The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?
The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.
Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.
The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.
At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.
I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.
Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.
The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.
If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.
I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.
Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.
Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.
Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”
If I were to quantify how much I hate the New York Yankees, and multiply it by how much I hate the Los Angeles Lakers, it would still not be as much as the hate I have for the Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruin find themselves down two games to one to their bitter rivals heading into Game 4 tonight at the Bell Centre. It’s a tough position to be in as a fan, and I can only imagine what it’s like as a player. Whenever these two teams face off against one another, history rears its ugly head.
To give credit where credit is due, Carey Price and P.K. Subban have been unbelievable in this series. Price is starting to look like a young Ken Dryden, who shut down the regular season record setting 1971 Bruins in the first significant playing time of his Hall of Fame career. The B’s won the Stanley Cup in 1970, and again in 1972, but Ken Dryden prevented them from three straight and being a dynasty. Subban is good enough to play with the Habs teams of the 70s as well. His slap shot is filthy, and if he were a Bruin, he’s be a fan favorite in Boston. The Bruins have had their chances, but the Habs have been the team making them pay for their mistakes. The series is far from over, but it’s hard to feel good about all the chances the Bruins have missed.
The Bruins need to get better scoring opportunities. I feel whenever I watch the Bruins that I’m shouting “shoot the puck!” more than anything else. They try to get cute, and everyone tries to make the extra pass rather than just burying it. It’s refreshing to see defensemen like Johnny Boychuk, Torey Krug, and Dougie Hamilton ripping shotts from the blue line. It’s not a high percentage play, but it gives them a chance, and it created rebound and redirect chances in front of the net as well. The Habs have not had as much of a sustained attack, but are ahead in the series because they’ve put the puck in the direction of Tuukka Rask with more regularity. Carey Price is a good goalie, and he was a big part of Canada winning the Gold in Sochi earlier this year, but he’s not Ken Dryden, and he’s not even Tuukka Rask for that matter. Subban has picked his spots, but he’s made Rask pay so far in this series. At some point, the Bruins need to break through and start scoring, but that needs to happen before it’s too late.
If the Bruins lose this series, blame will fall back on the trade deadline. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli did not do as much as he could have at the deadline, while Montreal added Thomas Vanek (who has killed the Bruins his entire career and the Bruins should have pursued) and Dale Weise, who have made significant contributions to the Habs in this series. Instead the Bruins acquired a couple of depth defensemen in the form of Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter. Meszaros played the last two games ahead of Matt Bartkowski, but that’s a move that makes it easy for fans to second guess Claude Julien. Neither of those guys would get a sniff of the ice if Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid were healthy, but that’s out of our control. The B’s could have done more at the deadline, but did not, and it’s come back to bite them this round against the Habs, who were anticipating a showdown with Boston.
If the B’s have any hope of rallying back, they need David Krejci to play the way he usually does in the playoffs. Through eight playoff games, Krejci has yet to record a goal. Krejci, more than Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, is the guy that needs to be at the top of his game for the Bruins to win this time of year. Bergeron and Chara give you the same honest effort every time they are out on the ice, but Krejci is the guy who usually leads the team in scoring in the playoffs. When the Bruins collapsed against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, it was directly correlated with Krejci going down with a season-ending wrist injury. When they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and 2013, Krejci was leading the way on offense. If Krejci can get going, so will Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla. If they pepper the net, maybe Price will look human again. It all starts with David Krejci.
This series is not over by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bruins have their work cut out for them. It might not be Dryden in net for Montreal, or Ray Bourque lacing up for Boston, but it always feels that way. As long as hockey is played the philosophical debate between skill and toughness, between Black and Gold, and Bleu, Blanc et Rouge will rage on. It’s tense, and it’s aggravating, but it’s as good as it gets.
The Boston Bruins have defeated the Detroit Red Wings four games to one. At times it was a tighter series than that, but with another bounce of the puck, it could have been a sweep. The Bruins now get the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.
