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A look at where Boston stands

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 4, 2012 09:57 AM

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Today we'll go around the horn and take a look at each of Boston's four major pro teams.

If and when the Red Sox have difficulty closing games this year, the first question we will all ask will inevitably concern Jonathan Papelbon. In the interim, let's give the Red Sox credit for adhering to their philosophy.

The Keith Foulke signing helped win the Red Sox a World Series, of course, but his three-year, $20.75-million contract remains the last long-term deal the Sox have awarded to their closer (unless you count Bobby Jenks). Papelbon operated on a series of one-year contracts with the Red Sox, earning roughly $27.5 million over his final three years in Boston. But that is hardly the equivalent of a three-year, $27.5 million contract because the Red Sox never, ever exposed themselves to long-term risk at the position, no matter how much they were willing to pay Papelbon in any one season.

So it is now with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, who appear to be the closer and primary set-up man, in that order, in Bobby Valentine's inaugural bullpen. Bailey is eligible for arbitration this offseason and Melancon is not; combined, they are not likely to earn more than $3 million. Even if you believe the Red Sox erred by letting Papelbon go - and some of us believe they did - replacing him with Bailey and Melancon at least makes financial sense, particularly when examining the Red Sox' investment history at closer.

If they had signed someone like Ryan Madson to a three- or four-year contract, after all, wouldn't the Sox have been far better off just giving a little more to retain Papelbon?

That said, the Red Sox have operated like a small-market team this offseason, which is fine. Overall, they are spending enough money to win. Bailey, Melancon, Ryan Sweeney (who is underrated) and everyone from Carlos Silva to Brandon Duckworth address some of the concerns the Red Sox had with regard to pitching depth and bullpen help, Sweeney remaining as a serviceable replacement until Ryan Kalish is ready to come back.

Could the Sox still use a righthanded-hitting outfielder? Absolutely. But after spending an official $189.4 million in luxury tax dollars last year - and those are the only dollars that should matter to fans - the Sox are at roughly $175 million entering a season with a $178 million threshold. They seem intent on remaining below the tax line.

The point?

Barring a major trade or maneuver that creates payroll space, what you see now basically might be all you get you get.

Unless Greg Stiemsma is indeed the next Bill Russell, the Celtics may be worse than many of us thought. Entering this season, the Celtics looked like a second-round playoff team, just as they were a year ago. But after the first six games, one cannot help but wonder if they have slipped even further down the ladder, closer to the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

Admittedly, the Celtics were without Paul Pierce in their first three games, but their three wins are against Washington (twice) and Detroit, two of the worst teams in the league. By contrast, the Celtics' three losses have come against Miami, New York and New Orleans, the last of which was most alarming given the departure of Chris Paul.

In those three games, the Celtics allowed an average of 106 points per contest, a figure that would rank 29th in the league; as it is, with three games against the impotent Wizards and Pistons, the Celtics rank 20th in scoring defense. The Knicks, Heat and Hornets shot a combined 49.6 percent from the field against the Celtics, which is not much worse than what Rajon Rondo shot last season from the free-throw line (58.6 percent).

In many ways, all of this comes back to Kevin Garnett, who has lost more than a step since arriving in Boston. When Garnett got here, he had led the NBA in rebounding four years in a row; his rebounding average has basically been cut in half. Garnett's length and athleticism allowed him to play well above the rim, particularly at the defensive end, and we all know the value he possessed as the 2007-08 NBA defensive player of the Year.

Back then, he was the one being compared with Russell.

But now? Relatively speaking, the Celtics' interior defense stinks. The Celtics should win tonight's game against the New Jersey Nets, but the next six games on the schedule come against Indiana (twice), Dallas, Chicago and Oklahoma City. How the Celtics fare in those contests should give us a fairly clear picture of just how far the Celtics have fallen since Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, the night the window officially closed.

With all due respect to Henrik Sedin, he just doesn't get it. Following a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings over the weekend, the Canucks forward was asked about the physical play of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and answered with this:

"You know what? I'm pretty tired of that question. We won the President's Trophy last year, we went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final. We didn't lose the final because we were pushed around, we lost because we couldn't score."

Well, uh, doesn't one lead to the other?

As we all know, the Canucks are scheduled to arrive at the TD Garden on Saturday, where they will face the Bruins for the first time since last spring's epic seven-game series. In their three trips to the Garden during the Stanley Cup finals, the Canucks were outscored 17-3. In the last two of those contests - Games 4 and 6 - Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo was shamefully pulled from the game. The Canucks have been answering questions about their toughness ever since, which brings obvious interest to Saturday's matinee.

Consider: slightly more than a year ago at this time, the Bruins were the ones who were having their makeup questioned following a historic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 playoffs. The first time the Bruins went into Philadelphia last season, the Bruins won, 3-0. The game was one of many "statement" games by the Bruins during the regular season, laying the groundwork for the Bruins' retaliatory sweep of the Flyers last spring and their victory over the Canucks.

Since their wretched 3-7 start, the Bruins are a sterling 21-3-1, amassing 43 of a possible 50 points. Vancouver similarly has overcome a slow start. Saturday's affair comes at roughly the midpoint of this season, and it certainly would benefit the Bruins to keep the Canucks under their collective thumbs, particularly on the TD Garden ice.

But what would it say about the Canucks if Vancouver gets its doors blown off again?

We all agree that the NFL has become glorified arena ball, and the question remains as to whether a team can truly win a championship based solely on the passing game. Many Patriots followers point to the 2009 New Orleans Saints as evidence that the Patriots can succeed this postseason, but the better comparison might be the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.

That year, after all, the Colts ranked 23d in the league in scoring defense, 21st in total defense (yardage) and a historically bad 32d in rushing defense. Indianapolis' passing defense, based on defensive passer rating, was a mediocre 15th.

And then, come playoff time, things completely and inexplicably flipped, the Colts allowing just 16.2 points per game, second-best to the Baltimore Ravens, whom Indianapolis defeated - on the road - in the postseason.

Here's the other thing: unlike the 2009 Saints or, for that matter, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis had to venture outdoors to get to the Super Bowl. For all the optimistic analogies made between this Patriots team and the 2009 Saints, New Orleans played exclusively indoors to reach the Super Bowl. (Ditto for the 1999 Rams.) The only truly pass-happy team to win the Super Bowl while venturing outdoors in recent years is last year's Green Bay Packers, who also ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense and fifth in total defense.

Does that mean the Patriots cannot win it all this year?

Hardly.

But it suggests that things would have to change dramatically on the defensive side of the ball.

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

5
The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
4
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
3
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
2
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
1
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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