Milwaukee Bucks represent favorable first round matchup for Celtics

The NBA Playoffs haven’t even started yet, but so many people have already given up on the Boston Celtics.

They have good reason to doubt Brad Stevens’ squad. Injuries have hit the Celtics harder than any other team in the league this season. Gordon Hayward has been missing since the opening moments of the campaign, and now Kyrie Irving’s knee has forced him to be shut down until next year.

Luck hasn’t been on the Celtics’ side all season. Could the playoffs be a different story?

It has been nailed on for weeks that the C’s would be the 2nd seed in the playoffs, but until yesterday it was unclear who their first opponent would be. Now we know they’ll be playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round, and that’s a relief.

The Washington Wizards late-season collapse was worrying as it could’ve seen them paired with the Celtics as the 7th seed. Washington and Boston have history going back to last year’s playoffs, when a very different looking Celtics team beat them in seven games. Scott Brooks’ squad responded this year by winning three out of their four contests with the C’s. Kyrie was only available in one of those games, but the John Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter triumvirate represents more talent than the Heat or Bucks possess on their entire roster.

Miami seemed like the slightly preferred opponent for one reason; they don’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis will be the Celtics’ main obstacle in this first round series. He is genuinely a freak. He’s tall, quick, long, athletic, and is starting to get better at knocking down jump-shots. Boston didn’t have anyone who could guard him a few weeks ago when they fell 106-102 in Milwaukee, but at some point this series they’ll get their lock-down defender back.

Marcus Smart’s rehab from thumb surgery is ahead of schedule, and he now looks set to return to the fold at some point during the first round. If Smart was available for that close loss in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, Boston would’ve probably gotten the victory.

If the games were decided by coaching alone, the Celtics would be the favorites in the Eastern Conference, and they’d be looking at a sweep in this opening series. The Bucks fired Jason Kidd midway through the season, and Joe Prunty has since taken over as the interim head coach. Prunty is better than Kidd, which isn’t saying much, but he’s still light-years behind Brad Stevens.

The Bucks’ defensive scheme is particularly vulnerable to good coaching. It revolves around blitzing and trapping, and it’s easy to beat with decent offensive spacing and ball movement. Milwaukee is letting opponents shoot 37.2% from three this year. That’s the fifth worst rating in the league, which is even more damning when you consider how much of their team is made up of players with long arms who shouldn’t struggle to get hands in the faces of shooters. They simply give up way too many open shots.

They also lack the strong interior defense that has killed Boston at times this year. Al Horford has struggled when he has had to face players like Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, and Steven Adams. He won’t struggle against John Henson or Tyler Zeller. Giannis is their best interior defender, and he’ll likely spend most of his time guarding Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum.

If the Celtics do get past the Bucks they’ll face either the Heat or the Philadelphia 76ers in the next round. Philly finished the season as the hottest team in the league and would deservedly be the favorites, but the Celtics would still have a better chance against the Sixers than against the unstoppable entity that is Lebron James in the playoffs against Boston.

On paper, it looks like the draw has been kind to the Celtics, but they would still be unwise to look past the Bucks. Luckily, Brad Stevens is incapable of letting his teams underestimate an opponent.

Injuries will probably keep them from getting as far as the NBA Finals, which would’ve been their ceiling with a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but this Celtics team has fought against the odds all season long. Don’t be surprised if they have another surprise up their sleeve and find their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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The Red Sox have the highest payroll in Baseball, but who is really the favorite in the AL East?

A few words come to mind when people think of the New York Yankees; pinstripes, championships, and of course, money. The financial advantage was often stressed by Boston fans as an excuse for the Bronx Bombers’ dominance of their rivals in the times before the events of 2004.

The Yankees have always been viewed as the “David” to the Red Sox’ “Goliath”, but is that still reality?

The Sox have won three World Series this century, while the Yankees have only won two. A curse was still in effect the last time Boston had the highest payroll in Major League Baseball. That was 1990, but now in 2018 they are back to being the dominant financial power in the sport.

However, despite their position atop the payroll power rankings, it doesn’t feel like the Red Sox are the favorites this year in the AL East. New York’s off-season was very Yankee-like in that it featured the blockbuster acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. But it was also an unusual winter for a team run by the Steinbrenner family. For the first time since it was enacted in 2003, the Yankees are under the bar set by the luxury tax.

Barring any more major additions this season Aaron Boone’s team will have only the seventh-highest payroll in all of baseball, but they are still a popular pick to be the squad hoisting a trophy when push comes to shove at the end of October.

