Can Celtics take the Heat?

In a normal year we preview big leaguewide NFL stories as the season starts moving into high gear in Week 2 September. But, since this year isn’t normal, we’ll push to next week, mentioning that Cam Newton had more rushing yards in his first Patriots game on Sunday than Tom Brady had in any entire season during 20 years in New England. Instead, with the NBA playoffs going on in September for the first time ever, we’re focused on the Eastern Conference Final matchup between the Celtics and the Miami Heat that got underway on Tuesday night.

How’s Boston Doing Without Kyrie?

Well, with much of the basketball media, including the clueless crew in New York, somehow still calling him a “superstar” after he did the same thing to the Nets he did to the Celtics, they’re going to the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four years. The only time they didn’t go? The year Kyrie played and choked his way through Round II by shooting 30 percent as they got croaked in five by Milwaukee. As I said when he left for Brooklyn, addition by subtraction, and that’s clearly the case.

Udonis Haslem Effect: Miami must really like his effect in the locker room because the 40-year-old one-time starter hasn’t played as many as 30 games since 2015-16 and he’s still on the team. He’s also the last playing link to Matt Bonner; they were teammates when Florida went to the NCAA Finals in 2000.

Five Quick Thoughts on Miami:(1) They play great team D. (2) Bam Adebayo is a lot better than most people realize. He shot 52 percent, grabs 10 boards a game and is a solid defender. (3) Ditto for tragic Goran Dragic, a versatile and physical offensive player who averaged 19.8 vs. the Bucks. (4) They’re good and very consistent shooting threes. (5) Erik Spoelstra is an excellent coach and not in the whiney, what a tool, way Rob (good night) Nurse is.

New Hampshire Connection: The three-point bomber from New Castle, Duncan Robinson, is trying to become just the second New Hampshire native to win an NBA title. At the moment he’s seven or eight wins away from joining Bonner, who won two with San Antonio. But if the Celtics don’t take away his and Tyler Herro’s long-range shooting room, he’ll just be four shy come Sept. 30.

How’d They’d Get There? – Heat: They’re 8-1 in the playoffs and easily took out Milwaukee in five games. They did it by building a defensive wall that held 29.5 per game scoring Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 21 per and by being a whopping 63 better on threes. Part of that was due to holding Milwaukee to 32 percent behind the line to their 37 percent, but a bigger factor was taking 36 more long-range bombs.

How’d They Get There? – Celtics: Team defense and getting to the line. The Raptors were held to 32 percent on threes and 44 percent on twos when in the regular season it was 37 percent and 52 percent. Which is how they held their own despite Toronto taking 29 more shots, 20 of which were from downtown. But overall the C’s were just a +1 in points from the field. The difference was at the foul line, where they outscored Toronto 128-108 by taking it inside to get fouled (Tatum was a series best 43-54) and earning more opportunities by being better in transition.

The Key Players

Guys who need to be the game-to-game best player for their team to win.

Heat – Jimmy Butler: There are things I don’t like about him and I probably don’t give him as much credit as he deserves. But he’s a good fit in Miami because it demands maximum effort from everyone so his chirping about that is less irritating. He’s also their leading scorer and a strong defender who’ll give Kemba, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown trouble.

Celtics – Jayson Tatum:

There was a lot of gushing over him during the Raptor series, but there was a lot to not gush about too. The rebounding, defense and passing, especially on the move, have all improved, as has his versatility in scoring, so he’s on his way to becoming something. But he needs to knock off the stream of brain dead plays that kill half-court flow and lead to turnovers or forced shots. Plus stop whining after every call and non-call. It diverts attention from getting back on D or being in the moment while building a rep as a whiner. In short, time to grow up. Though I must continually remind myself he’s just 22. By contrast Larry Bird was 26 in his third NBA season. Next step to being the Top 10 player he can be is greater full-time focus and growing maturity.

X-Factors

Things the pundits don’t talk enough about that can have a big impact.

Heat – The Bench: The mid-year additions of grizzled Andre Iguodala and old friend Jae Crowder made them more physical defensively and lengthened their bench, which could be a key since we’re never sure what the Celtics bench will do.

Celtics – Marcus Smart: It’d be nice to get Gordon Hayward back, but it’s Marcus who makes big plays in so many different ways. He’s got no fear, which is why he’s the only inconsistent shooter I’m OK seeing take the last shot because he’s convinced he’ll make it even when he’s 1-25.

Five Things Boston Must Do To Win: (1) Do not drift on Miami’s three-point shooters. Especially Robinson and Herro, who they must make put it on the floor, because when they catch and shoot they’re deadly. (2) Solid man defense on everyone because double teams and rotations leave the weak side open, where Miami kills you. (3) Win the transition game. (4) Make threes. Miami will take more, so Boston needs to shoot a better percentage. (5) Tatum can’t drift mentally, because they need him in the moment the whole series.

2020 NFL on the launch pad

Here’s our annual look at what lies ahead for the Patriots as they begin the quest for another Super Bowl title on longer odds than they’ve had in quite a while.

2020 Schedule: With all the division games likely to be tougher and Pat Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson on the docket, along with 2019 top pick Kyler Murray and Jimmy G, it’s challenging. Though a Jimmy G-vs.-Tom game would have been fun.

Coronavirus Defections: With a league-leading nine guys including key cogs Dont’a Hightower, Pat Chung and Marcus Cannon they got hit hard.

Secondary: Everyone is back from the league’s best secondary but Chung and the traded Duron Harmon, for whom untested but versatile 2019 No. 2 pick Joejuan Williams will step in. But with versatility, depth and having the NFL’s best corner, Stephon Gilmore, it should be a major strength again.

