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Friday, December 19, 2014

Trading Rajon Rondo Had to Happen, Still The Next Few Years are Going to Suck for the Celtics

I can't ever remember another guy in recent Boston sports history that was squarely on the trading block for longer than point guard Rajon Rondo. That's what made today seem almost like a relief since we knew this was coming literally for years: Boston traded their mercurial star and rookie forward Dwight Powell to Dallas for a package of scrubs (Brendan Wright, Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson) along with a conditional first-round pick in 2015, a second-round pick in 2016 and $12.9 million trade exception.

It's easy to tear apart the underwhelming return they got for a four-time All-Star but keep in mind a couple key factors: 1) Rondo is a free agent next summer so Boston risked losing him and getting nothing back. 2) The Celtics aren't going anywhere this season and probably the next few so it didn't make much sense to try to rebuild around him, especially when they drafted his replacement (Marcus Smart) last summer in the lottery. 3) He plays his best with many talented guys around him and in the biggest games, two things that are really lacking these days for the C's.

Rondo was by far the longest tenured Celtic, he was 21st overall draft pick in 2006 and traded here from Phoenix. He helped Boston win an NBA title in his second season and also get back to the NBA Finals in 2010. The last few years frankly have been a mess since he blew out his knee two seasons ago, causing him to play only 38 games in 2012-13 and 30 games in 2013-14. He is still a triple-double machine, more so than anyone else in the league but the obvious warts in his game (namely shooting of any kind and now even free throws) make him so unique but also supremely frustrating. He currently leads the NBA in assists per game (10.8) and 7.5 rebounds per game is far and away a career-high thus far but his 8.3 points per game is the lowest since his rookie year.

He will turn 29 in February so naturally Rondo is looking for a max deal that will set him up for the rest of his life. The problem is that he's not quite that type of player anymore, or at least he never would be in Boston's current state of nothingness. Going to Dallas is about as good a situation as he could ask for: a team a couple years removed from a championship that is filled with veterans, winners and most importantly shooters and scorers. He should put up big numbers in the loaded Western Conference and everyone across the country will fall in love with his game all over again.

So where does this leave the Celtics? Rondo has always been a diva and the furthest thing from a leader, not the type of guy you want all their young players to emulate so getting him out of here shouldn't make that much of a difference (after all they were 9-14 with him playing for a contract). All they can bank on is the eight first-round picks that Boston owns in the next four years. Their two main recruiting tools for free agents-head coach Doc Rivers and Rondo-are both gone now making it nearly impossible to attract any marquee names. This speaks to a larger issue in the NBA but basically, the Celts have to win the lottery or get a very high pick (something which they are allergic to) in order to get back to relevance. These last few years have not been fun at all, I know I can barely sit through a quarter let alone an entire game and honestly, Rondo was one of the only reasons I'd ever tune in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Loui Eriksson of All People Might Have Just Saved Boston's Season With OT Goal at Minnesota

To say that the Bruins and their fans were frustrated with their recent slide (losing 6 out of 7) might be the understatement of the year. Facing the second night of a back-to-back on the road, something which has crushed them all season (0-5), the Bruins (16-13-3) went to overtime for the third straight game but in this instance they pulled out a 3-2 win at Xcel Energy Center vs. the Wild (16-12-2). Loui Eriksson did the honors of the overtime game-winner, the seventh of his career and undoubtedly the biggest for him as a Bruin.

If the B's turn things around and make something of this campaign, there is no question that tonight will be a game we look back on fondly. Boston honestly had no business winning it as Minnesota outshot them 37-25 for the game including 20-5 in the second period. Niklas Svedberg (35 saves) was phenomenal, he kept the Bruins in it the whole way and was able to steal that extra point that eluded them in shootout losses to Ottawa and Nashville.

David Krejci's return to the lineup obviously helped Boston as everyone was slotted back into their rightful spot. It was a busy first period as Carl Soderberg opened the scoring with his first goal since November 10. Soderberg's sixth goal of the season came after a rebound and pretty one-handed pass by Eriksson. Chris Kelly had the second assist for the Bruins.

