The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
I haven’t written a blog post that was just about the NFL since the Patriots traded offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the preseason. After that, I went back to school, and one scandal after another got me less and less interested in the NFL. I love football, and I love the Patriots, but it had finally gotten to the point where the incompetence of the commissioner and the moral depravity of the league took me out of it. It’s a league that doesn’t care about the health of its players. Junior Seau gave twenty years of his life to the NFL, but killed himself before he could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The NFL is willing to overlook its concussion epidemic just as easily as its willing to overlook security footage in a casino elevator. It’s a miracle Roger Goodell didn’t make Seau’s family hold a press conference to apologize for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, the way the Baltimore Ravens did with Jenae Rice. Then, the NFL found a scandal they could get behind because it was a scandal about nothing and they knew people are comfortable enough with the Patriots being villains.
The last two weeks for Patriots fans had been awful. Just hours after the Pats booked a trip to their seventh Super Bowl in my lifetime, accusations started swirling about the footballs being under-inflated in New England’s rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. All of a sudden, the Patriots were cheaters again, with no hard evidence, and a narrative led by leaks to the media. Through all of it, Roger Goodell was hard to find, and when he did get in front of TV cameras, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to say nothing. If it wasn’t the Patriots, this would not have been a story. People love to hate the Patriots because of the success they have experienced since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick away from the AFC East division rival New York Jets in 2000. People love to hate the ones who always succeed. For all the problems the NFL had on and off the field this year, there could not have been a better ending, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Patriots fan.
I wrote over the summer questioning how much Tom Brady had left in the tank. He’s an all time great, and in the discussion for Greatest of All Time, but when it goes, it goes. In Kansas City during the fourth week of the season, it looked like it went. I was at work and listening on the radio as the Patriots looked like a college team playing an NFL team (or at least a terrible team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Jets) when they were manhandled in every facet of the game in Arrowhead Stadium by the Kansas City Chiefs. The offensive line looked porous. The team missed Mankins and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia more than anyone realized, and Brady looked like a washed up has-been standing in the way of the future. Drafting Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois last spring opened the door to discussing life after Brady, and with that loss in Kansas City, it looked like that day would come sooner than expected. In hindsight, it was foolish to think that was the end. The most Garoppolo would contribute after that game was playing like Russell Wilson in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl, but after Kansas City, it seemed outrageous to even think about the playoffs. We just hoped we could win a game.
Bill Belichick elected not to channel Jim Mora in his presser after the loss to the Chiefs, and instead put out the most memorable quote of his illustrious career of saying as little as possible to the assembled media. “We’re on to Cincinnati.” They were ready for Cincinnati. Then they were ready for Buffalo. Then they were ready for the Jets. Then they were ready for Chicago. Then they were ready for Denver. Then they were ready for Indianapolis. Then they were ready for Detroit. Then they lost a close one in Green Bay, but by then they had established themselves as the top team in the AFC as the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning were coming undone. They won in San Diego, and avenged their season opening loss to the Miami Dolphins before beating the Jets a second time and losing to the Buffalo Bills in the completely meaningless season finale. The Patriots seemed poised for another deep playoff run, but their Divisional Round opponent would be no easy task.
The Patriots always seem to have trouble with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had their share of struggles this season, having to release Ray Rice after his domestic violence incident became a viral video that the NFL had apparently never seen before TMZ showed it to everyone, and it took all sixteen games to make the playoffs. So much for getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos got an easier game in the form of the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pats had to play the resilient Ravens. They were down by 14 points and things looked bad, but that’s when the Patriots got creative. The play of the decade came when Brady threw a lateral pass to wide receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The split second when every Pats fan realized Edelman was going to throw it changed the tone of that game and the tone of the playoffs. Edelman’s first NFL pass was a completion to Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium erupted. The Patriots did their job, even if their job included receivers throwing to receivers, and running backs lining up as linemen to confuse the defense. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cried to the media, and Tom Brady told him to read the rule book. The creative ineligible receiver formations were not a Belichick invention. Chip Kelly has used them at the University of Oregon as well as with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Nick Saban used formations like that with the University of Alabama this season.
Where New England did their job, Denver did not. The Broncos lost their home playoff game to the Colts is what may have been Peyton Manning’s last real shot at winning a Super Bowl. The personal rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which began with Brady’s first NFL start, may be ending for good, and while both are great and both were champions, Brady put himself ahead of Manning with this year’s playoff run. It’s clear that Brady intends to go out with a bang, not to say he is finished at the age of 37, but whether Manning retired now or hangs on another year, he is much more likely to go out with a whimper. Manning is a great regular season player and maybe the best pure passer in the history of the game, but Brady has a little more of the old fashioned gunslinger in his makeup, pumping his fist after every big first down like the young kid who stunned the Oakland Raiders in the snow in 2002. When Peyton Manning fell apart against his former team, the Patriots were ready for a rematch with the Colts. Deflated balls or not, Andrew Luck had replaced Manning in Indy, but he was still out of Tom Brady’s league.
After two weeks of accusation, leaks, and scientific lectures from both sides of the issue, we finally had a football game, and it more than lived up to the hype. We had the Patriots, a perennial contender with an all time great coach and an all time great quarterback who had not won a title in a decade, and the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions with a fun-loving coach (an unusual characteristic in the NFL or college football, two levels where Pete Carroll has thrived), an all time great defense, and a great young quarterback who is only getting better. In two decades as an NFL owner, Robert Kraft has only hired two head coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. While Carroll did not work out with New England, he ad a great run at USC before making a triumphant return to the professional level with Seattle. It was a scoreless first quarter, and tied at the half. The Patriots moved the ball well, but Brady threw a bad interception. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had a slow start on offense, but found a way to score quickly at the end of the second quarter. Halftime of Super Bowl XLIV was the tensest moment set to a Katy Perry soundtrack since the battle scene from The Interview.
