Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 16, 2015

Not The Expected Postseason At TD Garden

The NHL and NBA playoffs have finally arrived. As all but the most diehard of fans in New England have understood since before the first regular season puck drop or jump ball, that means that for one resident of Boston’s TD Garden play has ended, while for the other the limitless possibilities of the postseason await.

After all, the NHL’s Bruins are on a run of seven consecutive playoff appearances that neatly coincides with the tenure of head coach Claude Julien. Four years ago they won the Stanley Cup, two years ago they played in the Finals, and last season they garnered the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record in the NHL.

In contrast the NBA’s Celtics are a team deep in rebuilding mode. Last year, their first under young head coach Brad Stevens, the equally young Celtics won just 25 games. That was more than just three teams in the Eastern Conference, and a record that would have placed them dead last in the league’s more powerful Western Conference. After winning their season opener this year, the Green promptly dropped three in a row and never again surfaced above .500. In December Boston traded point guard Rajon Rondo, the closest player the team had to a certifiable star, to the Dallas Mavericks.

All of which helps explain why New England sports fans are feeling understandably dizzy this week. For it is the Bruins whose season has unceremoniously ended, that consecutive playoff appearance streak now a subject addressed in the past tense. Meanwhile Stevens and his collection of anonymous young basketball players are getting ready to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the NBA’s tournament.

As noted in this space less than four weeks ago, despite their strong recent record and great expectations, the Bruins were an underperforming lot for most of the NHL’s regular season, with every occasional hot streak offset by long runs of offensive impotence and lackluster defense. When last we checked in on Boston the team had just gone 0-3-2 during a crucial eight day stretch, and was technically clinging to a playoff spot only because the Ottawa Senators had played fewer games.

The pattern of the entire season played out in microcosm over its final three weeks. Just when they appeared to be dead the Bruins rallied to go 5-0-1 over their next six games, even beating the Rangers, the NHL’s top team. The hot streak left the B’s still in control of their own destiny, ahead of the hard charging Senators. Then, as if collectively deeming themselves unworthy of such good fortune, the Bruins collapsed. The March losing streak began with a shutout loss to Washington. The season’s final week started with a reprise, as the Capitals skated to a 3-0 victory. One night later a 4-2 loss in Florida dropped Boston out of a playoff spot, and a final shootout loss to Tampa Bay meant New England’s favorite skaters were free to trade hockey sticks for golf clubs.

In a move typical of management of underperforming teams, Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs and president Cam Neely wasted little time in dismissing general manager Peter Chiarelli. The fate of coach Julien will be decided by Chiarelli’s replacement, although local media is abuzz with rumors that Neely dislikes Julien’s defense-first approach and wanted him fired in January. But any general manager is still going to have major salary cap problems for next season and regardless who’s behind the bench, it will still be up to the Bruins players to show a level of heart that matches their skill come next year. Otherwise missing the playoffs could become a pattern rather than an aberration.

But if fans in the seats at TD Garden experienced steadily unfolding disappointment when the playing surface was frozen this season, they also were treated to utterly unexpected joy when the parquet was laid out during the final two months of the NBA’s schedule. The Celtics lost their first two games coming out of the league’s mid-February All-Star break. The second of those defeats, a 118-111 overtime loss to the woeful Lakers in Los Angeles, left Boston with a record of 20-33. But beginning the following night with a five point win at Phoenix, the Celtics doubled their win count over their last 29 contests. Their 20-9 run over the regular season’s final seven weeks included a 7-1 record in April and victories in their last seven road games.

Boston was sparked by the acquisition of point guard Isiah Thomas during the All-Star break. Despite missing eight games with an injury Thomas was twice named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after his arrival in Boston. But this Isiah Thomas playing the point is the 26-year old, 5 foot 9 inch version, not the long-retired 12-time All Star and member of the Hall of Fame.

The real secret to the Celtics’ sudden success has been the ability of Stevens to instill in his players a superlative work ethic and a commitment to the team over self. The spirit is exemplified in a single statistic. In Boston’s four wins during the regular season’s final week, two at home and two on the road, five different players led the team in scoring. In a home-and-home against Cleveland first it was Marcus Smart with 19, then Thomas with 17. Two nights later against Toronto at the Garden it was Avery Bradley and Evan Turner with 14 apiece. Then in the regular season finale at Milwaukee it was Luigi Datome with 22. Yes of course, that Luigi Datome. Is there another one?

To be sure, Boston still finished the season below .500, at 40-42. In the Western Conference the Celtics wouldn’t have come close to making the playoffs. And now they must face Cleveland and LeBron James, favored by many to be still standing come time for the Finals. Even the Celtics’ home arena appears to have its doubts. On the night scheduled for Game 6 of the first round, TD Garden is booked for a concert by country music star Eric Church.

But none of that can take away from the inspiring finish to the season by a team of young no-names dismissed by everyone barely two months ago. When that run is set against the dispiriting collapse of their hockey roommates, the Celtics and their young coach look all the more impressive.  It’s a contrast that reminds fans that for all its obvious importance, skill alone is not enough.  In sports there will also always be a place for teamwork and resolve.

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