Celtics-Cavs: Keys to the game

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Celtics-Cavs: Keys to the game

BOSTON Aside from the Boston Celtics' woeful start to the year, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the bigger surprises in the Eastern Conference this season. Expected to be among the NBA's worst teams again, the Cavaliers (7-11) have been surprisingly competitive this season.

And like the Celtics, this Cleveland team consists of several players in their first season as teammates. The Cavs have just three players (Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson) who were on the roster at the start of last season. And the bulk of the new guys are rookies or second-year players. Only the Washington Wizards (8) have more first and second-year players than Cleveland, which has seven.

Fortunately for the C's, their collection of new faces is finally starting to play with the kind of consistency that Boston was anticipating at some point this season.

And that turnaround, not surprisingly, has come with the team's play defensively.

"That's the kind of team we are, a defensive team," C's Avery Bradley told CSNNE.com. "We know for us to be a really good team, we have to get it done on defense. We're starting to do that now."

Here are a few other things to keep tabs on as the Celtics try to extend their winning streak to five in a row and get over the .500 mark for only the second time this season:

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Lately, the Celtics have been saving their best for the second half of games. During their four-game winning streak, opponents are only scoring 35.5 points against them in the second half. For the Cavs, scoring in the second half has not been a problem. In their last four games three of which they lost the Cavs have averaged 51.3 points scored in the second half, which is actually higher than their 48.9 points per game average in the second half this season, which ranks among the league's best scoring teams. Still, with a scoring defense ranked 24th (out of 30 teams) in the NBA, all those second-half points have been just enough for them to remain competitive.

MATCHUP TO WATCH Kevin Garnett vs. Anderson Varejao: This is a good matchup between a couple of power forwards now being asked to play some center. Garnett has been a solid scoring option for the Celtics, but he has really been impressive in defending Dwight Howard and Indiana's Roy Hibbert. Varejao has been a key to the Cavs being better than expected. He has nine double-doubles this season, and he's averaging 9.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.

PLAYER TO WATCH The play of Antawn Jamison, maybe more than any other player on the floor tonight, will dictate the game's outcome. In Cleveland's seven wins, he's averaging 19.5 points while shooting 50.4 percent from the field. In their 11 losses, he's down to 12.5 points while connecting on just 34 percent of his shots.

STAT TO TRACK One of the keys to Boston's run of late has been their ability to make teams look for more one-on-one action, as opposed to getting the entire team involved. The C's are allowing teams an NBA-low 15.9 assists per game this season. Being able to continue disrupting the flow of opposing team's offenses, which is a big factor in the Celtics allowing so few assists, will once again play a role in their ability to win.

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.