27 seconds later, Minnesota's fourth line cashed in a good chance by Kyle Brodziak who had stickhandled by a couple Bruins then ripped a shot top shelf on Svedberg. Boston was able to benefit from a lucky bounce (for once) as Patrice Bergeron's seemingly harmless long shot bounced off the ice and in the net around Niklas Backstrom (22 saves) at 17:55. It was Bergeron's sixth goal of the season and it was assisted by Brad Marchand and Zach Trotman. Other than empty-netters, Bergy won't tally an easier (or stranger) goal in 2014-15.

The invisible force field that automatically covers Boston's opponent's net right after they score two goals was in full effect tonight. So it was inevitable when former Sabres great Jason Pominville tied it at two with 8:21 left in regulation. If Bergeron's goal was a fluke (and it was), then this effort was a complete gift because hey, it's the holiday season. Trotman's clearing attempt deflected off Pominville and into the net.

Thankfully, the B's didn't let that ruin their night as they came out strong in overtime (outshooting the Wild 4-0) and were rewarded at 1:30 with Eriksson's sixth goal of the season. Soderberg and Zdeno Chara had the assists as the former put it on a platter for his fellow Swede and linemate to tap in.

With the win, Boston moved up from 10th in the Eastern Conference to seventh. Yes, it's really tight that between them, the Panthers, Rangers and Capitals. The Bruins' three-game road trip concludes on Friday (8, NESN) in Winnipeg (16-10-6). Haha does it get any better than a Friday night during the winter in Winnipeg? Seriously though, the Jets are playing well (6-1-3 in their last 10) but the B's need another two points in the worst possible way.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Patriots Blow Out Dolphins 41-13 To Win Their 6th Straight AFC East Title

I am as guilty as anyone of not respecting the AFC East so thanks to New England's 41-13 pasting of Miami this afternoon at Gillette Stadium, I can stand my by ruling that the AFC East is a complete mess every year. The Patriots (11-3 overall, 7-0 home) captured their sixth AFC East crown in a row which is a very impressive accomplishment regardless of how poorly their division has played outside of them. New England still holds the No. 1 seed in the AFC with two regular season contests left (at Jets, vs. Bills).

New England followed their recent pattern of playing poorly in the first half and that continued today as they slogged to a 14-13 undeserved lead at the break. Just like last Sunday in San Diego, the Pats exploded in the second half by outscoring Miami (7-7 overall, 4-4 away) 27-0 including 24-0 in the third.

LeGarrette Blount started that flurry with a 3-yard touchdown run then Stephen Gostkowski had to settle for a 35-yard field goal. No problem, Ryan Tannehill (29 of 47 for 346 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) promptly threw his second interception of the game-to Patrick Chung (10 tackles, 5 solo, 2 passes deflected). The next play was a 27-yard touchdown laser pass from Tom Brady (21 of 35 for 287 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) to Rob Gronkowski (3 catches, 96 yards). Goodnight Dolphins, hope you have a safe flight home!

A few minutes later, Julian Edelman (7 catches, 88 yards) caught a six-yard touchdown catch to make New England's lead 38-13. The only points in the fourth quarter came off a 36-yard field goal by Gostkowski. Earlier in the contest, Gostkowski became New England's all-time leader in points scored, passing Adam Vinatieri in that very exclusive club.

The first big play of the game was so Dolphins in December at Gillette that it hurt. Caleb Sturgis' field goal attempt was blocked by Jamie Collins (5 tackles, 4 solo, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit) and returned 62 yards for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington. Miami drove into New England's red zone but the Patriots' defense held them to a 24-yard kick by Sturgis that made it 7-3.

