Pats tight ends could have gone to Baltimore

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Pats tight ends could have gone to Baltimore

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be two of New England's most dangerous weapons in Sunday's AFC Championship battle against Baltimore.

That gun was almost pointed at the Patriots.

Gronkowski missed his junior season at Arizona with a back injury. A rogue disk was bothering his spinal cord and needed to be shaved. The procedure required a six-month recovery, which made Gronkowski miss the NFL combine, and made pro player personnel heads worry about his future.

But Baltimore wanted tight ends.

Two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap was 30 at the time of the 2010 NFL draft. He'd played through a myriad of injuries over his almost decade-long career and the talk that spring was that the Ravens would either bolster the position or start a succession plan.

Gronkowski was one of the players on the team's radar. To be more specific, he was a "medical case" the Ravens were researching.

"These are million-dollar decisions," Eric DeCosta, director of player personnel, told the Baltimore Sun. "When that much money is on the line, you have to exhaust every resource."

The concern kept Gronkowski waiting -- as he expected -- into the draft's second round. When the 42nd pick overall rolled up, it appeared the Oakland Raiders passed on their selection. A Ravens assistant quickly moved forward to turn in Baltimore's pick...

Too late. Roger Goodell announced the Patriots were on the clock.

New England hurdled the Ravens by swapping its 44th pick with Oakland's 42nd. Gronkowski was the ultimate prize.

"I really don't know what Baltimore was going to do," Gronkowski said that April evening. "Obviously, New England thought Baltimore was going to take me because New England was the next pick after Baltimore. Maybe that's why New England hopped one pick ahead of Baltimore.

"That's awesome that they traded up to get me. That means they really wanted me."

The Ravens selected defensive end Sergio Kindle at 43. Its first tight end, Ed Dickson, was quarried in the third round. The second was Dennis Pitta, a BYU product, taken at 114.

The previous pick? That would be Aaron Hernandez, selected at 113 by the New England Patriots.

Todd Heap had a decent 2010 season but was released by the Ravens in July. Dickson has started all 16 games this season, recording 528 yards and five touchdowns on 54 catches. Pitta's numbers (40 catches, 405 yards, three touchdowns) have come off the bench.

By contrast, here are the numbers for New England's two tight ends this season:

Gronkowski: 90 receptions for 1,327 yards, 18 total TD (one rushing).

Hernandez: 79 receptions for 910 yards, 7 TD.

Yeah. You could say the Patriots won the tight end fight. Ask Gronkowski and Hernandez and they'd probably say there's nothing more important than the larger landscape, than their team, than this weekend's AFC Championship.

Thing is, that landscape has been dramatically shaped by those two players and that 2010 draft.

And don't Baltimore know it.

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

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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

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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.