PAUL’S OPENING SALVO
So in a span of 72 hours, Boston went from being the only city to have both its winter sports teams still alive in the playoffs to having none of its winter sports teams still alive in the playoffs.
And to make things worse, the Celtics and Bruins lost to a couple of made-up franchises that didn’t even exist when we started following sports. (Yes, I know the Hurricanes are the descendants of the Whalers, but the Whale died forever for me when Peter Karmanos moved them to NASCAR country.)
In the end, neither team got what they wanted out of this season. But the question before us is: Which one had the more successful season? Now, being the puckhead enthusiast that you are, I know you’re going to say the Bruins gained the most from this season. After all, they took a step forward from first-round losers to second-round knockout. (As Paul Pierce would say, “Do you get a car for that?”)
And then there’s the tired argument that all you hockey guys trot out that the Bruins made the sport relevant in this town again, to which I ask: Relevant to whom?
To the hockey loyalists who never went away?
Sorry, but it’s hard to take a sport seriously when it schedules two Game 7’s for the same time and only one of them is on national television. That is, if you consider Versus to be national television.
Now, the Celtics didn’t win a championship, which is how they measure basketball success up in the rafters at the Garden (not by Adams Division banners). But here’s where their season ultimately winds up looking better than the B’s: It’s how they lost.
No Kevin Garnett. No Leon Powe. An epic seven-game series with the Bulls and then another seven-gamer against a team that won 59 games. If anything, their stature as proud defending champs was only enhanced by their title defense. They died with their high-tops on. No shame there.
But the Bruins not only lost to a team that finished the season in sixth place in their conference, they lost when the guy who sucker-punched Aaron Ward scored the winning goal. That would be like if Rafer Alston slapped Eddie House in the head and then made a bunch of 3’s ... oh wait. Right. I forgot. (By the way, how did the NHL not suspend Scott Walker? Who’s running that ship? Stu Jackson’s Canadian cousin?)
At the end of the day, the Celtics lost to a team who was at least their equal and who was certainly better given the injury situation, while the Bruins lost to a team they should have handled.
HAGGS MAKES A MEASURED RESPONSE
OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. The Celtics had a better season than the Black and Gold because the NHL’s contract with Versus is a joke (which it is…they should pay ESPN to take them back nationally) and because the Green team lost with some panache and heart this postseason after netting themselves a championship last season.
I’ll ignore the Adams Division banners talk, and start with the basic facts of the matter: the Celtics were expected to win another championship this season and raise another banner to the rafters. Their veteran players had been to the NBA mountaintop before, and knew what it required to make a return trip.
You could also tell while sitting in the crowd at the Celtics games this season that a bit of a laissez-faire attitude had already settled into the TD Banknorth Garden hoops crowd, and both the fans and teams appeared to be sleepwalking through a paint-by-numbers regular season.
Everyone had their eyes fixed on the NBA postseason way back in October, and anything less than an Eastern Conference finals battle with Bron Bron -- followed by “Celtics vs. Lakers 2: Electric Boogaloo” -- was going to be monumental exercise in wasting people’s time.
Despite the injuries, anything less than another Celtics title can, should and will ultimately be considered a disappointment, and it all starts with Kevin Garnett. I still get the sneaking suspicion that the Big Ticket -- a guy that hasn’t really dealt with too many injuries or pain-killing shots during an extraordinary Hall of Fame career -- should/could have at least tried to get out on the court and give it some kind of last-ditch effort.
What was up with the rumors that he seemed to be on the verge of a return with each passing round? Didn’t doctors come out and say that the injury shouldn’t have kept Garnett out as long as it did?
Wouldn’t Larry Bird, in the same situation, have laced up his green Converse high-tops, stretched out his creaky back and at least given it a full-hearted effort? Of course, No. 33 would have, and the trait that makes pro hockey infinitely better than its’ b-ball brethren is that injured guys strap it on and grit their teeth through the pain when it’s Stanley Cup time. It takes a ruptured spleen or a completely shredded knee to miss the playoffs.
