This was a crazy week in Boston sports, perhaps the craziest since the one when the Bruins lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, and the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, or possibly the weekend in October of that same year that had David Ortiz’ ALCS grand slam against the Detroit Tigers and the “Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?!” game against the New Orleans Saints. I am just now getting around to writing about what happened this weekend, but for my article on the Patriots comeback in Super Bowl LI, click here, and for my reaction to the Bruins firing longtime head coach Claude Julien and the current direction of the team, click here.
Like the Bruins, the Celtics had big news this week that was overshadowed by the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl win, but unlike the Bruins, the Celtics were not trying to bury it. Earlier in the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, Paul Pierce played his last game at TD Garden. That’s just how the schedule worked out, as the Los Angeles Clippers only make one trip to Boston the whole season. It was the only time the former team captain and former head coach Doc Rivers would be in front of the Celtics’ crowd in the 2016-17 season, and the 39 year old Pierce has announced that this is his last NBA season.
While Pierce played his last game as a Celtic in 2013, shortly after I launched this blog, and is now in his third team since leaving Boston, he will always be remembered as a Celtic. Fifteen years, ten All-Star appearances, two trips to the NBA Finals, a title, and a Finals MVP is not a bad legacy. Paul Pierce is not the greatest player of his era, and certainly not the greatest Celtic ever, but he will always be my favorite, as I was too young to enjoy the Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teams, let alone Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, or Dave Cowens.
Maybe an even greater aspect of his legacy, depending on how the next couple of drafts go, is what the Celtics got in return from the Nets when they traded him and KG in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn thought they were building a contender with Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Deron Williams, but it never got off the ground. The Celtics have already gotten the draft picks that became James Young and Jaylen Brown out of the deal (and Brown has shown true flashes of brilliance at times in his rookie season this year), as well as the ability to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 (the Nets are running away the the NBA’s worst record and have yet to record double digit wins) and Brooklyn’s pick in 2018. Pierce only played one season with the Nets, while Garnett was traded to Minnesota in the middle of his second Brooklyn season, and has since retired. Without a doubt, the Celtics won that trade, but just how great a haul that was is still to be determined.
While Pierce did not have a say in getting traded to the Nets (Garnett had a no-trade clause in his contract, while Pierce did not), Doc Rivers was ultimately traded from the Celtics to the Clippers because he did not want to endure another rebuild in Boston. Doc would rather work for a garbage human being of an owner like Donald Sterling (which he did until Sterling was banned from the NBA by Adam Silver in 2014) than have to toil through losing seasons and coach up young talent for a storied organization like the Boston Celtics. On one hand, I do not blame Doc, and the Celtics found a replacement in Brad Stevens who is probably a better coach anyway, and gave Stevens the benefit of adapting to the NBA game without the pressure of needing to win now like fellow college coaches Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago had to, but at the same time, the way Doc left Boston made it harder to root for him in Los Angeles.
Rivers took over the Clippers in the summer of 2013, the same summer that Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, leaving them without a superstar in his prime for the first time since the early 90s after the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the San Antonio Spurs had just lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in such devastating fashion, it was uncertain at that time (before, of course, they came back in 2014 with a vengeance) that they could ever recover. There was a sudden power vacuum in the Western Conference, and the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder appeared poised to take over. Rivers was eager to coach a roster that had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, and he, like many people, thought they could be another Big Three for him to coach. Alas, the Golden State Warriors crashed the party in the West, and the Clippers under Rivers still have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in a good place. Beyond LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, any of the playoff teams in the East can beat any other team, but the Celtics currently sit second in the conference and fifth in the NBA. Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star and someone who might get some MVP attention (though I will be shocked if anyone other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden wins it this years), and Jae Crowder has turned into a good NBA role player and a much more valuable trade asset than Rajon Rondo, the guy who was traded to acquire Crowder. The Celtics are headed in the right direction, which I cannot say with certainty about the other team that plays at TD Garden, but it is still nice to remember Doc and Pierce for the way the made this franchise respectable again when I was a teenager. The 2008 Celtics will always have a special place in my heart as the first, and so far only championship basketball team that was also my team.
