By Rich Levine
With just about two weeks before the NBA and NHL playoffs, the Celtics and Bruins are positioning themselves at the gate.
Ones feeling fine, gearing up for a postseason that could erase nearly 40 years of nonsense. The other's delivering Bostons messiest finish since Uta Pippig.
But moving forward, what should we expect?
The Bruins' picture is the clearer of the two. Basically, with six games left, a seven-point division lead and the second-place Canadiens still shaking off their TD Garden deathblow, Bostons on the fast track to the Northeast crown.
The Bs have won four of five games, including statement wins like Tuesday nights over the defending champion Blackhawks (even if Chicago went a little 1997 Marlins in the offseason), Sundays playoff clincher at conference-leading Philly, and most notably, last Thursdays beatdown of the Habs. Theres a chance the Bruins catch Washington for the second seed; theyll probably end up third, but either way, get them an annoying bumper sticker, because Life is Good.
Its the Montreal game that did it. Thats the night this team really started to separate itself from ghosts of Bruins past. That was game about grit and heart. It was supposed to be a fight. And those are the games that the Bruins teams typically lose. Instead, they clowned Montreal like they were hockeys Washington Generals. They treated the Canadiens like you did the computer in NHL 94. They treated them how other teams used to treat the Bruins.
After a loss to the Rangers, Boston came back with two straight wins to maintain that momentum. On top of momentum, the B's have the best goalie in hockey, and in the NHL playoffs, goalies steal more games than refs do in the NBA. The Bruins have depth, youth and experience. They get contributions from both a 19-year-old and a 43-year-old, which doesnt win them any prizes but, in a weird way, tells you something about who they are: a collection of guys who are all over the map, but just might be clicking at the perfect time.
Weve been here before with the Bruins, but right now, you have wonder if its time to adjust your expectations; legitimately get your hopes up. Theyre doing it now, why not then? Or at least thats what we want to think.
But we cant.
Throw some hardwood on the ice, and the Celtics are currently up a half-game on Miami for the second seed in the East. Boston also owns the tiebreaker, but at the same time, its hard to imagine it will matter. The Cs have looked gross. Theyre losing to bad teams. Theyre losing to good teams. They have issues with the coach, issues with each other. The locker rooms more dysfunctional than Sober Valley Ranch.
The Celtics are 5-7 in their last 12 games, and over the final nine will play six playoff teams including the Spurs, Bulls and Heat.
Can they hold on to the second seed and avoid a first-round battle with Philadelphia? Well, sure . . . especially if Miami keeps playing like it did on Tuesday. But like the Bruins, the Cs might be destined for the three seed.
But seeding isnt Bostons main concern. There are more pressing issues. Like how much theyre now forced to rely on the ONeals or the fact that in interviews, every single opposing player seems to mention how different the Celtics are without Perk. Theres the fact that the teams far less reassuring than they were last year. No ones saying, Just wait until the playoffs. Everything will be fine by the playoffs! Things have gotten so bad that Ray Allen skipped out on the media after the Pacers game. This never happens. He and the media might have the most symbiotic relationship in sports; if he's bailing, something's off.
Its gotten bad enough that part of you wants to start preparing yourself for disaster, and start asking the questions: What if Rondo never grows up? What if Big Baby never cheers up? What if the ONeals fall and they cant get up?
Theres been a serious push to panic, and wonder if this this might be the end of the road.
But we can't.
With the Celtics, like the Bruins, the present is pushing us drastically in one direction, but historys pulling us back.
For the Celtics, historys like a suicide hotline. Its the memory of last year. Regular-season disaster if not as bad as this one, definitely close and certainly more drawn out turned into playoff dominance, and for no other reason than it was the playoffs. We remember looking back, and thinking about how silly all that drama was back in February and March, and how we promised to never get carried away again.
For the Bruins, history is Buzz Killington. Its the memory of the last three seasons. The inconsistent play. The mind games. The making you believe and then delivering a swift lead pipe to your kneecaps. In 2008: They fight back from 3-1 against the top-seeded Canadiens, force Game Seven and then lose 5-0. In 2009: As the No. 1 seed, they fight back from 3-1 against Carolina, force Game Seven and then lose in overtime (at home).
In 2010: Much, much worse.
And no matter whats happening now, those memories are hard to break. You can hate all you want on the Celtics' struggles, but you wont be shocked if theyre still playing in June. You can hop on the Bruins bandwagon, but guarantee youre wearing your seat belt (unless it's one of those new band wagons with a built-in ejection seat.)
You know at some point its going to happen. At some point the Celtics will get bounced in the first round; the Bruins will break through into the third. Unfortunately, and fortunately, that time will come, and it will erase everything that we know to be true. But for now, Boston's like that old Jim BreuerTracy Morgan SNL sketch: Wong and Owens, ex Porn Stars.
"This is all we know!"
We also know how quickly it can change. After all, we spent almost 15 years talking about a curse that had supposedly been in place for 86 years. Then Foulke flips to Mientkiewicz and its garbage. The curse is dead. We never talk about it again or give it one drop of credence. We take every last copy of that book and . . .
OK, sorry. Point is, it will be very easy for the Celtics to lose our unconditional faith, just as easy as it will be for the Bruins to earn it.
Its just that seeing is believing and nothing else matters.
Everything else is what we think we know. And as recent history's taught us, what we think we know about the Bruins and Celtics is about as reliable as the latest timetable on Shaq's return.
Nothing's real until it happens. Perceptions are always predicated on the past.
And in two weeks, both Boston teams will come out of the gate trying to prove someone wrong: For the Bruins, it's the people who say history will repeat itself. For the Celtics, those who say it won't.
We can have it both ways. We can have it neither. But we won't know until we see it. And thankfully, we don't have to wait much longer.