The O-Line: With anchor Dave Andrews back at center, Shaq Mason healthy and after finally seeing what Isaiah Wynn can do, this looked to be a real strength after being such a disaster much of last year. But with Cannon opting out there’s a question at right tackle with no obvious answer. Jermaine Eluemunor has the inside track, but he played just 29 snaps last year, so it bears watching.

Running Back: On paper there’s depth with the most reliable being outstanding third down back James White. But there are issues. Sony Michel is wildly up and down, Rex Burkhead is brittle, I wonder why Damien Harris never played last year and free agent Lamar Miller had success in Houston but is coming off ACL surgery. Plus, I don’t see a goal line and short yardage back, do you?

Linebacker: Their top four linebackers — Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Jamie Collins — are gone and, sorry, that’s a bigger loss than the 2019 version of Brady. And I just don’t see their production being replaced by Ja’Whaun Bentley, two high draft picks and a bunch of who-the-heck-are-they free agents. Chase Winovich had his 2019 moments, but until I see more consistency, he’s just a guy with Mark Gastineau-esque “hey, look at me” gyrations after he occasionally does something good.

Receivers: Beyond Julian Edelman who knows what they’ll get here and at 34 I’m expecting a tick down from him. Mohamed Sanu? N’Keal Harry? Jakobi Meyers? The rookie tight ends? Two had better emerge or they’ve got big problems. OK, cross off Sanu, who got cut already after giving up a second pick for him.

The Draft: They need players to contribute from both the 2020 and 2019 draft classes. But with just five guys left from the three before that, I’m not filled with confidence.

Kicking Game: They’ve had two kickers in 24 years. Will rookie Justin Rohrwasser make it three in 36? Or will he lose out to the capable Nick Folk to break the string?

X-Factor – Cam Newton: Not sure what he’s going to be. But I do know if they want to make the playoffs he’s got to be good because the O must carry a bigger part of the load this year than last year.

AFC East: For 20 years the Pats have mostly had a giant edge in coaching during division play. But that’s not likely the case vs. Sean McDermott and Brian Flores in Buffalo and Miami at least. So with that gap smaller and all three teams dramatically improved in the second half last year, I expect a more tense race than usual with everyone bunched between 11-5 and 8-8.

Prediction – Because he’s reduced his TO’s considerably and can make enough plays to win with their defense I’m a believer in Buffalo QB Josh Allen. SoI’m picking Buffalo to win the East followed by NE, Miami and NY.

Departure of You Know Who: Thanks for the memories, but based on what he did just last year the bar is not set all that high for his replacement.

Bill Belichick: The real “was it Tom or Bill?” battle begins, where I suspect, with his rep in doubt to a degree, we’ll be reminded of just how much more impact a good coach in football has over the top guys in other sports.

Wrath on Rask

Normally, when the calendar hits Aug. 1 I irrationally begin mourning the end of summer. I just love the freedom of summer, even though from a sports perspective I actually enjoy the other eight months more. I like baseball, but it is a distant third to the fall and winter sports, because the season is endless and many of its so called “progressive” changes have turned a crisp two-hour-and-30-minute game into a daily mini-series, which drives me nuts.

But after the pandemic stole our summer, it’s the first week of September and I barely noticed or even cared. I mean, I spent the most perfect day of the summer on Sunday indoors watching the Celtics spank the Raptors 112-94 in Game 1 of their playoff series. Good game, but it’s something I truly hate doing when the Patriots play 1 p.m. games during September because it feels like I’m stealing my last days of summer.

But that was then and this is now, the new normal. And even in a week where players’ boycotts and game suspensions in support of Black Lives Matters protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were the biggest story in sports, the pandemic was still there lurking and taking its toll. So with summer gone and the sport most likely to be disrupted by its impossible-to-avoid close contact set to start when the Patriots take on the Dolphins next Sunday at, ugh, 1 p.m., let’s take a look at what the pandemic has wrought on sports since March.

Bucks fans might disagree because the team’s run at a historic won-lost record was disrupted by the shutdown. But of all the teams and fans getting disappointed most, my vote goes to L.A. and Las Vegas, who’ll both miss the opening of spectacular football stadiums in their cities and things are only brand new once. Especially Vegas fans, who’ll miss the transplanted Raiders first game ever in sin city.

The best line summing up the difficulty baseball had with nine teams playing in the four states with the highest concentration of Covid-19 came from a woman on Twitter after 17 members of the Miami organization tested positive: “the entire city of Toronto has fewer cases than the Marlins.” Which was ironic since the Blue Jays couldn’t even play in that clean city or their own country because of Canada’s quarantine wall of the U.S. Thus they shuffled off to Buffalo to play there.

Speaking of the Marlins, even though they got hit with those 17 positive tests in one day they weren’t the hardest hit by coronavirus. They managed to carry on with replacement players presumably off the docks in Miami to beat the moribund Orioles 4-0 in Game 1 after the quarantine started. It’s the Cardinals, who at the point of their 20th scheduled game already had 15 games canceled. While Ernie Banks would’ve loved to play 15 doubleheaders, doing it in a 60-game schedule is 25 percent of the season! So you have to wonder how they’ll find enough pitchers to do that.

As a result of things like that, injuries are piling up. According to Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe, 104 pitchers are on the IL, including Nathan Eovaldi, who went there Saturday with a calf injury. At a similar point last year 51 were IL’d, not counting 20 more who tested positive.

At the outset of NFL camp word was released Matthew Stafford had tested positive, leading to real family problems. Turned out it was a false positive, but it was already out there, which led to his children and wife Jill being harassed in the grocery store and elsewhere for putting others in danger. Jill was ticked at being put in that predicament by the League, and who can blame her.