At 39, Pierce is hardly the player he once was, and has been playing significantly diminished minutes this season, but near the end of the game, Celtics fans were chanting, demanding he go back in. Doc Rivers obliged, and Pierce sank a three in the end, though the Celtics still won. TD Garden erupted in cheers. Paul Pierce, The Truth, had his final moment in front of the Garden crowd. It may not have been the right uniform; anything other than Celtics green just did not look right on him, but the fans never stopped loving this guy. After all they had been through together, the ups, the downs, the victories, and the devastating defeats, Paul Pierce was the guy making the big shot at the end. His next great moment in Boston will be when the Celtics inevitably retire his #34 to the Garden rafters, something that was destined to happen as soon as they reached the Finals in 2008. It was a fun ride, and I was glad to see it happen, even if it got overshadowed by the Super Bowl.
The first weekend of the hockey playoffs is in the books, and it shows us just how close the teams that make the playoffs are with each other. The Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy for being the best team in the regular season, but defeating the #8 seed Detroit Red Wings has been no easy task. The Wings struggled to get into the playoffs, but that was because they lost key players like Pavel Datsyuk for a long time in the regular season. Now, Datsyuk is back, and scored the only goal of Game 1 in Boston on Friday night, and the series between Boston and Detroit feels a lot like the hard fought series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks than a series between the #1 and #8 teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins evened the series 1-1 with a 4-1 win this afternoon, but one thing is for sure: nothing is handed to you in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can be the best team, but you have to prove it. The President’s Trophy is given, whether you want it or not, but the Stanley Cup must be taken, and sometimes the toughest team to beat is the one you see in the first round. There is no real advantage to being the President’s Trophy winner. It’s just another reason for teams to want to beat you. If the President’s Trophy winner wins, they were supposed to. If they lose, they choked. At this level, everyone can play, everyone can hit, and emotions run high. Everyone wants it a lot, but it comes down to who wants it more.
The B’s have a tendency to make it really hard for themselves in the first round of the playoffs. Going into this tournament, the Black and Gold have gone to a sudden death overtime of a Game 7 to decide who advances in the first round. In 2011, they fell 0-2 to the arch-nemesis Montreal Canadiens after two games in Boston, but battled back, stealing two games in Montreal before winning Game 7 off the stick of Nathan Horton and riding that momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup. In 2012, they did not fare as well, falling in OT to a Washington Capitals team that wasn’t even trying to score. In 2013, they needed late 3rd period heroics from Patrice Bergeron just to get to overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs, another team they should have beaten sooner than Game 7, before Bergeron sent the Boston crowd home on a high note with an OT goal, resulting in one of my earliest posts on this blog. As a fan of this team, it’s hard to go through the first round of the playoffs and not be really nervous. One bounce of the puck the wrong way, and there might not be a 2011 Stanley Cup Champions banner in the rafters of the TD Garden. One bounce of the puck the wrong way last year, and the roster and coaching staff might look a lot different than it does right now. That’s a dangerous way to live, but that’s hockey.
Last weekend, I went to the B’s last home game of the regular season with one of my best friends. It was a game against Buffalo, and for Fan Appreciation Day, they handed out team pictures, but one of the heroes from this weekend didn’t even make the team picture. Justin Florek, a 23 year old forward, was called up from the AHL Providence Bruins this week because of an injury to Daniel Paille. After the B’s were shut out by Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard in Game 1, Florek put the B’s on the board early in the 1st Period by capitalizing on a mistake by Howard. Forward depth was a concern after Paille was injured against Buffalo last weekend, but Florek is proving his worth to the Bruins right now. It reminds me a lot of the contributions Torey Krug made for the Bruins last spring when Andrew Ference got hurt, before people knew how good he was. He spent all year in Providence, but he’s making the most of his chance with Boston in the most important games of the season.
