By Rich Levine
Prologue: New Year's Eve, 2009
On December 31, 2009, the Patriots had already clinched their seventh AFC East title in 10 years, and were guaranteed at least one playoff home game (which pretty much translated into at least one playoff win).
The Celtics had lost three straight, but were still 23-8. And even though they were a little banged up, they still looked built for the long haul.
Over at Fenway, the Sox had just signed John Lackey to a five-year deal, and now had the best rotation in baseball. Or at least that's how it felt. Or maybe that's just what we wanted to believe, since it was now obvious that the Sox wouldn't break the bank for another bat. Either way, Lackey, Beckett and Lester were going to be dominant in the regular season. In a playoff series? Deadly.
And then there were the Bruinswho were less than 24 hours away from taking the ice for one of the biggest games in their recent history.
The Winter Classic.
Chapter 1January: Cursed by the Devil
January 1, 2010: Marco Sturm's Winter Classic-winning goal kicks off the New Year in spectacular style, and in retrospect, it's hard to imagine any year starting out with that kind of excitement and optimism.
The Classic had somehow lived up to the enormous hype. The city was energized, and the game seemed to announce the Bruins' re-introduction into the upper echelon of the Boston sports scene. After all, everyone watched the Winter Classic. It didn't matter if you were a Bruins fan or not; after the game you were interested in the B's.
They had serious momentum, and looked ready to run with it.
The next day, the Bruins signed Satan and all hell broke loose.
Fine, maybe it's just a fluke that the B's acquisition of a guy named Satan (Miroslav) happened to coincide with the start of the city's temporary sports downfall. Maybe.
But either way, it all started on Jan. 2.
On that night, the Celtics injuries reached such a ridiculous level Pierce, KG and Rondo were all out that they started JR Giddens, Tony Allen, Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins in a game against the Raptors. The Celtics still won the game, but come on, JR Giddens? He's playing in Poland now.
The next day, January 3, Wes Welker tore his ACL making a meaningless cut in a meaningless game against the Texans. He was done for the year, and at that point, we thought most of next year, too. And just to add insult to injury, the guy who made the tackle on the play? Bernard Pollard. (This never got enough attention. Seriously, what are the odds of the same guy playing for two different teams making the tackle that destroyed both Welker and Brady's knees? Now there's the real Satan.)
Anyway, Welker's injury was followed a week later by, if not the worst, then definitely the most embarrassing loss of the BradyBelichick era. Next, came the panic button.
Brady didn't look the same. Welker was toast. Too many bad apples had poisoned the Patriot Way. The defense was bad, and without a doubt getting worse. Draft picks weren't panning out. Belichick was taking on too much responsibility. Who the hell was Rob Ninkovich?
We went into the offseason with no clue what to expect. In the aftermath of the 33-14 loss to the Ravens, there were suddenly more questions and doubts surrounding the team's future than at any point since Bledsoe lit up them up 31-0. Not a familiar feeling and the same could be said for what was going on over at the Garden.
As the month went on, the Celtics were getting healthier, but were still nowhere close to healthy. Pierce was hurting. Rasheed Wallace was miserable. KG was hurting and miserable. Rondo was still waiting for his maturity to catch up with his skills and everyone wondered if Ray Allen might be traded. An ugly cloud was forming over that locker room. And down the hall, the Bruins were feeling it too.
Instead of using the Winter Classic as a source of inspiration, they flopped. After beating the Flyers at Fenway, the B's went 2-9-2 for the rest of January, and finished the month on a seven-game losing streak. Many of those newfound fans had started to fade; they'd catch back up in the playoffs, presumably.
On the last day of the month, the Celtics blew a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead to the Lakers and lost a heartbreaker on Kobe Bryant's last-second jumper. It was a fitting end to the month, not to mention a cruel foreshadowing for how the season would play out. The Celtics finished with a 6-8 record in the January it was their first losing month of the new Big Three Era.
Truth is, we have impossible expectations here in Boston. That's the price we pay for the last decade of success. But even by normal standards, January 2010 was an ugly one for sports fans.
Chapter 2February: Peyton lost the Super Bowl!
It had been a while since Boston had been forced to depend on the failures of its enemies as a source of happiness, but that's how it was at the start of February. The Pats were in hibernation, the Sox hadn't done much since signing Lackey unless you counted Adrian Beltre, who didn't feel like a big deal at the time.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the Bruins' seven-game losing streak had reached 10. That afternoon, the Celtics lost at home to Orlando, and the Big Three looked terrible. Ray Allen scored 14 points on 3-for-14 shooting. Pierce and KG each had 13, on 5-for-12 and 5-for-13 shooting, respectively. The team looked excruciatingly older with every passing game. And speaking of passing, Rasheed Wallace wasn't interested. All he wanted to do is shoot, and from far away. He'd been a complete bust.
At that point, Peyton's choke in the Super Bowl was the biggest reason to cheer. Looking back, it was probably more a matter of being happy that Peyton didn't win, than it was that he lost. Having to deal with all the idolizing, ass-kissing and countless commercials that would have resulted from Manning winning another ring, given what happened with the Pats, would have been torture.
The Bruins broke their 10-game losing streak with a win over Montreal, and then went on to win four straight. But just as they were really finding their rhythm they averaged 3.5 goals a night during the streak, after struggling to light the lamp for most of the season the league broke for the Olympics.