The early leader for biggest bonehead of the pandemic was L.A. Clipper Lou Williams for going to an Atlanta strip club while on leave from the bubble for a, ah, “family emergency.” That got discovered when some rapper I never heard of put a picture of the two on social media after Williams supposedly went there for their famous chicken wings. It led to a 14-day quarantine and three missed games. Chicken wings – really? Sounds like a 21st-century version of those who said in the ’60s they bought Playboy for the articles.

That was quickly surpassed by Indians hurlers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac for sneaking out of their hotel for a night out in Chicago in violation of league protocol. Plesac was sent home immediately while Clevinger a day later after first lying to the team then exposing all at a team meeting. Plesac later sent a rambling video on Instagram recorded while driving his car, which blamed the media for reporting it and not him for doing it. Don’t think their jobs after baseball will be as rocket scientists.

If you’re like me and not following the baseball standings closely, Tampa Bay is leading the AL East and has the second best record in baseball to Oakland. That after Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy mocked TB’s approach all winter after Chaim Bloom was hired from that org to be Sox GM.

Tampa Bay vs. Oakland in the ALCS should be a real TV ratings grabber.

The A+ among commissioners goes to Adam Silver. Both for his plan to operate in the Orlando bubble leading to zero positive tests among all involved, and for avoiding a potential season-ending social justice boycott by NBA players after Monday’s police shooting in Kenosha.

This isn’t Covid- 19 per se, but did anyone else see the Facebook picture of Becky Bonner, of the Concord Bonners, furiously diagramming a play in the Magic huddle during an August game? She’s listed as VP of Player Development but guess she’s getting game action time too. Nice.

With most of the college football season wiped out, what in the name of Bernie Kosar will Mel Kiper Jr. do all year?

We’ll get to the Patriots next week.

Wrath on Rask

Another hectic week during the Covid era in sports inspired the following thoughts and many more.

All I have to say to Bruins fans angered about the Tuukka Rask departure is do you really want a guy in goal whose heart’s not in it? Because if he’s not fully into it, they’re better off without him, as shown by the Bruins’ winning three straight to eliminate Carolina after he bolted the bubble.

Every once in a while comes a reminder that shows how much better professional athletes are than normal people. The latest was PGA rookie Scottie Scheffler shooting a 59 at the Northern Trust event on Friday at the TPC course in Norton, Mass. I played there when my handicap was at its lowest point ever, and that’s an unfathomable number. Then throw in the fact that it was from as far back as the tees go and that it’s in competition. Long and short of it: They’re better than me.

Not that it’s his fault, but it always seems to be something with Gordon Hayward, doesn’t it? The latest is being out until mid-September after badly rolling his ankle early in Round I. And even if they’re still alive when healthy, he’s going home around then to rightfully be with his wife as she delivers baby No. 4.

Speaking of injuries, I have never seen anyone, not even Larry Bird during the 1991 playoffs vs. the Pacers, ever smack their head as hard on the floor as Tobias Harris did vs. the Celtics on Sunday. It was the kind of incident where you envision the worst. But not only did he walk off under his own power, but after getting stitched up he was back in midway through the fourth quarter. That is what you call toughness and having a really hard head.

Incidentally, if it were up to me, I’d move Hayward and Jaylen Brown to the second unit and start Marcus Smart and probably Grant Williams. That would make the second group much more dynamic offensively and give better balance for shots taken by their top four scorers. Because when they all play together one or two have to defer to the other two. Better said, if wing players on the second unit are getting 35 shots a game, who would you rather see get most of them, Hayward and Brown or Williams, Brad Wanamaker and Carsen Edwards? Play it that way for the first three quarters and the fourth quarter based on match-ups and who’s hot, which probably would have them all together then anyway. Bet it would give them a big plus/minus when the bad guys starters aren’t on the floor.

Here’s the latest sign younger demos are losing interest in baseball for newer things. Portsmouth’s Great Bay Community College is advertising to hire an esports team coach. I didn’t even know esports had teams, let alone needed coaches.

Here’s another. Rangers manager Chris Woodward being visibly upset at San Diego’s Fernando Tatis for blasting an eighth-inning grand slam against his team during a 14-4 loss, followed by another idiotic baseball custom when Texas, of course, hit the next guy up. The offense according to Woodward? That it came on a 3-0 count while being up seven runs. Beyond suggesting a neurological work-up, my advice is (1) to see no lead is safe, try watching the Red Sox or Phillies bullpen a little more closely and (2) don’t have your pitchers throw 3-0 meatballs with the bases loaded. Tatis’ job is to hit pitches as far as he can regardless of the score, not worry about Woodward’s fragile ego. I’d say where do they find these boneheads, but baseball is full of them.

Speaking of Sox relief pitching: After trading Brandon Workman to the Phillies they should pull a Brian Cashman. That is, re-sign Workman in December as Cashman did with closer Aroldis Chapman after trading him to the eventual World Champion Cubs in 2016 as a rental.

Recently saw an interesting poll from ESPN’s Mike Greenberg that asked which of Pat Mahomes, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson and Mike Trout would you expect to have the best next 10 years. It came out Mahomes at 51.1 percent, Freak 19.1 percent, Zion a surprising third at 15 percent, and the stat geek nonsense that inflates value in baseball didn’t translate here as Trout was last at 14.8 percent.

Always have thought NFL pre-season games were a drone. But without them it’s hard building anticipation for the coming season.

Best joke from the Tiger WoodsPeyton Manning vs. Phil MickelsonTom Brady golf, ah, duel in May that began the comeback of sports vs. coronavirus came from some guy I never heard of saying, “It’s not even football season and Tom Brady is falling apart without Bill Belichick.”