Tannehill's first interception was killer since Duron Harmon (yes he's still on the team) returned it 60 yards to Miami's 8-yard line. Three plays after that, Shane Vereen ran it in from three yards out for a 14-3 Patriots advantage. Miami got another field goal, a 53-yard bomb by Sturgis and then New England's bizarre play calls at the end of the first half helped the Dolphins add seven more points. Actually, Mike Wallace (5 catches, 104 yards) made it all happen with a ridiculous 50-yard touchdown catch that was originally ruled out of bounds but replay rightfully overturned it.

Chandler Jones (7 tackles, 4 solo, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits) played for the first time since Week 7 vs. Jets and he didn't show much rust at all. It was also nice to see Jonas Gray (11 carries, 62 yards) finally get out of Bill Belichick's doghouse. He's more talented than Blount and there is no reason that they couldn't at least split time between them.

The Pats hit the road for the final time this regular season with a game on Sunday afternoon (1, CBS) at MetLife Stadium vs. lowly Jets (3-11 overall, 4th in AFC East). New York beat Tennessee 16-11 in a true rock fight this afternoon. The Jets actually gave the Patriots everything they could handle in that Week 7 meeting, a Thursday Night Football 27-25 win by the Pats that was as tight as it seemed. I'm not dumb enough to say that the Jets will beat them or even make it competitive again since they are a disaster and Rex Ryan is rehearsing for his upcoming role in "Dead Man Walking."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hey Bruins Fans, Are We Having Fun Yet?

If you feel as though every Bruins game is like the movie "Groundhogs Day," you are not alone my friend. Hockey is a simple game, especially when your team almost never can generate more than two goals of offense. Tuukka Rask (29 saves) is still a very good goaltender and Boston's (15-13-2) defense is generally solid enough but they won't make the playoffs even in the JV Eastern Conference with their disappearing act when it comes to scoring goals. Ottawa (12-12-5) is a mess, they came into Saturday afternoon at the Garden with a new head coach Dave Cameron (in his 2nd game) and 2-7-1 in their last 10 contests. Naturally, the Senators rallied twice and eventually beat Boston 3-2 in a shootout.

With Zdeno Chara back for his second game, David Krejci remains the only major Bruin sidelined by an injury (sorry Adam McQuaid). Nobody would argue his importance to the team but it's not like he's Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos, meaning that Boston shouldn't completely fall apart without him in the lineup. They have way too many veterans and guys that have produced in the NHL to score two goals or less in seven out of their last nine games. In many ways given their earlier injuries and constant struggles this season, it's a miracle that they are still above .500 and clinging to a one-point lead over Florida and Washington for the seventh spot in the East (I just puked writing that wretched sentence).

Boston took a 1-0 lead at 11:45 of the first period on about the most unlikely scenario: a shorthanded goal (their 3rd of the season) by rookie Craig Cunningham. It was also his first career goal and point in the NHL. Chara assisted on it and honestly, Robin Lehner (29 saves) should have saved the routine shot that somehow went through his five-hole. Props to Cunningham for using his speed-something foreign to most Bruins-to win the race to the loose puck.

When your whole team is scuffling, it seems like every mistake is magnified. Brad Marchand turned the puck over in the second period and the end result was a breakaway and tying goal for Mika Zibanejad. Rask got faked out of his skates by the Swede who was assisted by Mike Hoffman. The B's responded with a fight between Milan Lucic and something called Mark Borowiecki then another random goal-scorer: Loui Eriksson. Kevan Miller found Eriksson in front and for once, he finished a great chance for his fifth goal of the season. His Swedish homeboy Carl Soderberg had the other assist.

Ottawa got another lucky bounce in the third period on the power play as Kyle Turris' shot from the point deflected off Mark Stone's skate, Rask saved that but David Legwand was there to put in the rebound at 4:17 for his sixth goal of the season. Another reason that Boston can't score is that they have the fewest power plays in the league. They only earned one this afternoon to three for the Senators, not surprisingly it didn't amount to anything for the home team.

