Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork


Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

FOXBORO -- All he has to do is stand at his locker and look his left to realize just how far he's come. When Justin Francis does that and sees the nameplate of his childhood idol Vince Wilfork a few feet away, he shakes his head in disbelief.

"I was a big University of Miami fan back in the day," said Francis, who grew up in Opa-locka, Fla. "I watched Vince coming up as a kid, and I didn't play football but I just looked at him saying, 'I want to be like him.' I actually got goosebumps just thinking about it because I'm here sharing this with him. I feel like it's my duty to just stay on top of my job and get it done so that he can enjoy his job as well."

As this season has progressed, Francis, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman out of Rutgers University, has had more opportunities to do his job for the Patriots during meaningful moments of important games.

In New England's 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, Francis played nearly one third of the team's defensive snaps. He registered four tackles, and he was around the ball during a 49ers fumbled center-to-quarterback exchange in the first quarter.

Francis credits his teammates on the defensive line, and Wilfork especially, for preparing him to make an impact.

"Our main guy is Vince," Francis said. "He's definitely the guy that we look up to and the guy that we go to when things aren't looking too good, or when we need a question answered. I try to pick his brain as much as I can. He's a great player. It's a blessing that I'm in the same room as him."

Wilfork has been seen walking around the Patriots facilities lately wearing a t-shirt that reads: "Do your job. Mine is taken care of."

Francis knows that as a rookie reserve, a big part of his job, essentially, is to learn -- learn his position, learn his role in the Patriots defense, learn how to be a professional. According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, he has that taken care of.

"Hes a competitive player, he works hard," Belichick said on Wednesday. "Hes got some good ability and hes -- like any young player -- hes learning through sometimes trial and error. Sometimes experience. Sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There arent many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve and hes definitely improved a lot, no question."

That's the story of his young football career. Francis started at a disadvantage compared to many of his peers when he didn't play consistently until his senior year of high school. Then with little more than a year of organized football under his belt, he was offered a scholarship by Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano.

Though Schiano -- a friend of Belichick's -- called Francis "one of the toughest kids he's ever been around," Francis went undrafted. Signed and brought to Patriots training camp this summer, Francis stood out almost immediately with his quickness and the way the motor inside his 6-foot-2, 268-pound frame hummed relentlessly.

Francis has had to transition from a three-technique defensive lineman (meaning he lined up between the offensive guard and tackle) in college to more of an end in New England's 4-3 scheme, and he's done it relatively quickly, gaining the trust of the Patriots coaching staff along the way.

It took some time, though, before he finally saw the field. His first action didn't come until Week 6 as a member of the punt coverage unit.

While he waited, Wilfork's advice helped him get by.

"Of course, for a person that works hard, you want to see yourself out there," Francis said. "But in due time . . . guys like Vince explained that to me. 'You're time's coming. You're time's coming. It's gonna come.' "

Now that it's here, Francis hopes his voracious appetite for football will help keep him in the rotation.

"Watching film, coming in, spending extra time in the building," he said, ticking off some of the good habits he's developed in his first season. "Even off the field, just constantly thinking about what my job is, thinking about football, watching games that I recorded at home that we played just to run through those clips, just to keep stuff fresh in my mind."

Francis has been solid enough that Belichick was asked if he may have an edge on teammate Jermaine Cunningham for playing time when Cunningham returns from his four-game suspension after Sunday's matchup with the Jaguars.

Belichick didn't say what would happen when Cunningham returns, but Francis knows he's made an impression. He's seen his playing time rise, and he heard the nice things Belichick said about him in the coach's mid-week press conference.

"I thank him for it, and I appreciate it, but I just take that and use it kind of as fuel," Francis said. "I take that and keep it in my back pocket and just keep on working."

And if he ever needs a little extra motivation -- to be reminded how far he's come, and realize how much room there is for him to improve -- he can find it when he glances from his locker over to his idol's just a few feet away.