There is still a long way to go, but my favorite go-to topic is Bruins hockey. It’s not always pretty, but hopefully there will be a lot more Bruins hockey for me to write about this spring.
It’s become almost boring to write about my beloved Boston Bruins because so little has gone wrong as of late. They have been a winning machine for the bulk of the season.
To summarize: they were hot before the Olympics. Patrice Bergeron won his second career Gold Medal. Loui Eriksson won a Silver Medal. Tuukka Rask won a Bronze Medal. They lost two games after the Olympics, but gained a point in one of them. They won 12 games in a row. They lost in a shootout to the Montreal Canadiens. Since then they’ve beaten the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks 3-0, putting last year’s Stanley Cup Finals in the rear view mirror in the process, and the Philadelphia Flyers on the road in a shootout.
I could have written an angry post about how the B’s can’t shake the Habs, and how those gutless-chicken-divers-to-the-north could be the one thing holding them back in the East, but I’m not sure that’s the case. The Bruins dominated that game even strength. If they can stay away from the stupid penalties (which is easier said than done, I realize, given Montreal’s tendency to play for the penalty rather toughing it out even strength), then they can handle Montreal, too.
On every other front things seem good. The Bruins seem like a better team than the one that got to Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, and are in great position to run the table in the Eastern Conference, but that kind of confidence in any of the teams I root for always makes me nervous. I started following sports in the mid-90s, which was perhaps the most futile few years Boston sports fans have ever had to endure. None of the four teams won a championship, and the only Finals appearances were by the Bruins in 1990 and the Patriots in 1997. Neither one really stood a chance to win it. Because of that, I’m almost more comfortable with my teams as underdogs. I know this sounds spoiled, and we have been spoiled with three Super Bowl victories, three World Series titles, an NBA championship and a Stanley Cup championship since 2002, while Buffalo’s best decade yielded four Super Bowl losses and a Stanley Cup Finals loss, and the state of Ohio has not won a professional championship since 1990, but for every big win, there are crushing defeats on the biggest stage, and those hurt so much more. Boston is a city that identifies with its sports teams as closely as any city in North America, and eight titles later, the passion still shows.
The Bruins’ greatest strength is their depth. Tuukka Rask can take the night off, and the team won’t feel any less confident with Chad Johnson between the pipes. They have more able bodied defensemen than can dress each night (and that doesn’t include Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, who have not yet been ruled out for the playoffs), which creates a level of competitiveness that keeps everyone playing their hardest in a time of year where Bruin teams in the past have started to coast. We won’t have to worry about the Bruins having to flip the switch to turn the intensity on this spring, because they’re already there.
This is the first regular season in the Claude Julien Era where I can sense that the team is hungry for more before the playoffs have started. They were so close to the Stanley Cup last year that it’s been eating at them ever since. The summertime acquisition of Jarome Iginla, who was on the Pittsburgh Penguins team that was swept by the B’s last spring, adds another guy who is hungry for the Stanley Cup, and who just so happens to be one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the NHL. Iggy has provided consistency to the B’s top line that I have never seen, and it’s made David Krejci and Milan Lucic into more reliable regular season players than I ever thought they could be.
In the game this past week against Chicago, the Bruins honored the Boston Fire Department, and it was reminiscent of the way the city used sports (particularly hockey and baseball) to heal in the wake of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last April. Boston’s Firefighters were the 1st Star of that game (Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask were 2nd and 3rd, respectively), and the Bruins players really seem to get that this is a great city and a special place, not just another town where you can play hockey and get paid.
Bruins fans have been waiting for the 2014 playoffs as soon as the 2013 playoffs ended with the other team raising Lord Stanley’s Cup on the ice of the TD Garden. It’s a few weeks away, and it still can’t come soon enough. Let’s go.