Trap defense 'paying dividends' for Celtics


Trap defense 'paying dividends' for Celtics

BOSTON The numbers don't lie -- at least not this time.
The Boston Celtics' trapping defense, much like their entire squad, has been a work in progress with various ups and downs along the way.
But it wasn't until Wednesday night's 117-115 double overtime win over Dallas did the use of the team's trap defense pay off in a big way.
And the timing of its success could not be any better as the Celtics gear up for a Texas two-step of Houston and San Antonio, who are led by talented guards James Harden and Tony Parker, respectively.
Having to deal with Mavericks guard O.J. Mayo on Wednesday served as a good tune-up for what's on tap the next couple of games for Boston's defense which will surely look to trap and double team both of those players at various points in the game.
"We just had to keep him (Mayo) in a box," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the win. "He's good. I mean, he's really good. He's strong as an ox, and he makes difficult shots."
That same description can apply to Harden, who has emerged as one of the NBA's top scorers since he was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year award winner is averaging 25 points per game which ranks fifth in the NBA. Parker and his 19 points per game isn't too far behind at No. 12.
Both will have the ball in their hands a lot, similar to Mayo, who had 24 points against Boston, but also turned the ball over nine times.
"I've been talking about it a lot over the past seven games," said Rivers, referring to the C's trapping defense. "It's been paying dividends for us. It's been terrific."
It certainly was against the Mavericks, a team that averages 15.6 turnovers per game this season. They turned it over 28 times against Boston and that led to 34 points.
Yes, it's the holiday season when everyone seems to show a little more generosity than normal.
But Mayo would have much rather seen himself and his teammates be more Scrooge-like when it came to all those turnovers.
"We had 28 turnovers so that says a lot right there," Mayo said. "I take the most fault for it because I had nine."
The key to Boston's trap being successful hinges heavily on the play of the Celtics big men, who are asked to come out and trap, and then hustle back to get in position to rebound or match back up with the man they were previously guarding.
It makes for a pretty exhausting night.
"You telling me," said C's big man Kevin Garnett. "You telling me. It's nothing easy about being a big here. It's hard work; that's what it is."
It also creates some switches at times that involve Celtics big men matched up briefly with quicker, more athletic guards.
Although Brandon Bass is the C's starting power forward, he doesn't shy away from switches like some he had on Wednesday that paired him with Mavericks ultra-quick guard Darren Collison.
And to Bass' credit, he more than held his own in just about every instance.
"I was always able to switch out on guards," Bass said. "Growing up, my workout partner was a point guard. We used to play one-on-one, so I was always comfortable guarding guards here and there -- not the whole game -- but here and there. I'm able to."
And with the bigs showing an ability to hold their own on traps and still get back in position defensively, it takes some of the pressure off of Boston's guards in terms of dribble penetration.
"It's tough, but we're doing what we gotta do to get the win," Bass said.
And their work is not lost on the play of C's point guard Rajon Rondo, who is the team's first point of attack defensively while Garnett serves as the anchor.
"We're asking a lot of our bigs," Rondo said. "That's what we need."

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1


STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl


Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.