Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2010

Playoff Blues For Boston

It’s playoff time for the two winter pro sports. The NHL playoffs began last Wednesday, and the NBA began post-season play yesterday. Unfortunately for New England fans, neither the Bruins nor Celtics seemed poised for a long run to glory through the coming weeks.

To be sure, the Bruins managed to earn a split of their first two games with the Sabres in Buffalo. In winning 5-3 on Saturday they came from behind twice; and handed the Sabres their first defeat of the entire season when leading after two periods. And the Celtics rallied down the stretch on Saturday to beat the Miami Heat in game one of their first-round series. As I am very fond of saying, there is a reason why they actually play the games. Still, while past performance is no guarantee of future results, it’s usually a pretty good indicator. And for both Boston franchises, the indicator is pointing toward relatively early exits. The 2009-2010 versions of both teams have definitely been underachievers.

The hockey team began the year with visions of being a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. Defensively they have been everything that a fan could hope for. Just as aging Tim Thomas seemed to fade in goal, 23-year old Tuukka Rask came into his own. Both netminders worked behind a strong defensive alignment led by Captain Zdeno Chara, and the B’s surrendered just 200 goals, second in the league only to the incomparable Martin Brodeur and New Jersey’s 191.

But this very fine defensive team would have been helped a lot if their offense hadn’t played most of the season like they were playing against, well, themselves. The offense managed just 206 goals, second worst in the league.

After a thrilling 2-1 overtime win over Philadelphia at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day, the punchless Bruins went into a deep funk, going 2-10-4 through the next five weeks. They spent the remainder of the season trying to dig out of that hole, and entered the last two weeks of the season outside of the playoff picture. They did rally at the end, going 5-1-1 and moving all the way up to sixth place. Given their offensive ineptitude, that was something of a miracle.

Based on the late season resurgence and the determined effort in Buffalo, I’d love to think that the Bruins have found themselves. But while beating the Sabres remains a possibility (the B’s won the season series 4-2), this squad with its woeful offensive statistics does not look like a team that could even dream of challenging Alex and the Capitals, or Sid and the Penguins, not to mention the contenders from the Western Conference.

As for the roundball occupants of the TDBank Garden, they too seemed to lose their way once the calendar flipped to 2010. The Celtics were a mediocre 27-24 after New Year’s Day, and actually finished the season with a better record on the road than at home.

They won almost 85% of the time when scoring 100 or more points; but unfortunately that didn’t happen often enough as they averaged less than 100 points per game for the year. Eleven of the fifteen other teams in the playoffs were more proficient on offense, including all three teams seeded above them in the Eastern Conference, and all but one of the Western Conference playoff squads. Defensively they were even worse, ranking next to last in the league in total rebounds per game.

It’s been just two seasons since GM Danny Ainge traded away a boatload of the Celtics’ future for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. In doing so Ainge made clear that the goal was to pair those two with Paul Pierce to form the core of a team that would win championships now. The plan worked to perfection in the 2007-2008 season, with the C’s winning their first NBA title in a generation. But last year Boston was bounced out in the second round as an injured Garnett watched from the sidelines. This season, by playing as a middling .500 team for the last three plus months the Celtics finished with a record that sported twice as many losses as in that suddenly distant championship year. Along the way the Big Three have suddenly started to look old. While in absolute terms they are not, injuries may be starting to take their toll.

I can readily envision the Celtics holding on and defeating Dwayne Wade and the Heat. But much like the Bruins in the NHL, I really can’t imagine this disappointing team contesting the NBA’s best, be it LeBron and the Cavaliers or Kobe and the Lakers.

If these glum forecasts prove to be the case, and the only action at TDBank Garden is soon to be circus elephants and Disney On Ice, where do the two Boston franchises go from here?

In the near term I have more hope for the Bruins. The Phil Kessel trade cost the B’s their top scorer, but was probably necessary in order to get rid of an unhappy player. They paid the price for that loss of offense all season, but shortly they will finally get the reward. The trade gave them Toronto’s first round pick in the upcoming draft, and since the Maple Leafs were a seriously bad team this season, the Bruins will have the second overall pick. That should give them an immediate chance to upgrade their offensive capability. If Jeremy Jacobs were willing to loosen the purse strings a bit, it wouldn’t take much in the way of judicious free agent signings to turn the B’s into the team that everyone thought they were going to be this season.

The Celtics seem to have a tougher road. If the Big Three looked old at times this season, one can only imagine what next year will be like. Actually, I think it likely that there won’t even be a Big Three next season. Whenever Boston’s playoff run ends so will, I suspect, Ray Allen’s time as a Celtic. But with Pierce and Garnett making up an aging and increasingly injured core, it will take some serious rebuilding on Danny Ainge’s part to make the Celtics an elite team once again.

Oh well, what’s not to like about circus elephants and Disney On Ice?

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