The Red Wings continued their streak of 23 years in the playoffs, but this was by no means a Red Wings team like the ones that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. They still had Zetterberg. They still had Datsyuk. They still had Kronwall. They still had Franzen. They had a lot of youth and inexperience, too. They fought the good fight, but they ran into a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and was in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013.
The 2013-14 Red Wings reminded me a lot of the 2007-08 Bruins. The B’s had been bad in the first two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, but with the hirings of Claude Julien behind the bench and Cam Neely in the front office, the B’s took a big step in the right direction. That team had a good mix of youth and veteran presence, and got strong goaltending from some guy named Tim Thomas, who would win two Vezina Trophies, an Olympic Silver Medal, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Stanley Cup before his tenure in Boston was over. Peter Chiarelli had more veteran leadership in the form of Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, and Marc Savard to go with the aging Bruins mainstays Glen Murray and P.J. Axelsson. They also got good contributions from Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Phil Kessel (who was traded to Toronto in 2009 for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight), and Mark Stuart. Patrice Bergeron missed most of that season due to a severe concussion he suffered in a game against Philadelphia. I still can’t help but wonder how far that team might have gotten if Bergy was healthy in the playoffs.
The 2008 playoff run for the B’s was the start of the run they have been on the past few years. They were the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, and matched up against a #1 Montreal team that nobody in Boston expected them to beat. The Habs were really good that year. In a year when the Celtics won their 17th championship and their first in my lifetime, the Bruins landed back on the map in Boston. That team had a lot to be proud of, and so does this Wings team. It’s a disappointing end for a guy like Daniel Alfredsson who does not have that many years left to win a Cup, much like Murray and Axelsson were in 2008, but there is a lot for Detroit to be excited about with Nyquist, Smith, and Abdelkader joining the party. Mike Babcock will be able to coach those players up and have them learn from this season, much the way Claude did here in Boston.
For the Bruins, it’s good to finish a first round series in less than seven games for the first time since 2010. These are series the Bruins should win, and while they did finish the job in 2011 against Montreal and 2013 against Toronto, there is always a chance that you will fall short like they did against the Washington Capitals in 2012 if you’re taking it to sudden death over time of a series deciding seventh game. The Bruins and their fans have know for a few days now that Montreal is waiting for them when the series is over, as the Habs disposed of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four game sweep. It was reassuring to see the Bruins bounce back from a tough 1-0 defeat in Game 1, and to overcome a 2-0 deficit in Game 4. The scoring has come from many sources, and young players like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Justin Florek, and Jordan Caron have stepped up and put pucks in the net. While the veteran core of Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, and Johnny Boychuk is still there from the 2011 team, it looks a lot different with the young players contributing who were not there before.
The anchor of the Bruins’ success, much like last year, has been goaltender Tuukka Rask. I’ve been a Rask fan since the first time I saw this video from his Providence days five years ago, and was excited when the B’s parted ways with Manny Fernandez to make room for Tuukka behind Tim Thomas. He had an excellent rookie year in 2009-10 and even beat Thomas out for the starting job in the playoffs, that was forgotten by many because of how that season ended (I’d really rather not talk about it again), and because of the historically great season that Timmy had in 2010-11. When Tim Thomas achieved cult hero status in Boston for bringing the Stanley Cup home for the first time since 1972, Rask gained himself many critics and detractors within the fan base for being the young replacement, when he had really been the plan for the future all along. Last year he shut a lot of those critics up, but the Bruins couldn’t finish the job, but it was enough to earn a big payday last summer. After a great showing in Sochi this February, helping Team Finland medal by shutting out Team USA in the Bronze Medal Game, and putting together a phenomenal regular season and has allowed just six goals through five playoff games. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was still playing for a contract.
There is still a long road ahead for the Bruins, but knocking off the Red Wings was an important first step.
The only thing on Earth that is better than playoff hockey is overtime playoff hockey. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to satisfy, and there’s always a chance that it ends in heartbreak, but the payoff is so great when you win. Last night, the Bruins got their first taste of overtime playoff hockey since the Stanley Cup Finals last June.
