First Round Upset Brewing?

For the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs that start tonight?  Against the mediocre Chicago Bulls?  Are you f’n serious?

A little bit actually, sorry to say.

From the get-go, I’ve been a little nervous about the series.  On paper, the C’s should win in 5 or 6 fairly comfortably.  But the news of yesterday kind of got me thinking about things.

The news from yesterday?  Chyna Thomas.  Yup, wait…who?

For those who haven’t heard, Chyna was a younger sister of Celtics star Isaiah Thomas and was killed in a car accident Saturday morning.  We all know what this team looks like without Isaiah.  And a lot of times it simply ain’t pretty.

My guess is that IT plays in all the games.  But, for one, he will quite obviously be playing with a heavy heart, as he damn well should be.  For two, between games, he will be logging some serious travel miles out to Washington state during the series to be with his family.  One could argue that he should just skip games to spend time with his family during this difficult situation.  And one may be right…he probably should.  I just don’t believe he will, right or wrong.

Isaiah has been awesome this year, especially in the 4th quarter.  But this will, and should, take some toll on him.  Although basketball is certainly secondary to real life, the games must go on as they say.  And IT’s situation will probably have some effect on the series.  How much remains in question.

That all being said, as I said above, this series caused some concern for me regardless of what happened yesterday.  Let’s start by saying that finishing with the top seed in your conference doesn’t really make you the top seed.  I know, they are the #1 seed because they finished first.  So my comment may sound idiotic.  BUT, should any team going 53-29 be a top seed?  I don’t know.  Doesn’t seem like a top record for a #1 seed.  The C’s would have been 4th in the West.  And the Cleveland Cavaliers should have been better than 51-31 with that talent.

The Cavs should have cruised to 60-plus wins with that roster.  But they rested guys regularly, had some injuries, roster turnover, mentally took some games off probably and so on and so on.  But they were focused on the long haul…as any team should be.  More concerned with a championship run than seeding.  They are one of the few teams that can do that sort of thing.  My guess is when they dismantled the Celtics in Boston a couple of weeks ago, that cemented their feeling that they could beat anyone anywhere, especially in the East, and they weren’t going to expend too much energy to get the #1 seed.  Valid thinking, in my mind.

Back to the Bulls series…admittedly, I have not watched a lot of Chicago Bulls basketball this year.  And it seems that they gave up a bit on this year at the trading deadline when they shipped two rotation players and a pick to OKC for 3 guys that don’t play…this year at least.  Dwayne Wade is 150 years old.  Rajon Rondo has been a distraction, per usual, benched on occasion, not to mention the fact that it appears he hasn’t been very good this year either.

I paid such little attention to the Bulls this year that I don’t even know who some of their players are.  Cristiano Felicio.  Who?

So I guess I am completely unqualified to comment on the Bulls.  But I will anyway.  Because this piece is more about how I think the Celtics will play down to their level anyway.

Plus…the Bulls still have Jimmy Butler.  Maybe not as awesome as everyone thinks he is.  But still likely the best player in this series.  I do apologize profusely to you Isaiah.

One more thing on Rondo:  A lot of people are expecting “National TV Rondo” here this series.  You know, the one that routinely throws up triple-doubles.  I am not expecting that.  I am not sure how much of that he has left in him.  However, I do expect him to up his game though.  Sure, based on the stage.  And the opponent…to show Boston fans what they are missing.  And probably will play tighter D on Isaiah.  To also “prove” to C’s fans that he is better than Thomas.  And all that.  But…we will see…

In any event, back to my concerns with the C’s before considering all of the above.  The Celtics seem to leave a lot of teams in games, despite how average or poor the opponent is.  They have trouble scoring without Isaiah on the floor.  Brad Stevens keeps trying to play 11-12 guys…even if one or two of them are when he tries to spot in a Tyler Zeller or Gerald Green for 5 minutes or so.  Or even James Young sometimes.  Too many.

More concerns?  Ok!  They can’t rebound.  Too many threes.  Kelly Olynyk sucks.  Marcus Smart shoots too much.  Oftentimes, Al Horford doesn’t shoot enough…from inside the three-point line anyway.  We’ve been through all of this before.  It hasn’t changed.  And now it’s the playoffs.