For God’s sake -- Mark Recchi had surgery for debilitating kidney stones on a Wednesday and then played in Game 7 on Thursday. That was after teammates watched him throwing up and unable to make any sudden movements in the dressing room just minutes prior to Game 6, and then Recchi somehow went out and scored the first goal of that Tuesday night game. Recchi’s display of toughness and desire inspired his teammates to a huge win in Carolina that night.
David Krejci played all season with a balky hip that now needs major surgery, and even the contact-averse Phil Kessel was gritting through a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder during the postseason. Marc Savard had a sprained knee after enduring a knee-on-knee hit in Game 6, but the center soldiered on to play in Game 7. It would have taken major surgery to keep any of those players from playing, and I’m not certain the same can be said for the Men in Green.
But back to the main point.
The Bruins’ roster is full of young promising players that ensure Boston will be playing competitive, championship-level pucks for years to come.
They don’t quite have the small window of opportunity bearing down on them that the thirtysomething Celts seem to have. Before the season began, the B’s were expected to perhaps move up a few spots in the Eastern Conference standings this year, and maybe nudge their way into the second round of the playoffs.
All that changed when Boston began scoring goals by the bucketload and captured the imagination of a fan base that was snoring through a somnambulistic hoops campaign -- and, yes Paul, brought into the fold scores of casual Bruins fans that hadn’t watched hockey games since Ray Bourque and Cam Neely had left the ice.
Or maybe just hadn’t the Bruins at all before. The B’s ended up getting some of best ratings for NESN in the history of their association with the network, which illustrates there were plenty of puck newcomers that all of a sudden deemed hockey relevant.
Hopefully that answers your “relevant to whom?” query.
I’m not going to try and argue that the Bruins lost with panache or with their shoes on. Mostly because that’s really irrelevant and shouldn’t be the measurement of which winter team had the greater season. That’s like favoring a boxer simply because he can take a beating like a champ.
I’ll simply look at where the team started and where each squad ended up when their season was – in the words of Bostonians everywhere – O-V-A, and quantify it that way.
It can’t be any clearer that the Bruins made a Sam Beckett-style “Oh Boy” quantum leap forward in the 2008-09 season, and are nipping at the heels of the Celts for third sport status in the sports-crazed Commonwealth. The B’s learned what it takes to win a crucial playoff series and the keys to victory in Game 7 against a more experienced opponent, and they’ll be better for it next season.
What exactly did the Celtics learn during the playoffs? Maybe that Ray Allen and Paul Pierce aren’t capable of carrying a team in the playoffs against a quality opponent, and that everything revolves around Kevin Garnett. Or maybe they just learned that they might want to go ahead and get themselves a bench next season.
If the knee woes continue for Garnett, if Leon Powe never comes back from his chronic knee problems and if Big Baby Davis ends up signing elsewhere this offseason, the up-and-coming Bruins could be poised to win a title long before the Green Teamers make it back for Banner No. 18.
I know a bold Boston statement like that will have many Celts fans running to the emerald foothills for their Alaa Abdelnaaby jerseys, but it might be a lot more real than you think.
PFLANNERY STICKS A “J” RIGHT IN HAGGS’ GRILL
No, the Celtics had a better season because they didn’t leave anything on the table. This is all about expectations. Does anyone really think they would have gotten past the Cavs? The Bruins, meanwhile, had a serious chance at winning the Cup and they lost to an inferior team.
I agree. The Celtics were expected to contend for a championship ... with Kevin Garnett. When KG was in the lineup the Celtics opened the season at 29-2 and were right there in the discussion with the LeBron’s and the Lakers. Without Garnett, they are about a 50-55 win team, which usually gets you knocked out in the second round. Given what they had at the end of the season the Celtics finished about where you would expect them to finish. If the Magic had been able to execute at home in Game 4 and been able to hold a 10-point lead in Game 5 this one would have been over in five games.
Now on the injury thing.
Do you really think a guy like Garnett couldn’t play because he had an owie. Really? Come on, Haggerty.
