Sunday, May 23, 2010

3-0 Celtics

It looks like the Boston Celtics will certainly be moving on to the NBA finals after completely dismantling the Orlando Magic last night, 94-71. Once again, the story was Rajon Rondo. Despite only shooting 4-13 from the field, Rondo made two absolutely jaw dropping plays - one where he faked out Marcin Gortat to lay it in and the other when he outhustled Jason Williams for a loose ball to grab it and lay it in.

Despite how fantastic both plays were, they also showed the difference in the energy level, as well as the effort level of both teams. No way should Gortat have allowed Rondo to just blow by him without at least a hard foul. Also, White Chocolate (Williams) had 2-3 steps on Rondo. Not only did Rondo beat him to the ball, but Williams also played poor defense in allowing Rondo to lay it in.

The Magic stars just are not stepping up in this series. Rashard Lewis belongs on the side of a milk carton. He's been missing the entire series. Kevin Garnett has eaten him for dinner this whole series. Last night Lewis made an attempt to take The Big Ticket to the hole. Big mistake. Garnett swatted the shot attempt away.

The series has been a combination of the Celtics playing their best basketball, particularly on defense, and the Magic being gawdawful.

The Magic have seemingly tuned out coach Stan Van Gundy. If the Celtics complete the sweep, how can Orlando bring Van Gundy back to coach the team. When you see the huddle, the Magic players are not even looking at him, basically ignoring him.

As a Celtics fan, these last two series vs. Cleveland and Orlando have been super fun to watch. I anticipate it continuing in the NBA Finals. Five more victories left for banner #18.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday Morning Celtics

A Bruins free zone...

During the last few months of the regular season, the Celtics played awful basketball. Anytime the thought was floated that the Celtics could flip a switch and turn it on for the playoffs, it was dismissed by "experts" as not the case with this team. Guess what, after a listless regular season, they've put their foot down on the gas pedal and are now up 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals over Orlando. What has been the difference? Two things - the return of Kevin Garnett as a healthy impact basketball player and the commitment to defense.

In yesterday's game, the Celtics suffocated the life out of the Magic with tough, physical defense. Yes, Orlando made a run at the end of the game and cut what was once a 20 point lead to 2, but almost doesn't count. It wasn't a pretty game, but it all counts the same in the score book.

Besides the great defense, what surprised me most was only 2 Celtic starters, plus Rasheed Wallace scored double figures. Rajon Rondo was quiet and Kevin Garnett didn't have a good shooting game. Give credit to Orlando, they are a good defensive team as well. They held the Celtics scoreless for over 5 minutes as they made their 4th quarter run. Looks like we are in for some 83-78 type games this series.

Tony Allen continues to provide strong contributions off the bench. He's really stepping up and being the bench player Danny Ainge envisioned 2 years ago, when he let James Posey leave for New Orleans. Tony Allen has become a lock down defender, plus he is an excellent finisher, filling the lanes on the fast break. No longer is he the out of control player, prone to turnovers against good teams. He's playing within himself and not trying to do too much.

Five weeks ago, ESPN columnist and Celtics superfan Bill Simmons wrote a scathing column criticizing Rasheed Wallace describing him as "my least favorite Celtic ever". After a season and a playoff series of mailing it in, Sheed finally started turning it on in the last two games of the Cavaliers series. He's playing with passion and contributing some timely 3 point shots. He still is allergic to rebounding, but he's bringing some presence on defense.

If the rumors are true of coach Doc Rivers planning on leaving at the end of the season, it would only make sense for assistant coach Tom Thibodeau to be escalated to head coach. Thibodeau may be the best defensive coach in the NBA.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Another Yankee Series

It's early May and the Red Sox are already facing the New York Yankees for a second time. Ho hum. Remember when Yankees-Red Sox series used to mean something?

That being said, the inconsistent Red Sox, coming off a sweep of the Angels, will have their hands full with the Bronx Bombers. The weakness of this year's Red Sox is they can't hit good pitching. They'll be up against the Yankees' three best starters - Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Hughes, in particular, has been terrific. He's finally meeting the potential that was projected for him a few years ago when he was one of the hottest pitching prospects in baseball.

After getting swept by the Baltimore Orioles, the Red Sox played very well vs. the Angels and even overcame an erratic Daisuke Matsuzaka performance (is there any other kind of Dice-K performance?)) to come from behind and complete the series sweep.

The Red Sox will be pitching Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester in this series. Tonight's game is very important for Beckett to continue getting back on track. It would be good if Beckett can rediscover his curveball to compliment his 4-seamer and 2-seamer. The Red Sox need him to be the #1 starter. One concern about Beckett is his stubbornness. Despite throwing 96 mph, he's not a strikeout pitcher. Beckett throws a lot of pitches due to what seems to be a desire by him to pile up the K's. He should look to pitch to contact more, like John Lackey, and let his defense do the work.

As a team, the Yankees are hitting .276 - despite Nick Johnson and Mark Teixiera both still hitting under .200. Second baseman Robinson Cano has been the AL MVP, thus far. Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada still refuse to get old - both of them hitting well, as usual.

A key to this series will be keeping LF Brett Gardner (who?) off base. Gardner has a .430 OBP and has 13 steals already.