Thus far, I believe that ownership, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have done well in this Celtic “rebuild”.  I don’t know if a faster path has really been available.  But the fact remains that Stevens has not won a playoff series.  Until they do, I am always going to be skeptical.  Isaiah has been bottled up pretty good in past playoffs.  Sure he gets his points, but the percentages have been brutal and the points have been tough to come by.  Jae Crowder was atrocious in the first round last year.  Blame the ankle injury if you will.  I don’t…completely.  At least he was out there.  Avery Bradley went down yet again, so he was no help.  He’s always a ticking time bomb with injury.  So who knows this year?

I’ve had the same concerns with this team that I’ve had all season and you’ve all heard before.  The playoffs are a different animal and with the Cs playing only supposedly “good” teams, any issues will be exposed.  Ultimately, I think the Celtics win the series 4 games to 3.  I had initially thought 4-2, but that changed with Isaiah’s situation.  Maybe I shouldn’t have adjusted…after all, these guys have distractions all the time and, as professionals, should be able to handle them, right?   This one feels different though.  Bottom line though?  If the C’s don’t get through the first round, the season is a colossal failure…

Dodged a bullet…

…or did they?  Talking about the Boston Bruins avoiding the Washington Capitals in Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs which begin tonight.  You know the same Capital team that had the best record in the NHL…by 7 points.  Seems like a good idea on the surface.

But now they are up against the Ottawa Senators.  A Senator team that had a mere 3 more points than an honestly mediocre Bruin team.  And 20 fewer points than the Capitals.

Should be fine, no?

Problem is, Ottawa took all 4 games against the B’s this year.  Two by 2 goals and Two by 1…so not necessarily blowouts.  But the B’s were swept nonetheless.

Of course, they were swept this season by Washington too, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

In any event, after missing the playoffs the last two years, it is great to see them back in this year.  The team went 18-9 under Bruce Cassidy and showed a little more life after he took over.  They needed every one of those wins/points, as Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders both each finished with only one less point than the B’s and were on the outside looking in.

Say what you want about the situation.  Claude Julien is a very good coach.  But Cassidy got them on a roll.  The coaching change spurred the playoff run.  There simply isn’t any disputing that.  But I’ve ranted about this enough in the past.

Back to the Senators.

Of course the B’s have a better chance against Ottawa than they do against Washington.  But do they really have a chance against anyone this year?

Despite the late season success, the Bruins remain a flawed team.  No secret there.

And now…the injuries.  Torey Krug plays every game this year, then in Game 81 goes down.  Last I saw, he was expected to miss the entire series.  Rookie Brandon Carlo plays all 82 games himself…and goes down himself in that one.  Last I saw, he is definitely missing Game 1 and who knows how much more.  Noel Acciari?  Yeah, you may say he is kind of a bit player.  And he probably is.  But he has been playing well lately and seeing more minutes.  He will be out for Game 1.  Jimmy Hayes, he is…well, who really cares about that stiff…

As for Krug and Carlo, there goes 2 of your 6 regular defensemen.  When your defense is already suspect, that’s a tough pill to swallow.  Say what you want about Krug’s actual defense…and I do…but he is a key part of the power play and obviously provides some offense from the blue line.  Carlo is a kid and has his ups and downs.  But he had a pretty good year for a 20-year-old in my estimation.

That leaves a 40-year-old Zdeno Chara, still relatively effective for the most part, but also playing waaaaaay too many minutes.  Also Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid…two somewhat useful guys, but you don’t need both of them.  And they aren’t exactly stud D-men either.  Rounding things out among the regulars are John-Michael Liles and Colin Miller.  I don’t know if Cassidy has lost confidence with Colin over the last stretch leading to his healthy scratches.  Or if it’s rest.  Or it’s to get Liles some action before the playoffs.  Or for the veteran presence.  But it concerns me.  I’d take Colin over Liles any day of the week.  And Carlo didn’t need rest, so why would Colin?  No matter, they will both be in the lineup it appears.  Not necessarily a good thing.

That leaves one spot open.  Joe Morrow?  Nah.  I’ve been looking on milk cartons for his face.  Makes that Tyler Seguin trade look even better, eh?  The ONE guy you wanted to pan out (since Loui Eriksson is what he is and is now gone anyway, Reilly Smith the same and then they turned him into Jimmy F’n Hayes and Matt Fraser appears to have been out of the league for 2 years), apparently will also be gone over the summer.  Awesome.