It didn’t look good from the start. Detroit was playing like the team that needed the game more in the 1st period, trying to tie the series 2-2 and guarantee another home game at Joe Louis Arena rather, and were boosted by the return of their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who had not played since the Olympics when he injured his back playing for Sweden. The Wings dominated play in the 1st period, and had a 2-0 lead in the 2nd on goals from Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk, but the Bruins did not give up. After Torey Krug scored in the 2nd to make it 2-1 on an abbreviated power play, the B’s controlled the pace of play. Milan Lucic scored early in the 3rd, and the Bruins had plenty of chances to get ahead in that period, but Brad Marchand missed an open net, and Jonas Gustavsson was very strong in net for the Red Wings filling in for Jimmy Howard.
It took until overtime, but with the exception of a breakaway by Justin Abdelkader that was turned away by Tuukka Rask, all the great chances to score were Boston’s. In this series, we’ve seen 20 year old defenseman Dougie Hamilton grow up right before our eyes. Jarome Iginla got credit for the OT goal, but it was Hamilton’s shot that Iggy redirected. Hamilton is starting to play like the guy the Bruins were hoping they were getting when he was drafted in the summer of 2011. That’s what good teams do. They draft and develop the next generation of star players while winning in the meantime. Detroit did that in the late 90s and early 2000s, drafting Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Kronwall while competing every year for the Cup. Dougie has grown up a lot since being a healthy scratch for much of last year’s playoffs, and it’s time to start calling him Doug Hamilton, because he’s not playing like a little kid anymore.
Another player who has shown a lot of growth since the last playoff series the Bruins were in is Carl Soderberg. The Giant Angry One-Eyed Swede was still trying to get accustomed to the size of the rinks in the NHL when he had to play against Chicago in the Finals last spring. Now, he’s a force. Soderberg has made the B’s 3rd line a legitimate line to deal with whenever they’re on the ice. It’s good to see this guy finally succeed in the NHL after playing for years in his native Sweden.
The Bruins now have a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Red Wings and are heading home to the TD Garden to play Game 5 on Saturday. Things look good for the B’s right now. Zetterberg is one of the best players in the world, but he’s not up to speed with playoff hockey just yet. Todd Bertuzzi, who was Milan Lucic’s favorite player growing up in Vancouver, was never known for his speed, but he’s skating really slowly at 39. The Wings might have themselves a goalie controversy after how well Gusavsson played in place of Howard in Game 4.
As good as it may seem right now, the Bruins know perhaps better than any other team in the NHL that the series isn’t over until the fourth win. Claude Julien’s team choked away a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, before winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. They had a 3-1 series lead last spring against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it took sudden death overtime in Game 7 for the B’s to end that series. The hated Montreal Canadiens are waiting around for the winner of this series after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Bruins need to take care of business with the Wings before they think about the Habs. Is it Saturday yet?
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.
Yesterday, the Boston Celtics traded guards Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors. Last week they traded Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies. For Celtics fans, this is probably not the best time to get too attached to players on the team because they could be gone next week. There have been rumors surrounding Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and Rajon Rondo all season, as well. That’s what you have to do to rebuild in today’s NBA, and there are few who are better at it than Danny Ainge.
In the early part of the season, Jordan Crawford looked like a legit NBA point guard. After he arrived in Boston when the C’s traded away Jason Collins, I never thought I would use the phrase “legit NBA point guard” to describe Jordan Crawford. He’s undisciplined, he is too much of an impulsive player, and just plays a stupid brand of basketball in general. This, season he seemed like a completely different player. I have to give Brad Stevens a lot of credit on that one. Coach Stevens has gotten as much as he possibly can out of the roster he was given. That’s what Brad Stevens does. He never had a particularly loaded roster at Butler, but he took that program to the NCAA National Championship Game twice. He ultimately fell to the much more talented Duke and UConn teams, but it’s hard to say Stevens was outcoached by the Hall of Famer coaches he faced in those games. He made Crawford look pretty good, but he fell back to earth in December. With Rajon Rondo coming back this week, the Celts don’t need Crawford anymore. I would have been happy if the Celtics cut Crawford over the summer, but Stevens transformed him into an asset that they could get things in return for. They know what he is, and they don’t see him as part of the core of the next great Celtics team, so Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a deal while his value was at an all time high.