The Red Sox made quite a few improvements of their own, but they didn’t carry the same buzz that the Yankees’ moves did. Alex Cora is widely tapped to be one of the next great managers in the game. JD Martinez will add a punch to the middle of their lineup that should rival what Stanton brings to New York. Rafael Devers will be a year older, stronger, and more experienced, which is a scary thought after seeing how he ended last year’s campaign.

The Red Sox lineup surprisingly struggled to hit home runs last season. The Martinez signing, combined with a bounce-back year from Xander Bogaerts, should be enough to fix that.

But Major League Baseball is collectively infatuated with the gauntlet that will be the Yankees’ batting order. Aaron Judge, Stanton, and Gary Sanchez will take their toll on every opposing pitcher who stands before them. The safe money would be to bet on Cora developing into the better manager, but Boone’s return to his old team is the more romantic of the moves.

So the question arises; who really has the edge in a division that was already so closely contested last season?

Both teams will score more than enough runs, so it seems likely that it will come down to pitching and injury luck, where the Yankees have already suffered a blow with the news that Greg Bird will be out 6-8 weeks after undergoing ankle surgery.

Can a 37-year-old CC Sabathia really be relied upon over the course of a long season? Can David Price continue to right the wrongs that plagued the beginning of his time in Boston? Will Masahiro Tanaka stay healthy and dominant enough to be the pitcher the Yankees expect him to be?

There are so many questions, but the good news is that the arrival of real games means the answers will soon start to come. It’s not entirely fair to overlook the rest of the division, but the league is better when this famous rivalry is not just a historical one.

Either of these teams could seize glory in the AL East and beyond, and that’s when baseball is truly at its best.

 

The most underrated player in the NBA plays for the Celtics, and his name is Terry Rozier

They said he was a waste of a draft pick. They said he’d never do anything of note in the NBA. They said he’d likely be relegated to a career overseas or in the D-League.

They don’t say much anymore these days. Terry Rozier proves them wrong on a nightly basis.

CBS Sports had a particularly damning review when Rozier was selected 16th overall by the Celtics in the 2015 NBA Draft.

It’s safe to say that tweet has not aged well.

Last night Rozier led the Celtics to a 104-93 win over the Sacramento Kings. His jump-shot was unerring as he went 8/12 from the three-point line and scored a career high 33 points. He also chipped in 5 assists and 5 rebounds, showing clearly that he was the best player on the court.

Rozier has had a tremendous season, but his accomplishments have been overshadowed in what has been a crazy campaign for the Celtics. Isaiah Thomas was traded for Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward suffered a horrendous injury in the opening moments of the season, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are blossoming into stars right before our eyes. It makes sense that Terry’s abilities have been a bit overlooked, but that needs to change.

Brad Stevens’ squad is in the midst of one of the worst injury crises that any team in the league has suffered this year. Irving and Marcus Smart are likely out until the playoffs, Brown has only just returned from a concussion, Daniel Theis is done for the season, and they’re still without one of their marquee free-agent signings in Hayward. The only constant has been Rozier doing his best to pick up some of the slack.

There’s so much going on in the NBA that it’s easy for the national media to gloss over a guy like “Scary Terry”. The reality is that he’s the most important bench player on one of the best teams in The Association. With the way things are going right now in Boston, he’s about to get his time in the spotlight.

The Celtics are looking at a first-round match-up against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Miami Heat, or the Washington Wizards. None of these teams are pushovers. They’ve each gotten the better of the Celtics at some point this season. Boston, as the second seed, will be favored, but don’t be surprised if a tough series develops in Kyrie’s absence.

If Irving’s team is going to survive without him and some other key players, Rozier will need to keep doing what he has been doing. There is not enough scoring on this short-handed Celtics team to survive the heightened stakes and competition that come as the season turns into the playoffs. If Rozier can keep knocking down outside shots and cutting to the rim with the smoothness we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, then the team should be fine even in a first round series without “Uncle Drew”.

There will be doubters on the outside who see the depleted Celtics and think they might be vulnerable to a first-round upset. It will probably be a popular pick on some of the national media shows, but people who watch day in and day out have seen this team repeatedly come back and win against incredible odds. They recognize just how uniquely deep the Celtics’ fighting spirit runs.

No one embodies that more than Terry Rozier.

England doesn’t care about baseball, so why is MLB sending the Red Sox and Yankees to play in London?

Playing overseas is the cool thing for American sports leagues to do these days. The NFL and NBA have done it, and now Major League Baseball wants to get in on the action too.

According to various reports, the Red Sox and Yankees are close to a deal that would see the teams play a two-game series in London during the 2019 season. The games would be held at the Olympic Stadium, which houses Premier League side West Ham United.