Celtics and Wizards facing similar challenges with quick turnaround

Celtics and Wizards facing similar challenges with quick turnaround

BOSTON – Regardless of the outcome in Friday’s series-clinching win over Chicago, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens knew his team would be playing someone on Sunday.

Well the quick turnaround came sooner than anticipated with Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup against Washington having a 1 p.m. start time.

“It is what it is,” said Wizards guard Bradley Beal. “It’s tough because it’s the playoffs. You play hard every night. Your body gets sore. You’re a little tired, but your opposing team, they’re going through the same thing. So it’s no excuse. It’s a matter of who wants it the most.”

While that’s certainly a factor, one must also remember that with the short turnaround comes a much more limited amount of time to lock and prepare for the opponent.  

During the playoff series with Chicago, some of the Celtics’ staffers were working on a game plan in case the Celtics did play the Wizards in the second round of the playoffs.

“They’ve done a great job of bringing the rest of us up to speed ASAP,” Stevens said. “When you play 82 games and they’re all back-to-back or one day apart, you get used to preparing for the next one quickly.”

Knowing how quickly a series’ momentum can shift,  Stevens also spent time watching Washington’s first-round opponent, Atlanta.

“You kind of, any of your down time as you’re in this, you think about what possibly could happen so you’re as prepared as you can be,” Stevens said. “We know they’re (Washington) a handful.”

Because of the short turnaround, Stevens didn’t see value in potentially overloading his players with too much information.

“You’re just doing what are the most important things,” Stevens said. ”We started the last series with four keys to the series. We start this one in the same vein with what’s the most important things; try to keep the main thing the main thing and tweak as we must to do well in those areas.

Stevens added, “Obviously rebounding was number one against the Bulls. We didn’t do it so hot but we got better as the series went on. And some of the coverages and those type of things helped us do that. So, (Game 1) is about playing with a clear mind and going out and playing hard with two or three things to think about and not 15.”

Washington head coach Scott Brooks has similar challenges with his team which advanced to this round about an hour before Boston did on Friday.

None of the players or coaches are ecstatic about the quick turnaround, but they both take solice in the fact that they each have similar challenges from a quick turnaround standpoint, as their opponent.

“You can’t have that (quick turnaround) as your excuse,” Brooks said. “They had the same situation that we have going into (Sunday) afternoon’s game. Like I said, we know each other. There’s not going to be a lot of surprises in the set calls, how they play defense. Same thing on our end. We have to be prepared and play well. It takes a good performance to win on their court. We felt we had one good game here, and didn’t get the win and the other game they beat us pretty handily. And we played well on our home floor. Two competitive teams. They have the best record in the (East) for a reason. They have a lot of good players.”

Still, players admittedly were somewhat surprised to have their series start so quickly while the two other teams in the East that advanced past the first round, Cleveland and Toronto, don’t start their series against one another until Monday.

Wizards star John Wall recalled how things came together for Washington in the hours after moving on to the conference semifinals by winning in Atlanta on Friday.

“Pretty crazy,” Wall said. “We got home at like 2, 2:30,  woke up at like 11;  went to the plane and now we’re here. The NBA made the schedules. We can’t do anything about that but compete and play.  And make no excuses, it’s the playoffs now.”

I asked Wall whether he scratches his head when he sees how quickly he and his teammates had to scramble to get to Boston for a playoff game just 13 hours after beating the Hawks, while Cleveland and Toronto closed out their series earlier and are basically resting up until they return to the floor for their Game 1 matchup on Monday.

“No comment,” said Wall, smiling.

While Avery Bradley wasn’t overly thrilled about the team having to return to the court so quickly, there are worst – a lot worst – things that could be going on right now with the Celtics.

“It’s strange but it’s fun,” Bradley said. “Coach (Stevens) was prepared. I feel like all the guys were prepared; no one was complaining. It’s better to be here preparing than instead of having exit meeting, you know what I mean?. That’s how we’re looking at it. We’re excited about the matchup tomorrow.”

Celtics-Wizards Game 1 preview: Bad blood or just competitive basketball?