If you missed it, Wenyen Gabriel got the start out of the blue for Portland vs. the Lakers in Game 2 of their NBA playoff series. Not a bad run either, as he had seven points, five rebounds and an assist in 21 minutes before fouling out. Then, in the next game that day one-time D-III’er Duncan Robinson went for 24 as Miami downed Indy when the New Castle (N.H., not Indiana) bomber was 7 for 8 from downtown.

Nice stories, but neither is our New Hampshire Star of the Week. That would be Merrimack Valley middle school student Brayden Harrington for reminding all that the persistence to overcome obstacles can be helped along by encouragement from a friend. He gets a standing ovation for the gumption the 13-year-old showed in Thursday’s inspirational talk to a national TV audience about how his friend Joe Biden is helping him overcome the stuttering problem they share, and his amazement that someone like him could become vice president of the United States. The pair met at a CNN Town Hall meeting in February after candidate Biden invited Brayden backstage to talk about their common experiences.

An NBA playoff preview

The NBA playoffs kicked off this week in what promises to be a unique happening for fans and players alike. The biggest coronavirus change has been not having home court crowds to affect the game. As great a job as Adam Silver and company have done, that can’t be approximated let alone duplicated. But, since it beats the alternative, I’ll go with what I can get.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the second season evolves.

No Home Court Advantage: This helps all lower seeds who never have it, because unlike the Stanley Cup playoffs home court matters in the NBA playoffs. Tough luck for the Bucks, who lose out on home court throughout after killing it at home in going 30-5, but they’ll survive. Not sure about Philadelphia, who was a league-best 31-4 at home and a horrid 12-26 on the road.

The Silver Lining: (1) After their three-month layoff, players will be a lot fresher entering these playoffs, so the fatigue factor should be much less than usual. (2) No travel between games will also help the fatigue factor. (3) Since they have to jam more games into a shorter time window, games will be every other day, eliminating the excruciating TV-induced two- and three-day waits between games.

Players to Watch: Here are five to keep an eye on.

Damian Lillard: Not much is expected in the 1-8 Lakers and Blazers matchup. But Lillard comes in averaging 37 per in the bubble, which included games of 45, 51 and 61. With Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo out, L.A. has no one to cover him, which should make things less comfortable for them.

T.J. Warren: He had a 53-point game and three more in the 30’s in the bubble against a season average of 19.8. A coming-of-age run or just a hot streak? That’s the question going in as Indy faces a Miami team that plays D hard.

Anthony Davis: Hard to believe, but in his first seven seasons he went to the playoffs just twice. He’s a likable guy, but after the shameless way he forced his way out of Nola he must deliver, as the Lakers ain’t some team that’s never won before and they traded their entire future to get him.

Luka Doncic: After a breakout second year that saw him average 28.8, 9.8 and 8.8 in points, rebounds and assists, it should be fun watching the kid with the Larry Bird game play when the games really count. I’m looking forward to seeing how the NBA’s next truly great player does.

Is LeBron Still LeBron? With LeBron 35 and trailing Michael by three rings, LBJ needs his fourth title now for reasons of the LeBron-vs.-MJ debate. The rebounds, scoring and shooting percentage were down a touch, but given the career-best 10.2 assists per, that speaks to adjusting to playing with someone as good as Davis. It also speaks to a basketball IQ that will let him adjust to aging better than most on his Mt. Olympus level. Given all that, he still looks pretty good to me.

Glimpse Into Philly’s Future: The rumor mill has wondered all year, is it time to split up the Ben SimmonsJoel Embiid duo? Well, with Simmons injured and done, the brass will see what they are without him, in the same way the Celtics found out they were better without Kyrie Irving two years ago. If they overachieve, bet on a Simmons trade and a reconstructed team of bombers stationed around the big fella. If it’s a bad one and done, while small-ball Houston rolls, it could be goodbye Joel.

Most Interesting Round 1 Series — Oak City vs. Houston: There’s real hate in this series and nothing drives a series better than teams having real animosity for the other. Chris Paul hates James Harden and the flopping, always whining Harden hates Paul. It’s why CP3 wanted out of Houston to land with a surprising team still standing after losing both Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer thanks to savvy maneuvering by GM Sam Presti. Since I loathe the entire Houston franchise, from the owner to how Mike D’Antoni coaches to its two stars with the me-first games to even the uniforms, I’ll be pulling for Oak City. Emotion aside, most think Houston should win, but in a test of their total three-ball game I’ll stand up for bigs everywhere and take the Thunder.

Celts Underachievers: I heard some folks recently saying you’re a “green teamer” if you’re unwilling to say the Celtics underachieved by finishing behind Toronto. The C’s certainly had some consistency issues and left some wins on the table. But their .667 winning percentage is 55 wins in an 82-game season. I had them for 49 before the year, and given their punch-less bench, 55 seems about right to me. As for Toronto, after winning 56 games they lost Kawhi Leonard and then played on a 60-win pace this year. For context, when Larry Bird missed all but six games in 1988-89 the Celtics went from 57 wins to 42 without him. So I tip my cap to the Raptors for overachieving and refusing to give in.

Celts Expectations: How they do the next eight weeks depends on consistency in two areas, defending the perimeter and shooting threes, though it would be nice if they got better at finding easy shots and getting to the line when the bombs aren’t dropping. Especially Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, who tends to disappear when the first couple don’t fall. More important is forcing three-ball shooters off the line because they’ll lose if they let the threes rain down. They did all of that in their signature bubble win over Toronto, but that’s just one game. So the question is, can they consistently do that night in and night out?

That will take growing maturity from Jaylen Brown and Tatum, along with a tougher Hayward.

The week that was

With news coming fast and furious in the restart of three major sports along with more from NFL camps and in college football, we’ll try to keep up with it all, through a series of news briefs to look at the headlines from emerging stories.