After a scoreless overtime, Zibanejad and Brad Marchand traded goals before Bobby Ryan ended it in the third round of the shootout with a nice deke of Rask. The Bruins are gone for another week: they are at Nashville (19-7-2) on Tuesday (8, NESN), in Minnesota (15-11-1) on Wednesday (8, NBCSN) and wrapping up in Winnipeg on Friday (8, NESN). All three of those teams are currently flat out better than them at this juncture so it promises to be a tense trio of games. The Bruins' next home game is a week from Sunday vs. Buffalo. They need to figure things out quickly or else there will be changes (I think?) so they don't fall out of the playoff picture, something that appeared unfathomable coming into this season of high expectations.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Chara Returns but Nothing Stops the Chicago Steamroller from Winning Its 8th Straight Game

I still can't get over how enjoyable it has to be these days for Blackhawks fans. Their team has it all: skill, brawn, speed, depth, good goaltending, solid coaching, etc. Further proof that Chicago (20-8-1) is a machine was proven tonight at TD Garden as they held off Boston (15-13-1) 3-2. The Blackhawks opened up a 3-0 lead in the second period and were able to withstand a ton of pressure by the desperate B's who saw the return of captain Zdeno Chara after nearly two months away (knee injury).

Chicago won its eighth straight game (longest streak in the NHL this season) and the fact that the immortal Scott Darling (32 saves) was the No. 1 star (and deservedly so) shows that they can put virtually anybody in the net and he'll succeed. Starter Corey Crawford is out with a leg injury but it clearly hasn't slowed his team down one bit. Oh and the Blackhawks first two goals were scored by something called Klas Dahlbeck and former BC Eagle Ben Smith.

Dahlbeck's one-timer from Smith and Marcus Kruger at 9:10 of the first period was the Swede's first career NHL goal. I can't wait to tell my grandkids about that, haha "I saw Klas' first NHL goal, I was there!" Like any good fourth-liner, Smith hunted down a rebound at 18:43 and snapped it by Tuukka Rask (18 saves) before he had time to react. Goon Dan Carcillo and Kruger assisted on Smith's third goal of the season.

The Bruins started to wake up in the second period (outshooting the Blackhawks 10-7) as Patrice Bergeron hit the post but when Patrick Kane roofed it for a 3-0 lead at 13:19, you knew it was over given Boston's typical struggles to score against quality opponents or anyone really. Kane's 13th goal of the season was assisted by Kris Versteeg.

For the B's to have any sliver of hope, they needed a goal before the second period was over and Reilly Smith delivered at 18:37. Brad Marchand's pass from behind Chicago's net hit the outside of the goal before Smith banged it home. That deflection was probably enough to throw Darling off the scent. Patrice Bergeron assisted on Smith's seventh goal of the season.

The third period was one of Boston's best of the season (outshooting Chicago 10-2) but like so many other times already, they fell short despite a ton of effort and glorious chances. Torey Krug cut it to 3-2 Blackhawks at 12:17 after an awesome individual play by Milan Lucic (who earlier in the frame had hit the post). Looch split two defensemen then passed it back to Krug for the one-timer, his fifth goal of the season. Andrew Shaw wasn't amused as he cross checked Lucic well after the play which resulted in a fight with Chris Kelly. Wait what? Haha yes mild-mannered Chris Kelly dropped the gloves for the first time since the 2010-11 regular season.

Jonathan Toews was hit awkwardly into the boards by Dennis Seidenberg midway through the second period but even though he clearly had a concussion (apparently nobody remembered his history) the Blackhawks let him stay out there. It was stunning then but quite predictable when he didn't return to start the third period. Hopefully he's ok. I don't think Seidenberg deserves to get suspended but we already know that player safety will take a look at it. He's so strong and Toews was caught in an awkward position that the hit ended up being worse than I'm sure it was intended. On Seideberg's side is the fact that he's never been fined or suspended.

After nearly two weeks between home games, Boston is at the Garden once more-on Saturday afternoon (1, NESN) they face Ottawa (11-12-5) who is a complete mess after firing head coach Paul MacLean earlier this week. Then it's off on another week-long three game (Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg) road trip for the Black and Gold. They need points before they start falling too far behind all the Eastern Conference teams that are playing well.