Celtics-Wizards Game 1 preview: Bad blood or just competitive basketball?

BOSTON – The worst part about this burgeoning rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards?

It becomes increasingly more difficult to look at these two teams and not think of that damn ‘Bad Blood’ song by Taylor Swift.

But on the eve of Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup this afternoon, players for both teams are singing a very different tune when it comes to describing what has been nothing short of contentious, feisty, cantankerous duels every time these two have squared off recently.

“I think both teams play hard,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks whose words reminded many on hand of Rasheed Wallace’s famous line during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers. “I have no problem with playing hard. I think the NBA wants players to play hard and wants teams to play hard. The rivalry, I don’t know if it’s a rivalry. When’s the last time the teams played in the playoffs? I don’t even know the answer to that.”

You’re not alone, coach.

These two haven’t met in the postseason since 1984 when Boston won the first-round best-of-five series, 3-1.

And consider this.

The oldest player in this series, 33-year-old Marcin Gortat, was just a couple months old when that series took place.

Players for both teams speak as if the rivalry, bad blood talk is overblown.

“It’s basketball,” said Washington’s Bradley Beal. “We’re not fighting out here. I don’t think that’s either team’s intentions. We both play hard, we’re both competitive, we both want to win. That’s how it is. There’s no dirty play out here from us and none from them. We’re going to keep it clean and just play clean basketball.”



While Beal’s words have the best intentions, that’s just not how things have worked when these two have played one another this season.

In November, John Wall was ejected after a senseless flagrant-2 foul against Marcus Smart in the fourth quarter of a game the Wizards had well in hand and eventually won 118-93.

When the two met on Jan. 11, Isaiah Thomas scored 20 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter in what was a physical, hard-fought game that ended with the Celtics rallying for the 117-108 win. But the real fireworks came after the game when Boston’s Jae Crowder and John Wall had some heated words for each other with Crowder eventually pointing his finger while making contact with Wall’s nose.

The league looked into the incident and decided to fine Crowder $25,000 and Wall $15,000 for their respective roles in the incident.

Their third meeting on Jan. 24 in Washington, dubbed “The Funeral game” because the Wizards’ entire team came to the arena wearing all black, was a game in which the Wizards wasted no time burying the Celtics 123-108 in a game that wasn’t that close.

The two met a fourth time on March 20, a game in which Thomas returned after missing the previous two with a knee injury. It was yet another testy, physical game with Boston emerging with a 110-102 win.

“With that team it's always going to be a physical game, always going to be trash talking and things like that,” Thomas said after the win. “We're basketball players. We love it. We love that type of environment, but we've got to be smart about the things we do.”

Nobody knows this better than Crowder who still laments the incident involving him and Wall that he knows will be seen repeatedly in the coming days.

“I haven’t seen that in a long time,” Crowder said. “I’m sure y’all be seeing that a lot the next 24 hours. Emotions took over. A lot was going on that game. It cost me a lot of money; I regret it. It was an emotional game; some bickering going back and forth the whole game. But I moved on from it.”

But that incident speaks to the competitive juices that are sure to flow from both teams throughout this series.

“We know it’s going to be real competitive from the get-go,” said Bradley Beal. “We’re all chasing the same thing at the end of the day. They’re going to play physical, they’re going to play hard, they’re going to play smart. That’s the type of team they are. They’re going to be competitive and we’re going to be the same.”

And while Boston’s Avery Bradley agrees that these two teams play some pretty heated, highly contested games, he’s not willing to call it a rivalry, either.

“I see them as another good team in the East,” Bradley said.

The way Crowder sees it, it’s hard not to develop some level of increased animosity towards one another when you play a team so many times.

“Those guys play very, very hard and we do as well,” Crowder said. “And we play each other so many times. You ask for bad blood when you play a team four times in one season. I think it was just two teams playing hard.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has steered clear of getting into whether this is a rivalry or bad blood between these two teams.

“If we don’t play well, we won’t win,” Stevens said. “Whatever distracts from playing well is not worth it.”