MLB has previously had games in Mexico, Japan, and Australia. This year the league will return to Monterrey, and will also play a game in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The new CBA states that players would receive an extra $60,000 for taking part in overseas games. It makes sense from their perspective, but I’m not sure it does from the league’s perspective.

Previous international games have worked for the league because they have taken place in areas where there is already an interest in the sport. Games in Mexico and Japan have been played in front of sell-out crowds. There is a long history of players from both countries playing in MLB, and thus there are fans there who watch and care about the sport.

Australia’s games haven’t been as well attended, but they still weren’t played in front of empty stadiums. Attendance isn’t the issue. The issue is what the league is really trying to accomplish by playing in London.

If Rob Manfred thinks games in England will significantly increase interest in Baseball in the country, he’s wrong.

I studied in London for six months. I spent much of my time traveling around the country to Tottenham Hotspur’s soccer (football) matches. Since my time studying there I have made an effort to go back every year to attend more Premier League matches, and to visit friends that I made during my time there. Much of that time was spent getting to know some of the biggest sports fans in the United Kingdom. On trains, planes, and buses we would talk about various things, but the conversations would always come back to American sports. Brits were curious about the NFL, the NBA, and even Major League Soccer. But I can tell you, with the utter most confidence, that nobody over there cares about baseball.

Other than American expats, the interest in the game in England is basically nonexistent. English football has a stranglehold over the sporting landscape that is unique in such a developed country. If you’re a sports fan, you’re a football fan. Maybe you attend the odd rugby match, or Wimbledon, or a Formula One or PGA event, but nothing comes close to football’s popularity.

Sure, you will occasionally see people wearing Yankees or Red Sox hats, but those are usually nothing more than a fashion statement.

Any Brits with the attention span necessary to enjoy baseball are more than likely already interested in cricket. The sports are quite similar, and the rules of baseball are just as confusing to an English person as the rules of cricket are to an American.

If the goal is to play in the UK and eventually attract enough of an audience to televise games on Sky Sports and garner decent TV ratings, it won’t work. If the goal is to fill a stadium for two days and to sell some hats and t-shirts, then that will probably work.

But on a “growing the game” scale, that’s equivalent to lifting your leg to take a step out of the batter’s box. It’s not even close to being enough to safely reach first base.

Latest injuries a reminder that next year was always going to be the year for the Celtics

Celtics fans can’t deny that this year has been fun. Bostonians have grown accustomed to watching Kyrie Irving’s handles bewilder opposing defenses, they’ve seen the team reel off 16 wins in a row, and they’ve experienced the highs of big-time wins over the NBA’s elite in Golden State and Houston.

But the most memorable part of this season may prove to be the lack of luck allocated to the team with the shamrock logo.

Injuries have hit Brad Stevens’ squad hard. The latest ailments to Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis have dampened the expectations of even the most optimistic C’s fans. But those expectations had already taken a serious hit just six minutes into the new campaign when Gordon Hayward went down in Cleveland.

People have joked about Hayward possibly returning this year, but that was never going to happen unless the Celtics made it to the Finals, and even then it would seem unwise to rush him back. Gordon’s rehab has been encouraging, and he should be back for training camp in September.

Danny Ainge could always make another blockbuster trade, but it seems more likely that the Celtic’s core won’t be shaken up too much. Kyrie will be even more comfortable with his teammates, Brown and Jayson Tatum will have had another year of promising development, and hopefully the front office can add a bit more depth to the end of the bench through the draft and free agency.

That depth is being tested to the extreme right now, but still the Celtics haven’t folded. Brad Stevens is one of the best coaches in the league partly because he always gets the best out of his players. It would be unfair to give up on this team going into the playoffs.

But the Raptors look really good, and Boston has still struggled heavily with the Cavaliers. Getting to the Finals always seemed like the ceiling for this season. Despite some impressive victories, it’s tough to see this Celtics team being able to beat the Warriors or the Rockets in a seven game series.

A loss in the first two rounds of the playoffs would be seen as a failure, but nothing past that should be. The Celtics’ future is arguably the brightest of any team in the league.

Judge this project on next year, and the year after that, when they’ll hopefully have a full squad for more than just five minutes of the NBA season.

No one should blame Rob Gronkowski if he decides to retire from football

There are quite a few dramatic storylines lingering after the Patriots’ defeat to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. There’s the hazy future of Bill Belichick, the fallout from the Malcolm Butler benching, and the departure of Matt Patricia to coach the Lions.

But one new uncertainty that has arisen recently has taken some by surprise; Has Rob Gronkowski played his final game in the NFL?

NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran reported that Gronk seriously considered retirement in training camp before last season. And ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio speculated during Super Bowl week that “The Big Game” could be Gronkowski’s last.

Ian Rappaport assuaged the fears of New Englanders the other day when he reported that the Amherst, NY native was still expected to come back to the team next year. But Gronk saw Rappaport’s report and responded with a tweet that only raised more questions about his future.

Who knows if Rob is simply pushing back against the media claiming they know what he’s thinking, if he’s really going to retire, or if he’s just a fan of the 1995 romantic comedy starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd?

Gronk is only 28-years-old and is still the best tight-end in the game. He managed to stay healthier this past season than he had in 2016, when his season was ended prematurely by a back injury. But the one injury he did suffer this past year is not one to be taken lightly.

In the AFC Championship game he took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars’ safety Barry Church and was slow to get up. He would miss the rest of the game and eventually be placed in the league’s concussion protocol.

Gronk has taken a lot of hits in his time, and this was certainly not his first concussion. Knowing what we know now about head injuries and the way they often affect NFL players later in life, would people really blame Gronkowski if he decided to retire?

Unfortunately, some would blame him, but they really shouldn’t.

Too many people think of Gronk as an expendable jock who was made to take big hits. They laugh at his carefree quips like “Yo Soy Fiesta” and forget that he is still a human being with a brain. He has given more than enough to the New England Patriots, and he has had a football career that 99% of players would be envious of.

People will smirk at his reported desire to want to be an actor, but many athletes have taken that path before. Should we judge him for having aspirations other than scoring touchdowns?

At the end of the day he is playing a game, and a particularly brutal one at that. He has made more money than he will ever need in his life. Why risk your physical and mental future for a few more years of accomplishing things that you have already accomplished?

Maybe he’ll come back, maybe he won’t. Whatever his decision is, Patriots fans should offer support and wish him the best in his future endeavors.

It’s not easy to put yourself in the shoes of a superstar athlete, but give it a try and see if you can’t attempt to understand where he’s coming from.

Marcus Smart’s return from injury proves to be the boost the struggling Celtics needed

It’s safe to say that the Boston Celtics were not enjoying themselves in the run-up to the NBA’s All-Star break.

The Celtics lost four of five games before the league’s best players jetted off to Los Angeles in mid-February. The low point of that losing streak came at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who crushed the Celtics by 22 points on an emotional day that also saw Paul Pierce’s number raised to the rafters.

Brad Stevens’ team had a chance to rest and recover during the All-Star break, but there’s another reason why they have bounced back to win all three of their games since the week-long layoff; Marcus Smart is back.

Smart is one of the most controversial players on the team. His shot selection can be poor, he is known to exaggerate contact, and the reason he was injured is because he punched a picture frame in a hotel in Beverly Hills after missing a potentially game-winning shot against the Lakers.

But one thing that shouldn’t be controversial is the overall positive impact that Smart has on the team.

Marcus is one of the best defenders in the league. He has a unique ability to play suffocating defense on anyone, no matter their skill level. When the Celtics face the Raptors, Smart guards DeMar Derozan. When they scrap with the Wizards he’ll spend most of his time defending John Wall or Bradley Beal. And Smart is one of the few players in the league who has a chance to match-up well against Lebron James when the Cavaliers come to town.

Smart almost single-handedly gave the Celtics a win over the Houston Rockets back at the end of December. Boston trailed by 26 points in that game, but they were able to come back thanks to a second-half stifling of one of the best offensive teams on the planet. Marcus’ defense was ultimately the difference as he drew two offensive fouls on Rockets’ star James Harden in the final moments of the game.

That difference was also palpable when the Texas native made his return from injury against the Detroit Pistons last week. The Celtics’ net rating with Smart on the court that night was a whopping +30.1. He also put up a team-best defensive rating of 84.4. Those in-game numbers don’t lie, and neither do the numbers in the wins column.

He was similarly effective against the Knicks a few nights later, with one key play really summing-up what Marcus brings to the squad.

When Marcus does put points on the board it’s often in a situation like that: good defense leading to good offense.

Boston started the season so well partially because of their incredible effort on the defensive end, but it’s not just about effort. They needed their most skilled defensive player to return to health and to return to shutting down opposing offenses.

Smart’s name was floated around quite a bit in trade talks before the deadline, but Celtics fans should feel relieved that he was not dealt. If the Celtics are going to get out of the Eastern Conference Playoffs they need the toughness and hunger that Marcus brings to the defensive side of the game.

Otherwise, they simply won’t be able to stop the various offensive threats that will be staring them down in April, May, and possibly June.