Bloom off the Rose at Fenway: With the Red Sox having the worst pitching staff I’ve ever seen them have, I’d say Chaim Bloom’s bargain-basement shopping approach to finding value pitchers is off to a rocky start. Though even more shocking is that six teams in MLB have even worse team earned run averages than the Sox’s 4.74. Also, seeing the statistics-driven decision-making forcing Ron Roenicke to bat lead-footed J.D. Martinez second is not a confidence-inspiring move either. It was done to let them go lefty-righty through the fifth spot in the order to combat late game relief pitching match-ups even though it puts their best RBI guy hitting directly behind the eighth and ninth dead spots in the order 80 percent of his at-bats. Plus the match-up issue is overrated when guys like Xander Bogaerts hit .317 against right-handed pitching in 2019 and just .291 vs. lefties, while J.D. hit 17 homers and drove in 65 runs against the righties. The order thing changed fairly quickly, but it’s not a good sign that they don’t realize batting that guy there probably knocks 30 RBI off his total in a full season. It’s early in the development process for Bloom, so the headline is a little unfair. But since I’m a guy who thinks it’s smarter to not outsmart yourself as baseball so often does in favor of letting top talent just play, let’s just say I’m not really impressed so far.

The Double Negative and More Thing on Red Sox Pitching Award: Does Matt Barnes never not walk someone when he pitches? I’m just asking ’cause every single time I watch him pitch he’s pitching in trouble due to unnecessary walks. As someone who mourns the passing of the three-hour-and-42-minute game I find it beyond annoying.

Michigan-OSU Rivalry Kicked Up a Notch:Good to see local lad Ryan Day go right back at mouthy Michigan coach/instigator Jim Harbaugh at Big 10 media day last week after he made claims about improper coaching going on at thee Ohio State. Day basically said you worry about your team and I’ll worry about mine. With the game earlier than usual in mid-October Harbaugh might be just getting in some early head games, or, more likely, damage control given the heat he must be feeling for being 0-5 vs. OSU after last year’s 56-27 rout. Especially with Big Blue having lost 15 of the last 16 to their bitter rival. As for Day, word was he later told associates he wants to hang 100 on Harbaugh this time, which given last year’s thumping might be doable.

Plymouth State Alumni News Notes: Of course hanging 100 on Michigan wouldn’t be good news for Plymouth State alumni who still fondly remember the dominant days between 1993 and 1995 when head man Don Brown’s teams went 25-6. He’s now defensive coordinator for Big Blue in Ann Arbor and 100 on the resume is rather unsightly.

Celtic/NBA Alumni News: The sad news of the weekend came from Nashua/Bishop Guertin alum Mike Lupica. The New York Daily News columnist writing one tweet asked the basketball world to pray for his long-time friend Paul Westphal as the one-time Celtic/NBA Hall of Famer has brain cancer.

Celtics Cement 3-Seed in East: Friday’s not-as-close-as-the-122-100-final score-indicated win over Toronto was arguably their best and most satisfying of the year. It featured a balanced attack with seven guys in double figures, but most notably had the kind of fierce defense by all of its parameter defenders that they have not shown enough of in the regular season. The latter suffocated the Raptors potent 3-ball game and that will be paramount for them to duplicate come playoff time. So take it as a good sign.

The 2016 Nightmare: While he didn’t have a strong game, seeing Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam Friday again brought reminders from the 2016 draft. Danny Ainge had three picks in Round 1 and started by taking Jaylen Brown third overall. Given theversatile inside, mid-game and long-range scoring threat he’s turned into, that was a great pick. But then (gulp) came Guerschon Yabusele at 15. Really? A finesse player being 30 pounds overweight on draft night wasn’t a red flag? Next came Ante Zizic at 23. An in-the-witness-protection 7-footer after landing in Cleveland in the horrid Kyrie Irving trade. Four picks later, the NBA’s savviest judge of young talent, Masai Ujiri, took Siakam for Toronto. Missing him twice gets me every time.

Groundhog Day – The Football Edition: Really? They’re gonna give the XFL yet another try? Yup. Not even four months after it filed for bankruptcy again, ex-Miami footballer turned mega-movie star Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, bought the XFL remnants for $15 million last week with a pledge to try it a third time. That will make it five tries overall for spring football, starting with the USFL in the 1980s. That one at least produced real talent and some eventual big names like Famers Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Reggie White, along with the now on to bigger things owner of the New Jersey Generals, Donald Trump.

Faces in the Non-Crowds: Best face in the Sgt. Pepper’s-like virtual sports crowds last week was Bernie Lomax. If you don’t remember Bernie, he was the dead guy everyone partied around in his Hamptons beach house after the illicit insurance executive was bumped off by his mob boss partner in the 1989 major Hollywood motion picture Weekend at Bernie’s. He was at the Dodgers game Friday and, if you’re wondering, he still looked dead to me.

NBA bubble thoughts

Let’s take a look at the first week of action as the NBA got restarted a week ago.

Even though he did hit the game winner, I got it sorta right last week saying the Paul George-Kawhi Leonard defensive duo would give LeBron issues when the Lakers and Clippers play. But while he had just 16 points, I neglected to mention how they’d stop Anthony Davis, who killed them with 34.

I’m with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the feud with James Harden. And not just because the loathsome Harden doesn’t even try on defense, flops on every shot and whines when he doesn’t get the call. It’s his sour grapes for the Freak deservedly winning the MVP award over him a year ago.