"Who Needs an Ace When You Can Get a Bunch of No. 3s & 4s?"- Red Sox So Far This Offseason

I refuse to be the reactionary type that calls into sports talk radio or bitches on Twitter and Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the Red Sox making a curious move in December. Nope, the Winter Meetings just concluded in San Diego and Boston has not one, not two but three new starting pitchers in its rotation (at least for the moment). Still, especially with the whirlwind of activity the last few days with the Red Sox, I want to hold off from completely bashing them since this can't be it, right?

It started earlier this week when Jon Lester finally made up his mind and chose the Cubs over the Red Sox (has anyone else ever done that in baseball history?). That set off dominoes all over MLB and locally, Boston traded pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Alan Webster to Arizona for Wade Miley. Then they dealt outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, reliever Alex Wilson and prospect (RHP) Gabe Speier to Detroit. Finally, they signed former Red Sox great Justin Masterson to a one-year deal worth $9.5 million with incentives built in that could add up to $2.5 million.

At best, these seem like reasonable moves. Webster stinks and De La Rossa has outstanding stuff but apparently Boston wasn't too enamored with him. Miley was not good in 2014 (8-12, 4.34 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 183 Ks, 75 BBs). Still, he was on a terrible team and he's a 28-year-old lefty that should be entering the prime of his career. Most importantly for the Red Sox, he should deliver innings. He went over 200 IP the last two seasons and nearly three in a row (194.2) in 2012.

Porcello undoubtedly has the most potential of this group. He's still only 25 (he turns 26 on December 27) but the former first-round pick already has six years of big league experience under his belt. He quietly improved with the Tigers (his only MLB home before now) but last season could be fairly termed his breakthrough campaign: 15-13, 3.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3 shutouts, 129 Ks/41 BBs in 204.2 IP. The thing you wonder about with him is how he does with more pressure since he's been able to hide in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer's (among others) shadows all those years.

Masterson is a Patriots-esque move: bringing back a guy that had moderate success with them then blossomed somewhere else but later lost it amidst injuries and general struggles (hey LeGarrette Blount). It's safe to say that last season was a disaster for Masterson as he was traded from the Indians to the Cardinals but never could find it, eventually excluded from St. Louis' postseason roster (keep in mind that he was an All-Star in 2013 with Cleveland). He came up with the Red Sox in 2008 and was part of the Victor Martinez trade with Cleveland the following year so he knows manager John Farrell and should have a good feel for what it's like to be a Red Sox.

I am disappointed that the Red Sox seemingly gave up Cespedes for less than I thought he was worth but apparently there wasn't a great market for him or something. Still, I realize that to get anything of value in a trade, you are going to have to give up a good player and not the last guy on your bench or some Single-A scrub that nobody knows. It would have been fun to see him get a full season in Boston in a real lineup with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez after he was solid in his short stint here last season but what can you do?

Despite all this, the fundamental truth remains the same: Boston has no ace (you could also argue no No. 2 either) since who can trust Clay Buchholz or Joe Kelly to do that? The scary part is that the Red Sox always try to act like they are smarter than every other team yet here they are once again completely changing their focus. Their philosophy goes from one extreme to another each season: pay out their ears for overrated free agents, save money and sign veteran guys and most recently I guess they watched the ALCS this fall between the Orioles and Royals and thought "hey, aces are overrated." Wrong, the Giants captured their third World Series in five years thanks to Madison Bumgarner's singular brilliance. You can win plenty of regular season games with smoke and mirrors but eventually in the playoffs, their true colors will show.