We’re talking about a guy that played his ass off every one of his 39,635 minutes he’s been on the floor in his career and you’re questioning whether he could sack up? That’s asinine. The truth is no one outside the team knows how bad his injury really was because no one would talk about it. In the absence of information you have two choices. You can either go by the man’s track record or you can make all kinds of crazy assumptions. I choose the former, obviously, and you know what they say about assumptions: They make you channel Felger. (The Larry would have played argument is similarly useless. OK, and Cam Neely would have dropped Scott Walker and scored the winning goal but both of those guys are up the executive suite, so who cares?)
This isn’t about manning up (and by the way, Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce and apparently even Ray Allen played through assorted bumps, bruises and strains). This is math. The Celtics were not the same team without Garnett and Garnett is not the same player without full use of his limbs. Now if you want to argue that they made crucial mistakes in roster-building which left them vulnerable to this very scenario then sure, Mikki Moore + Tony Allen + Stephon Marbury < P.J. Brown + James Posey + Sam Cassell.
Now, on the Bruins.
All credit to them for turning the perception of the franchise around 180 degrees and reinvigorating their fanbase. Reminds me of a team last year that went from zeroes to heroes overnight. But unlike this year’s Bruins, last year’s Celtics didn’t need to learn how to win Game 7’s; they just went out and won them. The learning curve is the most overrated thing in professional sports and you just can’t get past the fact that the Bruins let a golden opportunity to make a serious run at the Cup slip through their gloves.
I’ll grant you that the Celtics window of opportunity is small and getting smaller by the day, but when you factor in the steps forward that Perkins and Rajon Rondo took this season there’s no reason to believe that the Celtics won’t go into next season as one of a handful of favorites to win a championship next season. Can you say the same about the Bruins, or do they need more “learning experiences” first?
HAGGS HITS FLANNERY WITH A CHEAP SHOT ONLY SCOTT (BLEEPING) WALKER COULD LOVE
C’mon Flannery. We all know that the NBA regular season is the most overrated thing in sports. The “learning curve” might not be applicable in the predictable NBA where collecting as many superstars as possible turns you into a contender -- which is exactly what the Celtics did and why they went presto chango from cellar dwellers to championship champagne tasters -- but that’s not how it works in the NHL. It’s all about bringing along a steady flow of young talent together, and drafting and developing with enough success to replenish bodies as they drift off into free agency.
The learning curve is important in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it’s the reason why the Detroit Red Wings are such a successful team each and every season: they have veterans that understand what it takes to win and succeed in a hockey tournament that’s basically a war of attrition from the first drop of the puck.
Talk to the Bruins’ executives and ask them how important it is to have veterans “that have been there” and raise that learning curve significantly. They could educate as to how “underrated” Stanley Cup experience and the NHL learning curve actually is. I could get into a famous story about Wayne Gretzky and ice bags, but I’ll spare you the walk down Old Time Hockey Lane.
Attempting to compare the blueprint for success in pro baseball and pro hockey is a fool’s errand, so I’m not even going to give it a shot. I’d much rather talk about a basketball team that “died with their high-tops on.”
Didn’t they lose by like 19 to an Orlando team that appeared ready to choke it all away with passed up shots in the waning seconds, and have enough infighting between the players and coaching staff to make the Portland Jailblazers jealous?
Once a team wins a championship with a certain nucleus of players, anything less than a title with that team is a disappointment. There aren’t any blue ribbons for participation or trophies for “trying hardest” like there is in Little League.
Spare me the paeans about the heroic Celtics collapsing and dying in Game 7 in front of their home crowd. What happens if the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup? Did the Bruins lose to the inferior team then?
The Canes have 10 players that have won the Stanley Cup -- with the majority of them on the Carolina roster when they won it all in 2005-06 -- and their 25-year-old goalie has never lost a playoff series or a Game 7. Still think they were clearly the inferior team? I don’t.
Carolina played great hockey down the stretch and was incredibly hot entering the playoffs, and they were the better team in the series of seven games. The young Bruins team learned a lot of painful lessons during the series against Carolina, and they’ll apply it going forward.