The wild card on the back-end?  Last year’s first round pick, Charlie McAvoy.  Since they burned a year on his entry-level contract by signing him right before the playoffs, he will be in uniform tonight.  What to expect?  No clue.  Kid is 19 years old, fresh out of college and has played 4 games in Providence (2 assists).  Has a world of talent everyone tells me, but is he ready?  No idea.  Carlo started the year at 19 years old.  But he played all of last year in Providence.  And played a full year in Boston this year.  Defense is hard, man.  Tall task.  But I guess I’d rather throw him in there than Tommy Cross though.  We will see what happens.

The offense?  Well, no Acciari and Hayes, but Marchand will be back from suspension.  As long as he keeps his stick out of other players’ nuts, he should be a factor.  Should.  You know the rest of the names…David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner et al.  It’d be nice if Frank Vatrano showed up for this series however.  He hasn’t scored in quite some time it seems.  And if he’s not scoring…

The wild card on offense?  JFK!  Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson.  By the way, that will likely be the ONLY time I spell that name out in its entirety.  What to expect?  Again, no clue.  21-year-old kid, fresh out of college.  His first year of his entry-level deal was burned too, so hopefully he can add something.  Played 8:25 in his one game at the pro level this year.  But…he can’t hurt if they play him on the third line with Spooner.

I haven’t seen any updates…but I’m guessing the lines look something like this:  Marchand-Bergeron-Backes; Stafford-Krejci-Pastrnak; Vatrano-Spooner-Karlsson; Beleskey-Moore-Nash.  Not horrible.  But it’d be nice if a couple of the above woke up.  I have no idea what the F happened to Beleskey.  He doesn’t have to score a ton of goals.  But if he returned to the 2015-16 Beleskey, that wouldn’t be too much to ask, would it?

For the Bruins, the series will come down to how the defense gels and plays in front of Tuukka Rask.  We all know that Tuuks plays better with a better D corps in front of him (what goaltender doesn’t?).  We also know he isn’t the type of goalie who “steals” a lot of games, like his predecessor Tim Thomas used to.  Rask has his moments.  But he is not a 7 million dollar a year goalie.  You’ve heard me say that enough.  As my cohort, The Thinking Frog, likes to say:  “Tuukaa is as soft as puppy poo.”  That about sums it up.  But he has played better after Cassidy called him out a bit.  As long as he doesn’t get the sniffles and has to bail on a game (never rule that out), I expect him to be at least decent in the series.  But if the D is porous with all the player uncertainty, then there is not much he can do about that.

Ottawa may be brutal to watch, with their defensive style and all.  But they can be beat.  Unfortunately, not this time.  The B’s will not get swept.  I say 4-2 Ottawa.  And then keep implementing the supposedly talented kids over the summer…

New England Patriot Free Agency Review – Defense

Picking up where we left off yesterday…onto the defense.

Arriving:  Stephon Gilmore, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy

Returning:  Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Geneo Grissom, Justin Coleman, Brandon King

Departing:  Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Barkevious Mingo

In limbo:  Malcolm Butler

Who cares?:  Chris Long

Worth mentioning:  No one else

Let’s start with the big ones:

*Sign Gilmore for 5 years, 65 million…of which apparently 40 mil is guaranteed.  Whoa.  Lotta dough.  Did anyone see this coming?  I doubt it.  Sure, everyone knew they were likely to lose Ryan.  And that Butler would want some big money sooner, rather than later (more on him later) and that fact may have had some impact going forward.  So signing a cornerback or two in free agency may have been on the list at some point.  But signing a big-ticket CB?  One of the most coveted free agents out there?  On the morning of the very first day of free agency?  Not typical Patriot behavior.  Especially throwing the most guaranteed money for a defensive player in the history of the franchise.

OK, let’s just cover Butler here as well.  A lot of fans seem to be pretty upset that the team would make this kind of move.  After all that Butler has done here…cementing the Super Bowl with his interception at the end of his rookie year.  Then playing at an All-Pro/Pro Bowl level the subsequent two years.  All the while doing everything the team asked him to and keeping his mouth shut.  At limited dollars.  Blah blah blah.

And those fans may have a point.  Butler sure as hell does deserve a raise.  And he got one.  This year as a restricted free agent, he was tendered at the highest level and will make close to 4 million.  I’d say that is a pretty good raise.  Apparently, he was offered 6-7 million dollars a year before this past season.  Now, we don’t know how many years (ie: how many years past his current unrestricted free agent date at the end of next year would he have to lock into and “lose”), or the guaranteed money involved (BIG consideration).  But still looks like a pretty good raise nonetheless.