The prize for the dumbest thing said on TV all weekend goes to ABC announcers Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy praising Mike D’Antoni for not “overreacting” after Harden picked up his third foul six minutes into the first half. With Jackson you expect it, but Van Gundy? Brad Stevens leaves guys in with three first-half fouls all the time and it makes me crazy because it almost always leads to one of two things, both bad: losing aggressiveness on offense and especially defense to avoid getting No. 4, or they quickly get their fourth. Like Jaylen Brown did in the season opener vs. Philly and was useless for the rest of the game. Predictably Harden got his on a break breakaway at 3:36. That forced the coach to waste his challenge trying to overturn a blatant push-off, because, as Jackson incredibly said, you can’t let stars get four fouls in the first half. Right, Mark.

The single worst example of that kind of coaching malpractice came in the 1983 NCAA Final when towel-chewing Houston coach Guy Lewis left Clyde Drexler in after picking up his third midway through the first half. I’m sitting there yelling take him out when after the glide goes airborne two plays later Terry Gannon cleverly grabs the back of his thighs to make the contact more forceful. Boom — number four! Houston never got back into rhythm after that, leading to the Jimmy Valvano “I need someone to hug” moment after Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s never-came-close 35-footer to give NC State the 54-52 upset win.

Don’t agree with Marcus Smart that Antetokounmpo didn’t get called for the charge/block on Friday because he’d have fouled out. But what I do object to is overturning the charge part when they went to see if his foot was out of the circle on replay. They shouldn’t be able to do that because if they’re going to use replay on every bang-bang charge it’ll turn things into an endless baseball game. Plus that semi-circle thing under the basket is just dumb. The only thing it does is make it impossible to make that call, because you can’t focus on whether the upper body is moving and whether the feet are out of the circle. So for once I don’t blame the refs, because it’s optically impossible to do both.

However, two possessions earlier Antetokounmpo jabbed Daniel Theis hard enough in the stomach to make him double over, and no call. It was inadvertent, but so what? How they could not call blatant contact like that is beyond belief, especially since they looked at it on replay to see if there was intent. And, oh, by the way, if they make the right call, the Freak’s not in the game for the Smart block/charge that led to the decisive six-point swing that gave Milwaukee the game.

Interesting that Robert Williams got DNP’s in the C’s first two games. Should we read anything into that?

Also interesting was hearing that Kevin Garnett is a lead investor in a group trying to buy the Timberwolves. Though, given KG’s recent public animosity toward outgoing owner Glen Taylor and that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf leads a competing group it seems like, ah, a long shot.

If you missed it, Doc Rivers moved past Red Auerbach into 11th place all-time in NBA wins. It surprised me the once all-time leader is now that far back in the pack.

Nice night by Indiana’s T. J. Warren going for 53 vs. Philly, but it’s also basketball inflation. Those of us who saw Pete Maravich play know that without threes it’s the meager 44 Pistol got back in the day despite throwing all the bombs he regularly buried.

The final Nets/Kyrie tally is in. The overachieving 42-40 bunch of last year were 8-12 in the games Kyrie Irving played for them and were 24-22 when he didn’t. Talk stats and “skills” all you want, but winning is what defines how great someone really is.

But give him his props for putting his money where his mouth by pledging $1.5 million to replace the salary lost by any WNBA player who opts out of their season over coronavirus.

If anyone still wants to know why they take so many threes in the NBA, look no further than Boston shooting a once unimaginable 60 percent on three-point shots Sunday vs. Portland. That produced 48 points on 30 shots and to do that with two-point shots you’ve got to shoot 80 percent. Not even Villanova did that as they upset mighty Georgetown in the 1985 Final during the greatest shooting game in NCAA history.

He didn’t get into that game, but it was nice seeing local lad Wenyen Gabriel in uniform for the Blazers.

The NBA gets points for negating the sterile surroundings of the bubble by creating a TV set with fake crowds and buzzing fan noise. It actually works, especially with pictures of folks like Paul Pierce and Jayson Tatum’s little guy Deuce blended into the virtual crowd like The Beatles did on the Sgt. Pepper’s album

I know, dating myself. But the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum had, after, all the greatest album cover ever, didn’t it?

Celtics ready for playoff run

The NBA restart begins this week with some tune-up games in advance of the playoffs. All will be played in the Orlando bubble, which will be weird. Even weirder will be having no fans on hand and thus no home court advantage, usually a big deal in the playoffs. And with as many as four teams in each division having a shot, this is the most wide-open playoff since 1979!

Here’s a look at those with the best chance to win it, with apologies to Utah, who is close to these teams but will have a tough time climbing over the best out west.

Boston Celtics: Despite some frustrating moments, the Celtics have been a breath of fresh air after last year’s dumpster fire. They have three 20-points-per scorers and Gordon Hayward is at 17.1, so they have firepower. But there’s not much scoring off the bench, which will haunt them against Toronto, Milwaukee and the Clippers if they get that far. What they need is Jayson Tatum to continue the ascension toward being a Top 10 player and Hayward to be more steady. When the latter plays well the whole team does, but his outside shooting frustratingly disappears at times and he plays with no confidence other times. In short, he’s got to be tougher and more consistent. Outlook– They could go out early or, if they shoot well, to the finals.

Philadelphia 76ers: They’re under major scrutiny. Whispers have been growing that if Philly doesn’t go deep in the playoffs it may be time to break up the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo. Seems weird after all the crowing done over the supposedly brilliant but actually failed “process” that delivered them to town. But for all the good Simmons does, he can’t make a shot past 10 feet, somehow has never made a three-pointer his entire NBA career and is very shaky at the line. In the 3-ball-crazed league that’s not good, especially with Embiid doing serious damage in the area where Simmons needs to operate. For now, their issues are that they’re not a good 3-point shooting team and the home/away splits were 29-2 in Philly and 10-24 on the road. So you have to wonder if playing in the dome is good or bad. Outlook – they’re dangerous but go out early.