But nobody -- I repeat, nobody -- thought the season would be a disappointment if the Bruins didn’t win the Stanley Cup this season.
The same can’t be said about the Men in Green that had their rear ends wiped across the parquet floor in a pathetic Game 7 defeat to the Magic.
FLANNERY WRAPS IT UP WITH A TIDY GREEN BOW
Wow. The Jail Blazers.
Let me get this straight? You’re comparing the Magic to the most notorious crew in the NBA because their superstar center complained about his touches? Stick to pucks big guy. In the NBA, we call that Wednesday.
Hey, I don’t doubt that there are NHL execs who think you have to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire before you can win championships, and it’s a convenient excuse if nothing else. Oh, we just weren’t ready to beat the sixth place team in our conference. We need more veteran seasoning, eh.
Back to the Celtics. Who’s writing odes to Mikki Moore here? No one’s saying the Celtics performance in Game 7 wasn’t disappointing. As I mentioned earlier in this back and forth, it’s a little surprising they got to a Game 7 at all. No, you don’t get your ass kicked at home in a game like that and not go through some soul-searching.
But, and I’ll try this one more time here Haggs. If you said back in November that the Celtics would win 62 games and lose in the second round of the playoffs to a team that wasn’t in Cleveland then you would say HUGE disappointment. If you were to further stipulate that the Bruins would beat Montreal and lose in the second round in seven games, you’d say, They’re learning! Yay Bruins! (Or you and your NHL executives would.)
But things change. The world evolves and what was true in November 2008 has little bearing on May 2009.
And so I’m left with the inescapable conclusion that over the course of two seasons that could probably be graded both as B+ years, the Celtics went about as far as their available talent could take them, and in doing so gained a measure of respect around the league, while also getting a glimpse of their future (Rondo, Perkins, Davis, et al).
The Bruins got two of those three but you just can’t convince me that they shouldn’t still be playing right now.
HAGGS PUTS THE BISCUIT IN FLANNERY'S BASKET
It was inescapable that the overwhelming combination of Stanley Cup playoff inexperience between veterans and rookies alike was going to catch up to the Bruins this season. I thought it was going to be against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s hell-bent for leather about getting back to the finals this season, but it came against a team with 10 Stanley Cup winners dotted along the roster and a Conn Smythe winner between the pipes.
Not exactly hockey rocket science to see how it went down.
There’s an underwhelming aspect to the way the B’s underestimated the Canes in the middle games of the series, but, once again, this wasn’t a championship team with the kind of cachet and experience associated with a champ. It was a Bruins team that captured the imagination of fans with an Eastern Conference-winning season full of fights, goals and heart-stopping saves by Tim Thomas.
But the regular season -- in both the NBA and NHL -- is oft-times meaningless and the Bruins proved they have a lot to learn in the postseason.
The Bruins took a ginormous leap forward this winter and could even eventually pass the Celtics in this town’s priority list if both organizations keep moving forward on their current paths. That in and of itself tells me that the Bruins season was infinitely more successful than the listless, uncomfortable fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Magic that was more funeral dirge than hoops hype.
But let’s get past the Spoked B and end with the beloved Celtics. If Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins is a beast.com and the red-headed bench stepchild (AKA Scalabrine) were anywhere near as good as Celtics scribes would have us believe, then they should have been able to grind past the Magic and give fans that potential “tragic hero” series against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
But that script doesn’t apply to losing to an inferior team like the Orlando Magic in a season that went awry -- and therefore wasn’t close to the accomplishments of the fellas wearing the Spoked B sweaters – once Kevin Garnett decided that a knee without any identified structural damage was going to keep him out of commission for more than two months.
What happens the next time the 33-year-old Garnett comes down with an injury that requires a high pain tolerance and perhaps a needle or two along the way to keep those championship dreams flying high?
We certainly don’t know the answer to this question or Garnett’s level of pain through the postseason, but it makes me think we’re going to see Banner No. 6 in the Garden rafters before we see Banner No. 18.