be it,” said Patrice Bergeron. “But we’re all professionals and we’re here to win hockey games. I’ve said this before that I’ve been with Claude for 10 years, and he’s the guy that I believe in and that I want to play for.”

Similarly, the Bruins captain has been with Julien for the long haul in Boston and has worked closely with the coach keeping lines of communication open in good, Cup-winning times and bad, non-playoff times. Chara bestowed Julien with every bit the endorsement that Bergeron did, and it’s clear much of the core group wants to keep the longtime coach in place.

“We don’t pay attention [to the chatter]. Claude is our coach and Claude will be our coach. We have confidence in him,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “He’s proven to be a coach that does a lot of good things for this organization. We just have to come up with some wins, battle it and we’re all in this together.”

One thing that’s a legitimate question: Is the devotion of players like Chara and Bergeron toward Julien a defining reason to keep the longtime coach?

There isn’t a sense the Bruins have tuned out their coach, as can happen in dysfunctional NHL situations, but there is a feeling that longtime B’s players with status are pretty comfortable with iron-clad no-movement clauses in their contracts and a relationship with the coach where there’s a level they may not be getting pushed toward very often.

Comfort isn’t always a good thing in an NHL dressing room and it’s felt altogether too comfortable at times in some of those no-show performances from the Black and Gold over the past couple of failed seasons. 

For his part, Julien doesn't think that was the case and intends on continuing to work his way through the struggles with a mix of youth and veteran players who clearly have enough to be a playoff team.

“If we’re going with what we said we were going with and there’s going to be some growing pains along the way, so be it,” said Julien. “I think we put ourselves in a position earlier in the year where we could all of a sudden believe that we’re a playoff team...absolutely. I still think we’re a playoff team. Whether we can do it or not we’ll find out at the end of the year, but my job is to do everything I can to get us into the playoffs and that’s what I’m going to do.

“As far as the [firing] rumors are concerned, they’re out there and I know that. But I don’t worry about it because worrying is wasting a lot of my time. And my time is spent trying to fix things here.”

It would be ridiculous and pointless to compare this season’s Bruins roster to the groups that won Cups, made it to the Finals twice and even won a President’s Trophy in 2013-14. Clearly, this particular roster isn’t as deep, or as difficult to play against, as those talent-stuffed hockey clubs, but this team also has enough high-end talent that they should edge teams like Toronto, Ottawa and Philadelphia out of a playoff spot.

This is where the theoretical move to fire Julien comes into play.

The Bruins are at a critical stage of their season where things are slipping away from them and the team is showing some of the maddening characteristics of the past two seasons.

They are unprepared to play on too many nights. They take opponents lightly on too many nights particularly in the past couple of months. A tiring Tuukka Rask isn’t able to bail the team out as much as he was in the first couple of months. Because the Bruins are being strangled by a roster of immovable players with no-trade clauses and can’t even entertain trading their blue-chip prospects Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, the trade options just aren’t there for Don Sweeney and Cam Neely right now.

It would take a brilliant, creative GM to swing a hockey deal that could pump life back into the reeling Bruins. The B’s front office hasn’t shown those qualities in the past few years running the team. Instead, they have GMs from other teams lining up and making one-sided offers to the desperate Bruins in hopes that Sweeney/Neely will buckle under the pressure to push into the playoffs this spring.

So, the only impactful card the Bruins can play is firing a coach in Julien who probably isn’t the coach of the future when the next generation of B’s prospects is ready to go. The hope is that move can light a fire under their meandering hockey club if it doesn't start reeling off some wins in a row. An argument can be made that a coach such as current assistant Bruce Cassidy could get more out of some of Boston’s younger players they’re relying heavily on this season. The former Providence Bruins coach might fit a little better into the overall philosophy that management is looking to instill.

It might just be that making a coaching change is the best midseason card that Bruins management has to play given all of the circumstances.

Still, the one thing that B’s management can’t do is keep Julien twisting in the wind and answering all the questions about his future with no clear vote of confidence from his bosses. Julien is the winningest coach in Bruins history and led them to their glorious Stanley Cup run in 2011. He’s earned a wealth of respect around the league for the professional, classy way he’s always conducted himself on and off the ice and he won’t be out of work long if/when he is relieved of his duties on Causeway Street.

So, if the Bruins intend to make the move with their coach then they need to do it sooner rather than later.

People around the NHL are watching the Bruins intently to see how they handle this situation with a world-class coach in Julien, and Neely and Sweeney continue to be radio/TV silent, despite the Bruins media requesting to speak with them on Friday morning in the throes of their losing streak.

It’s high time for Bruins management to step up and make a decision on Julien for better or for worse, and treat him the way they’d undoubtedly like to be treated if it were them suddenly in the danger zone should they miss the playoffs again this spring.