Denver Nuggets: They didn’t look particularly inspired when they split a pair of early season games with the Celtics. But they’re deep, versatile and big and have a number of guys who can score. Their best player is center Nikola Jokic, who is surrounded by a lot of good shooters, and he’s their best passer. If the head is on straight they can beat everyone. Outlook – Having said that, I don’t think they can guard Lebron if they meet in Round 2.

Houston Rockets: Many like Houston because of the James Harden-Russell Westbrook duo and scrappers that make up their small ball line-up. Not me. Their 34.8 percent 3-ball shooting is just 24th in the league and basically the same as shooting 50 percent on twos. So I’m betting micro-ball gets blown up when they face teams with big centers like Anthony Davis or Jokic, who’ll adjust to their quickness to play them tougher outside the arch as a series evolves, then kill them on the boards and with inside scoring. Outlook – Don’t get past Round 2.

Miami Heat: They’re scrappy and have a great coach who gets a lot out of his team while Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic are better than many probably realize. But, while I know he’s talented, I’m not a big fan of Jimmy Butler, whose idea of leadership is to belittle people. I’m also not sold on the bench as Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and (sorry, N.H.) Duncan Robinson are going to have to prove to me they can do in the playoffs what they did during the regular season. I don’t see that happening. Outlook – A tough out done after Round 1.

L.A. Lakers: The LeBron-A.D. duo is as formidable as any in the NBA, but what else do they have? Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are both out, so they have no point guard. And sorry, David Price, yuck to ball hog replacements J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters. Outlook – Hard to ever bet against LeBron but I don’t see them getting by the Clippers, or maybe even Denver.

Toronto Raptors: Don’t know if anyone saw them being on pace to win 59 as they were before the virus hit. What they have is a very good coach and a great GM who sees how the pieces fit, and their best player, Pascal Siakam, is a lot better than people think. Outlook – Tough out for anyone.

Milwaukee Bucks: They were on a historic pace before the shutdown, have the NBA’s best player in the Greek Freak and seem to be on a mission. On the down side Eric Bledsoe does a lot more bad things than he does good in big moments, and while they’ve been productive I don’t like their bigs. The bench, though, is underrated and so is Khris Middleton, who can go on a six-game shooting tear than can kill a team. Outlook –They go to the Finals.

L.A. Clippers: My pick to win it all because they have great defenders on the wing in Leonard and Paul George,who can also go for 30 any night and the ever annoying Patrick Beverley at the point. That latter will be a nightmare for the point guard-less Lakers. And with those two great wings they can stagger their playing time to avoid the normal fatigue that comes with trying to guard LeBron and the Freak by themselves for an entire game. Finally with Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah added to Montrezl Harrell and the game’s top sixth man Lou Williams they are deep and feisty off the bench.

All this doesn’t take into account Covid-19 blips — they can’t be predicted.

Reverse Plunkett replay?

Well, Cam Newton signing at this late date for a hitch in Foxboro was a bit surprising. But it was also a typical under-the-radar move that got universal approval throughout football punditry, where Coach B waited for the price to come to the right value as Newton languished on the market.

People are asking what it means for the 2020 Patriots. Prevailing wisdom says it’s one of the following: (a) he’s got cold feet on Jarrett Stidham, (b) he wants to see the kid earn it head-to-head vs. a name QB to see how Stidham fares under fire, (c) he still likes Stid but wants a better backup if things don’t go as planned, or (d) Brian Hoyer is a goner — again.

Another option is one I mentioned six weeks ago: that he’s trolling to see if Newton can be a 21st-century version of Jim Plunkett to be high-ceiling QB for the next four or five years. If it turns out like that, it’s appealing since JP led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins after being released by the 49ers in 1979. That it came at 29 and just two years after paying the whopping bounty of three first-round picks, a second-rounder and starting QB Tom Owen to get him told you how washed up the 49ers brass thought the former Heisman winner and first overall 1971 pick was.

But the NFL’s Belichickian figure of the day, Oakland GM/owner Al Davis, signed him on the cheap. Not sure if he thought Plunkett could recapture the promise he showed being Rookie of the Year in New England or just that he’d be a better backup than he had. But after two years on the bench, when Dan Pastorini went down early in 1980 with his health and confidence restored he led Oakland/L.A. to those two Super Bowl wins in four years.

Not sure Newton will do that, but his 2015 MVP season says he has a huge upside and he’s a year younger than Plunkett when he was resurrected. I’ve got to think something like that’s going on in Bill’s mind.

Personally I was hoping if they could get a similar deal with Jameis Winston they’d sign him. That would have set up a perfect Tom-vs.-Bill competition where Tampa gets his QB and Bill takes theirs to see who does better without the other.

I know Winston threw a mind-boggling 30 picks, but he also threw 33 TD passes and his 5.190 yards is more than you-know-who has ever thrown for. Plus the only other time the Bucs used a first overall pick on a quarterback was for Vinny Testaverde in 1987. Guess who resurrected his career in Cleveland after busting in Tampa Bay? Coach B.

Here are a few more thoughts from a busy time even with no games going on:

• With the Black Lives Matter national anthem protests raging through the NFL season I’m guessing new Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser and his controversial tat of the hate group 3 Percenters are going to be under scrutiny in the year ahead.

• Given the history, the Patriots have no one to blame but themselves for the Cincinnati taping incident. But a lost third-round pick seems kind of steep if Bill didn’t send them there.

• If Hoyer does get cut I’m betting he ends up on the coaching staff as a just in case insurance policy.

• From defying medical advice and the NFLPA to leading those in-your-face 20-person workouts in hot spot Florida, to TB-12’s profiteering in hawking a questionable $45-a-month immunity supplement during the pandemic, Tom Brady is racking up a lot of “I don’t like that guy” points.

Yikes, Tom.