Scherzer is a free agent that could command upwards of $200 million while Phillies ace Cole Hamels is thought to be available via a trade since Philadelphia is still rebuilding. Unless they get one of those guys (clearly I'd prefer Scherzer) or somehow luck into another top of the rotation guy, it's hard to get too enthused about the Red Sox in 2015. This team has finished in last place two of the last three years so it'd be nice if they acted with a little more urgency here. Fenway Park has the most expensive tickets in MLB and Boston had the fourth highest payroll in the league. In other words, there is no excuse not to field a contender almost every year with no salary cap.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Patriots Bounce Back (Like They Almost Always Do) With Convincing Win at Chargers 23-14

I might be the only person in the world that thought of this but I couldn't help but juxtapose the Revolution with the Patriots after they both played in big games today. While the Revs fell apart in an MLS Cup like they always do, similarly the Pats stayed true to their unique form by winning the week after a loss. It is lazy to just say one team knows how to win while the other doesn't but that's how it feels after the Patriots (10-3 overall, 4-3 away) beat the Chargers (8-5 overall, 5-2 home) 23-14 at Qualcomm Stadium.

Frankly, San Diego had no business being in this game since New England squandered numerous opportunities to put more points on the board in the first half but failed to due to a fumble, brutal interception by Tom Brady (28 of 44 for 317 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) and a pair of 22-yard field goals by Stephen Gostkowski. The good news for the Pats is that unlike any edition from the past decade, they are actually built to withstand performances when Brady and the offense aren't perfect. What a concept!

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that New England's defense dominated San Diego in front of more Patriots fans than Chargers fans (at least they were more vocal so they drowned them out). The Chargers led 14-3 in the second quarter thanks to an amazing 15-yard touchdown catch by Malcolm Floyd and a 53-yard fumble return for a score by Darrell Stuckey after Brandon LaFell inexplicably fumbled. No worries, those were the last points that San Diego would score all night. New England shut them out in the second half as they recorded their 12th straight season of 10+ wins.

Philip Rivers (20 of 33 for 189 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) fell to 0-6 lifetime vs. Brady and he struggled as usual vs. New England. Akeem Ayers had an interception, New England had four sacks and Jamie Collins (9 tackles, 8 solo, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits) was all over the place at middle linebacker with Dont'a Hightower out and Darrelle Revis erased Keenan Allen (2 catches, 3 yards) like you read about.

The numbers are stunning: the Chargers only had 13 first downs on 216 total yards with 25:27 time of possession. One of the reasons that the Patriots' defense could look so fresh is that they only had to be on the field for 56 snaps (2nd fewest of the season behind 55 vs. Bengals). Did I mention that New England also got completely jobbed out of what would have been one of the top plays of the season? Brandon Browner absolutely demolished poor Ladarius Green coming over the middle and the ball popped up to Devin McCourty who returned it for a touchdown. The incompetent refs ruled it a helmet-to-helmet hit to a defenseless receiver which was a travesty. All I can say is that at least it didn't decide this game.

Brady and the offense finally woke up late in the first half as he found Rob Gronkowski (8 catches, 87 yards) for a 14-yard touchdown that cut it to 14-13 Chargers. They got great field position after Brandon Bolden blocked a Mike Scifres punt. Once again, genius Josh McDaniels completely abandoned the run when it looked like the Pats could do it all night on the Chargers' average defense. That resulted in the rare scoreless NFL quarter (the third).

A 38-yard field goal by Gostkowski early in the fourth quarter gave the Pats their first lead since 3-0 and Julian Edelman (8 catches, 141 yards) had the biggest play of the game in front of his homestate. A simple slant went 69 yards (somewhere Gronk chuckles) as he evaded multiple sorry tackle attempts by the overmatched Chargers.

New England kept pace with Denver (10-3) and they still control their destiny in terms of gaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Pats now wrap up the regular season with three straight games against their Mickey Mouse Division of lightweights aka the AFC (L)East. Miami (7-6) lost 28-13 at home today vs. Baltimore so they are right on schedule for their usual December meltdown. Then the Pats host the Bills (7-6) and they conclude with the Jets (2-11). Probably at least one of those games will be close for whatever reason but I'd be shocked to see the Patriots lose any of them considering what they have to play for.