This series will be a good test for the Red Sox - are they an 85 win team or are they Wild Card contenders? It would be nice to see the Sox take 2 of 3 and put a small dent into the Yankees Wild Card.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Red Sox Struggles

There's an old Paul McCartney solo song called, "Junk", that refers to "junk in the yard". That is the song I was singing to myself as I watched the Red Sox get swept yesterday by the lowly Baltimore Orioles. Right now, the Red Sox are junk in the (ball) yard.

Nothing is going right for the local nine. Being a boring team to watch is only a small part of the problem. The larger scale issues are the pitching has been terrible, the defense has underachieved, and the offense still cannot hit good pitching. The offense's struggles don't surprise me, because they couldn't hit good pitching last season, either. Manager Terry Francona's game management has been very questionable as well. At 105 pitches, Josh Beckett should've gone out to the mound to start the 8th inning. In a tie game, why is Francona bringing in Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, when both have been overworked so far this young season? Granted the bullpen has been leaky, but at some point, Francona is going to need to trust Scott Schoeneweis and Ramon Ramirez in a close game.

The cumulative ERA of the starters this season is an unsightly 4.96 However, Daisuke Matsuzaka is back from injury and Saturday's 5th inning meltdown aside, he should help strengthen the starting rotation. Josh Beckett's outing yesterday was encouraging. Even though his curveball was MIA, Beckett allowed only 2 runs in 7 innings, albeit against the Orioles. For all the talk show chatter about Clay Buchholz being a trading chip, he's been the team's best starter since last August. Buchholz should be untouchable in any trade discussion. John Lackey and Jon Lester both look to be coming around, as well. Despite the controversy of the move of Tim Wakefield to the bullpen to make way for Dice K, it is the right move for the team.

The pitching and defense should stabilize, it's the offense that is most concerning. The Red Sox badly miss Jacoby Ellsbury. He's the catalyst at the top of the lineup and with his absence, the lack of speed in the lineup is glaring. Does any team in baseball go station to station more than the Boston Red Sox? On a base hit to left field late in yesterday's game, Jason Varitek, trying to score from second base, was thrown out at the plate by ten feet. The Captain is 38 years old and it's not his fault he no longer has average foot speed, but as a team, the collective lack of athleticism is an issue. Mike Lowell has to be the slowest runner in baseball. David Ortiz isn't far behind Lowell.

Darnell McDonald has been a nice surprise since his call up from Pawtucket, but he's started to cool off and the more he plays, the more the holes in his game are exposed. He's a fifth outfielder at best. The same goes for Jonathan Van Every. McDonald and Van Every were two of the three starting outfielders for the Red Sox yesterday.

This team's biggest area of need is another slugging corner outfielder. Jason Bay filled that role last season, but he and his 36 HRs in 2009, are in New York now. There was hope that 3B Adrian Beltre would provide some thump from the right side, but so far, he's been nothing but a singles hitter. Ortiz can no longer catch up to a good fastball and unless he picks it up in the next three weeks, he is a candidate to be released - a scenario no one could have imagined three years ago. Victor Martinez has struggled so badly behind the plate, that it looks to be affecting his bat. Martinez's defensive struggles have Jason Varitek catching more than the team wants him out there. Varitek's bat has been the one of the few highlights of the season.

There doesn't seem to be any hope either in the farm system or externally via a trade. As the team continues to play poorly, the higher the price tag will be for a premium player in a trade. The off season talk was about the team acquiring 1B Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego. However, the Padres are off to a surprising start, leading the NL West by 1.5 games. Also, the Red Sox have a logjam at the 1B/3B/DH positions with Kevin Youkilis, Beltre, Ortiz, Lowell, and Martinez. Other than Youkilis, who's untouchable, none of them have any trade value right now. This current configuration doesn't exactly make for a flexible roster.

There has been much mockery in the media of the "run prevention" philosophy that was espoused this off season by Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. This mockery has escalated recently due to the pitching and the defense being a let down. However, the bats just aren't there. Even when Ellsbury and Mike Cameron come back, the offense still can be shut down. The Red Sox have two reliable run producers right now - Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

The Red Sox have over $162 million invested in the roster. There are too many old guys (Ortiz, Varitek, Cameron, and Lowell), under producers (Victor Martinez and J.D. Drew), and players masquerading as sluggers (Adrian Beltre). They have only one starting position player who can really run and put pressure on a defense - Ellsbury. He's on the disabled list. So much for the idea of manufacturing runs.

The team is hitting a mediocre .259 with runners in scoring position. By comparison, the AL East leading Tampa Bay Rays are hitting .323 with runners in scoring position. The offense hit 8 HR in this weekend series vs. the Orioles. Only one of these HR's (Kevin Youkilis - Saturday night - 2 run HR) had a man on base. Of the 33 HR hit by the Red Sox in 2010, 21 of them have been solo shots.

Will things change as the season progresses? I doubt it. If you can't hit against the Orioles, then you won't hit against the Yankees, Angels, and Rays. If you think it's bad this season, wait until next year, when the contracts of Ortiz, Martinez, Lowell, Beltre, and Varitek all expire. The team is very good at developing pitchers, but their minor league organization is bereft of any young sluggers, Lars Anderson's hot start aside. Given that situation, the offense has the potential to be even worse in 2011.

The Red Sox will eventually play better ball, fill Fenway Park to capacity most nights, and make a run for the Wild Card. However, this is a flawed team that is not built for playoff success. The roster balance just isn't there and unless Theo Epstein trades the team's prize minor league prospects like Casey Kelly, which he is wont to do, this won't change.