In a rebuilding season, nobody on the Celtics roster should be safe. Rondo is the team’s best player and one of the elite point guards in the game, but he’s also due to hit free agency next year, can’t hit a jump shot, and hasn’t played in a year. The last time Rondo was healthy, the Celtics had a losing record and were out of the playoff picture while Rondo had two future Hall of Famers to dish the ball to in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For the right return, I would not be shocked to see Ainge deal Rondo away, either.
I would trade Jeff Green in a second. I hated the trade as soon as it happened when Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Green and Nenad Krstic. Perk was a huge part of the Celtics teams that reached the Finals in 2008 and 2010, and Robinson has proven to be a pretty good little player since then. Krstic is currently playing professional basketball in Russia because he couldn’t hack it in the NBA. Because of what they gave up, Jeff Green had to really blow people’s doors off to keep fans satisfied, and he’s never quite gotten there. He shows flashes of brilliance, but he’s not the guy to carry the team on his shoulders that they thought he could be. He’s not on the same level as his former OKC teammates Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. I would not be heartbroken if he got traded.
Besides Rondo, the players I would be most careful about trading are Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk. These three guys are the young talent to build around, but none are necessarily the next Larry Bird or Paul Pierce, either. Sullinger is emerging in his second NBA season as the best player on the team game in and game out. He can score. He can rebound. He gets in foul trouble, but that’s because he’s been playing motivated, aggressive defense. Sully has been the brightest spot for the Celtics rebuild thus far. Avery Bradley is now the second longest tenured Celtic after Rondo, despite being drafted after the C’s 2010 Finals appearance against the Lakers. He’s a good defensive guard who can occasionally turn great defense into great offense and he’ll be looking for a new contract this offseason. Olynyk is the most intriguing player on the Celtics right now. The 22 year old Canadian seven footer out of Gonzaga has a lot of skill and basketball intelligence, but there are still a lot of growing pains for him as he adjusts to the grind of playing in the NBA. He’s considered by some to be Gonzaga’s best NBA prospect since John Stockton, and the very optimistic think he can become the next Dirk Nowitzki or Larry Bird. Danny Ainge used his only 1st round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, so it’s not likely that he’ll give up on him this early. Rick Pitino traded away Chauncey Billups midway through the first season of his Hall of Fame career, and that’s a big part of why Pitino’s phone calls in Boston end like this these days.
Another guy who intrigues me, but is not quite as safe since the Celtics did not invest as much in him as they did Sully, Bradley, and Olynyk is undrafted rookie point guard Phil Pressey. I have a soft spot for undrafted players in general. I get excited when guys like Wes Welker , LeGarrette Blount, Torey Krug and Brian Rafalski become stars in football and hockey, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen enough in basketball. At 5’11”, Pressey is a smaller than average point guard, but he impressed them in the Orlando Summer League and has made progress learning from Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo this season. He showed off some of his moves with this behind-the-back pass to Avery Bradley after he got the start in Toronto last night.
What the Celtics have to do right now is acquire assets and create options for themselves. They are much better off now than they were when Danny Ainge took over the Celtics’ basketball operations department in 2003, and hopefully they’ll be a contender sooner than 2017-18 at this rate. Building an NBA roster is as confusing as it is fascinating, and in a lot of ways is more interesting than NBA games themselves. It’s okay to like these Celtics and still root for them to get in better draft position. It’s okay to root for the players on the team, but you shouldn’t lose to much sleep over the players that get traded. It will get better. It’s not clear when. It’s not clear how, but Danny Ainge will make the C’s a winner again.