Malcolm did not want any of that and wants to cash in after next season in unrestricted free agency.  Fair enough for sure.  So despite the fact that we all feel for him to some degree, he really shouldn’t be upset that the Pats pounced on a potential long-term replacement now in case Butler walks next year.  Plus, the team rarely pays players before they have to, unless it’s a situation like above, where the player pushes off unrestricted free agency a few years for additional financial security before the Pats actually HAVE to lay out the cash.  I usually don’t begrudge a player for going after the money, especially in a sport like football where the average career is short.  But…them’s the rules…

As for the two players’ actual skills on the field?  I have seen Butler every week and I love him.  I don’t watch a lot of (ummm…any) Buffalo Bills football, so I can’t tell you if Gilmore is a better player.  But he is a smidge younger.  A smidge bigger.  And the Patriots locked him up for 5 years, so apparently THEY think he is better.  So who am I to argue with that?

All that being said, I hope Butler stays this year, makes his 4 mil, gives the team a great CB tandem (while keeping Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, et al off the field as much as possible) and this helps them win another Super Bowl.  Then he can walk, since I doubt the Pats are paying 2 cornerbacks 8 figures a year apiece.  But now what I think will happen, especially with Butler’s visit today to New Orleans, is that Malcolm will get traded to the Saints post-haste.  It appears it would have happened in the Brandin Cooks deal, but it didn’t for many reasons.  One, Butler can’t be traded without signing his tender.  Two, Cooks had some sort of bonus deadline that he had to be dealt by if NO didn’t want to pay.  And also I suppose three, Butler needs to decide if he wants to play there and sign long-term and he and the Saints would have to negotiate and all that.

Butler leaving would certainly be too bad.  But that’s life in the NFL I guess…now that we’ve beaten this to death…

*Trading a second round pick (#64) to Carolina for Ealy and a third rounder (#72).  Steal, even if Ealy sucks.  Dropping 8 spots in the draft and getting a young defensive end with potential?  One that makes less than a million beans?  With Long and Sheard gone and Rob Ninkovich seemingly towards the end of the line, leaving the position fairly thin?  How could you not do that?  Maybe he’s not as good as the guy that had 3 sacks against Denver in the Super Bowl 2 years ago.  But should be an asset…and absolutely worth the seemingly miniscule acquisition price.

*Re-signing Branch and signing Guy.  You know I wanted Branch back.  Don’t know a thing about Guy and the contract seems steep.  But I’m guessing he is better than Woodrow Hamilton.  And along with Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine, seems like a serviceable rotation to have in the middle of the defensive line.  I’ll wait and see if Guy gets turnstiled regularly before I complain about this one.  In the meantime, Hamilton can go back to the practice squad and be insurance for if/when Branch decides to smoke some more weed.

The rest:

*I’m not classifying Hightower’s return as a “big” one.  Not because it’s not a big deal he came back.  It sure is…just look at the rest of the linebacking core.  But rather because I think most felt like he was pretty much coming back here anyway.  That he had a “McCourty-esque” kind of understanding with Bill Belichick and the team.  Where he would bring any offers back to the Pats and they would get the opportunity to match it.  Once the first few days of free agency passed with no monster offers for Dont’a, I think this theory became stronger.  I mean, seriously, the Jets?  The cupcakes were a nice touch (huh?), but unless they gave him the moon, did anyone actually think that he would go there?  Doubtful.  Didn’t seem to be other serious suitors.  Always kind of felt like he wasn’t going anywhere.

*Seems like waaaay too much dough for Harmon.  3rd safety, technically a backup.  But I’m not opposed to him being here.  Just hope the money invested in Duron doesn’t stop them from paying someone, you know, good, in the future.

*Again, I expected someone to overpay Ryan.  That happened.  No worries there.  We knew Sheard wasn’t coming back.  But the Colts gave him 25.5 mil over 3 years?  Yikes!  The Colts also gave Mingo 2 mil for a year.  Mingo barely played on D here, so 2 mil sounds way too steep as well.  Guess Indy had some money to burn.

*We covered Long already, with his desire to “get back to being the player he once was”.  Good luck with that, my friend.  I hate to tell you that that ship has sailed.

*Grissom, Coleman, King?  Useful.  Depth.  Low cost.  Sounds good to me.

Now let’s get this Butler nonsense settled…

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