The second half got off to a slow start for the Patriots, and the Seahawks played the third quarter like champions, but the Patriots stayed in it. While Richard Sherman was gloating on the sideline, the Pats chipped away. Brady and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter, with touchdowns from Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and then the Seahawks got the ball back down by four points.
“I’ve seen this movie before.” I said aloud. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI ended with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning marching down the field. When 19-0 was on the line, David Tyree made a nearly impossible catch off his helmet. In 2012, Mario Manningham made a catch just as impressive on the sideline to get the drive going. Both of those Super Bowls ended with the the Giants raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Patriots. When Jermaine Kearse kicked up the ball that undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler knocked away, it was happening all over again. Seattle was going to score. There was no way they wouldn’t. All I could hope for was enough time for Brady to launch another score. For all the success Boston teams have had since 2002, we have had out share of devastation as well. In addition to David Tyree and Mario Manningham, we have had Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield, Ron Artest’s shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the 17 second period of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final that I still refuse to watch. Another ne of those moments was happening. It was just a matter of time.
It’s a bit of a blur now. The way it ended was so surreal. Dont’a Hightower made a great tackle to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone, and the broadcast team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth both thought Belichick should let the Seahawks score to give Brady more time for the comeback attempts. Instead, Belichick let the clock run down and Pete Carroll put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands. Malcolm Butler, who bobbled the ball into Kearse’s hands moments before made an incredible interceptions to seal the game for the Patriots. I think I saw it when it happened, but it did not register right away. Then I was standing up and laughing and screaming. It had happened. They survived. The Patriots were champions again.
With the 2015 playoffs, Tom Brady did more than pass Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback of his generation. He also passed John Elway by starting his sixth career Super Bowl, tied Joe Montana as a three time Super Bowl MVP, and tied Montana and Terry Bradshaw as a four time Super Bowl champion as a starting QB. Brady and Belichick reestablished themselves as the Duncan and Popovich of football, continuing the success that began fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots will never have a better quarterback than Tom Brady. The best we can hope for with Jimmy G is that he becomes the Ray Bourque to Brady’s Bobby Orr, the Steve Young to his Joe Montana, the Larry Bird to his Bill Russell, or the Carl Yastrziemski to Brady’s Ted Williams. There is still a chance for greatness in the future, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Enjoy it. We don’t know how much longer it will last.
The best part of the night was the trophy presentation where Kurt Warner, who the Patriots beat to start this run of dominance walking through a gauntlet of newly crowned champions with their trophy, and then Robert Kraft refusing to acknowledge Roger Goodell on the podium. Everyone hates the Patriots, and the Patriots don’t care.The conversation about deflated footballs was dominated by sports pundits who have a reason to hate the Pats: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the list goes on. They just hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s the fourth Super Bowl victory by the Patriots in this century, and then ninth Boston championship in that span, and it still hasn’t gotten old. They did their job. On to the parade!
The NFL season has started and the New England Patriots have the same expectations as they have every year: win the last game of the season. The Buffalo Bills are trying to rebuild…again. They have a rookie quarterback fresh from the college ranks, and a rookie head coach who is also fresh from the college ranks. E.J. Manuel and Doug Marrone are learning together, and maybe this time the Bills have the recipe for a championship team. The Bills have a solid running game so the pressure was not all on their young QB. The Pats had a lot of new personnel to get acclimated into the system, and this game was their first test. I thought this game wouldn’t be close, and the Patriots really made me nervous.
When the teams kicked off this afternoon in Orchard Park, New York, it was the start of a new season and a new era in Patriots football. The Pats have a very different look on offense. With Wes Welker in Denver, Danny Woodhead in San Diego, Dieon Branch and Brandon Lloyd on the couch, Rob Gronkowski recovering from offseason back surgery, and Aaron Hernandez in prison, it was going to be different. I’m not sure the new look is a good look. Through one game, the primary targets were Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, two receivers who could be described as a “poor man’s Welker” who gave been injury prone in the past. After fumbling a ball that became a Buffalo touchdown, Stevan Ridley rode the bench for the rest of the game while Shane Vereen became the primary running back. The Patriots were helped out big time by the Bills’ uncanny knack for taking dumb penalties, which is still there under new management.
The best aspect of the game for New England was the way the defense played. Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles, and the defensive unit kept the offense in the game. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are two big impact guys on the line who can really cause trouble for opposing offenses. When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls and not just getting to them, the defense was winning games for them. They didn’t have to rely on Tom Brady to win every game by himself. Hopefully the team is trending back in that direction.
Manuel looked calm and confident taking snaps for the Bills. More experienced QBs have certainly looked a lot worse against this New England defense that was playing in the Super Bowl a year and a half ago. I don’t know if he’s the savior in Buffalo, but the Bills have something to be excited about for now. For all his trash talk, Stevie Johnson couldn’t hang onto the catch he needed to make late in the game.
There are fifteen games left in the regular season, including one more against the Bills. Both teams have a lot of room for growth, but the Patriots are the team with higher expectations. The Bills can leave this game feeling better about themselves than they did before, but the Pats have their work cut out for them if they want to compete with the elite teams in the NFL as the have for over a decade. Bill Belichick has taken disappointing starts to the season against the Buffalo Bills and used them as motivation before, and this time, they didn’t even lose the game. Football season is finally here, and I already can’t wait for the next game!