• Is it me or is Kendrick Perkins everywhere these days on all things NBA? Most notably by calling Kyrie Irving a fraud for his phony opposition to the NBA restart. But also for giving the first reason I’ll buy for the Rajon Rondo-Ray Allen feud. Most say it had to do with Ray leaving for archrival Miami, but Perk says it was for Allen being in favor of a rumored Chris Paul-for-Rondo trade. Rondo hates Paul, who he and I think is vastly overrated. It led to two near fights and their ejection during a game at the Garden, so it makes sense that Ray being in favor of dumping Rondo like that would send him around the bend.

• With the NBA announcing 16 players just tested positive for the virus it seems like going into a hot spot in the country to finish their season is going to be tricky. That bubble they’re playing in better be super hermetically sealed.

• Anybody hear when the Dustin Pedroia retirement press conference is scheduled for?

Baseball — ready, set, go

Ready or not baseball kicks off Thursday, July 23, in what will likely be the strangest baseball season ever. No one knows what to expect beyond the fact that with only 60 games each one will have a far greater impact than it would in a marathon-like 162-game season. That urgency is the most interesting thing about the season ahead.

So here’s a preview of the biggest stories and changes the 2020 MLB season may lead to.

No Crowds at Games:I don’t get the hubbub by some over piping background noise into telecasts. As long as they don’t overdo it, why not if it makes it sound less hollow?

Astros Cheating Scandal: If ever a team could benefit from no fans in the stands and a schedule not as closely watched as past years, it’s the Houston Astros. Before the pandemic hit, the retribution parade for their cheating scandal was likely going to be the year’s biggest story. Now it’s an afterthought.

Dark Horse Candidates: As usual the Yankees are getting a lot of ink, especially after signing Gerrit Cole, but I see more money going down on Tampa Bay to win. That is based on a strong 2019 when they finished 12 games ahead of Boston while spending $140 million less and a belief strong bullpens matter most in a 60-game season. I’d argue the opposite, as starters won’t have to pace themselves like over a six-month season. Tell me a 12-start season wouldn’t have been perfect for Chris Sale, which would’ve eliminated his annual post-All-Star game fizzles from overwork.

Non-Dark Horse Candidate: With Masahiro Tanaka already getting nailed in the head by a vicious Giancarlo Stanton line drive the annual injury parade has started for the Yankees. Given their history, I expect more to follow. In the NL I guess it’s L.A., though only because I’ll be watching how Mookie does.

The Stats: Jack Chesbro’s (41) and Hack Wilson’s(190) records for wins and RBI are safe. But what if someone hits .400? If so, there goes Ted Williams being the last to hit .400 in a season. So the question is, should it count? Well, when Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961 to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record, Commissioner Ford Frick tied an asterisk to it because it happened during the new 162-game schedule, while Babe’s came in 154. Frick, it should be noted, was a Babe binky and was protecting the big fella. With no one watching out for Ted, who knows. But if ever an asterisk should be attached, it’s to hitting .400 in 60 games! While I know the Commish has a lot going on, he should state what’s what before the season begins.

Can Someone Hit .400? It still may be a long shot, though, since according to a story I found in a FanSided column by someone named Bill Felber the last to be over .400 after 60 games was Andres Galarraga in 1993, which came in Denver’s thin air. That makes Nomar Garciaparra’s .389 in his first 68 of 2000 closer to today’s reality. So, if anyone does it, it happens at Fenway, making the most likely culprit Rafael Devers.

Alumni News: The rising star who got away to shine will be Yoan Moncada in Chicago. While it took him a while to roll, he hit .315 with 25 homers in 2019 and all signs point higher. A huge year will be extra painful because in addition to costing John Henry $50 million to sign him, with Sale out for the year the guy Moncada was traded for faces an uncertain future that comes on the heels of 2019’s dismal 6-11/4.40 campaign and an injury-shortened 12-4 season in 2018. That surprisingly points the needle for winner of that deal a little more toward the White Sox.

Never-ending A-Fraud Saga: It remains beyond belief that two-time PED cheat Alex Rodriguez is allowed to be the face of baseball on ESPN and beyond-er (if that’s a word) belief that MLB is actually considering letting this serial liar into the bidding to buy the Mets less than six months after the Astros cheating scandal exploded. But he’s got a new problem, after blatantly pandering to MLB owners last week by saying that after earning $448 million in baseball’s free market, players should accept a salary cap. Player outrage was best expressed by ex-Yankee Brandon McCarthy, who said players should boycott “self-serving liar” Rodriguez during his ESPN gig. Agreed, because If there’s ever been a bigger me-first fraud, I’ve yet to see him or her.

Radical Realignment Ahead: Playing games within a 10-team region to cut down on travel may be the forerunner to radical realignment that could erase the lines between AL and NL. For the Sox it’ll be facing the Mets, Yanks, Phillies, Blue Jays, Orioles, Nationals, Braves, Marlins and D-Rays. The history lover in me won’t love that, but I will say that after the NFL-AFL merger I hated seeing the Colts, Steelers and Browns leave the NFL to be part of the new AFC and I got over that pretty quick.

New Extra-Innings Rules: Thanks to dugout micro-managers making nine-inning games endless I’m for starting extra innings with a runner on second base. Anything to eliminate ending games at 3 a.m. with seven people in the stands.

Universal DH: The DH will be used in both leagues. Will it lead to it universally going forward? Probably, but who cares.

The Pandemic: As much as we’d like to, we can’t ignore the world’s biggest story with the biggest question being, with 10 teams playing in the nation’s four biggest hot spot stats of Texas, Florida, Arizona and California, will baseball be able to miss all the land mines to finish the season at all?

Cross your fingers, because I think making it through the year is a, ah, long shot.

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