If you were a Celtics fan, the most exciting part of the month was the 30 minutes when everyone was convinced that Ray Allen had been traded to Washington for Antawn Jamison AND Caron Butler. Once it was confirmed as a rumor, we realized just how ridiculous the trade was and that there was no way it would have happened. But for those 30 minutes, it made complete sense.
Anything would have made sense at that point. Celtics fans were desperate, and the team needed a boost. And if that meant breaking up the Big Three, if that meant losing Ray Allen, then that was OK. Everyone was on board with the fake Wizards deal.
Ray played poorly leading up to the deadline, and seemed to struggle through the rumors. In the end, Ainge explored every option, but nothing worked out, and Ray future in Boston was safe (until the summer).
Instead of trading with the Wizards, the Celtics ended up sending fan-favorite Eddie House and Bill Walker who'd become the adopted son of every member of Celtics Nation to the Knicks for Nate Robinson. Yes, another head case! The city braced itself for the Nate Robinson Experience. Meanwhile, the C's continued to hover around mediocrity, and on February 27, lost to the 5-52 New Jersey Nets literally one of the worst teams in NBA history in Boston, 104-96.
The Celtics were in disarray. The Bruins were scattered around the world. The Sox were just getting started in Fort Myers. The Pats were still reeling.
But Peyton lost the Super Bowl! Hey, you take what you can get.
Chapter 3March: Kill the Cooke!
There were many times over the course of the winter when either the Celtics or Bruins had been pronounced dead. But never more than they were on March 10 and 18, respectively.
We'll talk about the Celtics first. For one, because it happened first, but also because it's a little less complicated. Basically, on March 10, the Celtics bottomed out.
They lost by 20 points, at home, to the Memphis Grizzlies. But 20 points didn't do this loss justice. The game was a microcosm for everything that had gone wrong with the team that winter. They didn't care anymore. Or if they did, they had a funny way of showing it. They'd aged liked dogs over the past few months, and consensus was that the Celtics could no longer hang with the younger, more athletic contenders. But now it seemed it didn't matter what caliber the team was. If you were young and athletic, you could feast on the Boston Celtics. Especially if you were in the Garden. That's right, IN the Garden. The spot, which had been the site of so many Celtics blowouts over the previous two years was now a haunted house. If they won, they eked it out. And when they lost, it was ugly. The only time you saw Gino's face was on a milk carton.
The loss was the Celtics' worst of the season, and at this point, it was clear that they no longer cared about playoff seeding. Or maybe they just weren't good enough. It didn't make sense given the talent on their roster, and how recently they'd been an elite team. But by March it had been so long since they looked anywhere close to that. Cleveland and Orlando were starting to pull away, and now Atlanta seemed poised to pass them in the standings. As they left the floor, both at halftime and the end of the game, the Garden crowd rained down boos upon the team.
"Just wait until the playoffs! That's when we'll come to play!" That, led by Rasheed Wallace, served as the rallying cry for the team mostly because they didn't have any other choice. What else could they say? But no one really bought it. One and done. And that's best-case. After that would mark the end of the Big Three Era. Probably the end of Doc Rivers, too. Everyone was tired. The season had gone all wrong. And there was no turning it around.
The story of the Bruins' "Stick a fork in the them" moment takes place on March 18, but began on March 7.
It was on that date, with 5:31 left in a game between the Bruins and Penguins, that Matt Cooke plowed his shoulder into the unsuspecting head of Marc Savard, who crashed to the ice, clearly concussed, and was taken off the ice on a stretcher. It was a troubling moment, only made worse by the way the Bruins reacted. Which is to say, they didn't react at all. Cooke, who wasn't penalized on the play not their fault but skated the rest of the way without consequence. The Bruins claimed it was because they were focused on tying the game (they were only down 2-1), but when they failed to do so, the lack of payback, revenge, or any sort of perceived loyalty to their teammate became the big story . . . and then a bigger story when the NHL inexplicably let Cooke off the hook without a suspension.
So, it came down to March 18. Bruins vs. Penguins: The Revenge
Savard was still injured, and probably would be for the rest of the season. But Cooke was there, and was ready to take his medicine. Again, much like the Winter Classic, this was a game that had every one talking. This wasn't just about hardcore Bruins fans; the entire city was on this game. And much like the Winter Classic, this game should have served as a momentum swing for the home stretch; they had an opportunity to captivate the city. Instead, well, Cooke did get an early beatdown courtesy of Shawn Thornton, but after that, the Bruins just looked beat.
They lost the game 3-0, without putting up a fight. Fans were embarrassed. The team should have been. You've never heard a team discounted like the way the Bruins were on the radio that next day. They were worse than the Celtics! They might not even make the playoffs! They were gutless and uncaring! They'd quit on their coach, their coach had quit on them! And now it was time for the city of Boston to. This team was undeserving of our time; a waste.
Down in Fort Myers, the Sox were in the midst of a rather uneventful spring training a fact that makes a lot more sense now given how unbearably boring the season played out. Oh no, wait. How could I forget . . . March is when Nomar retired with the Red Sox! Remember that? (Of course, how could you forget!?).
The Patriots were still pretty quiet, expect for on March 5, when they signed Vince Wilfork to a long-term extension.
Now that his future in New England was secure, Wilfork began to speak publicly about the dysfunction in last year's locker room, and how he was ready to clean things up and bring back the Patriot Way. That seemed a lot easier said than done, but at least there was reason for optimism.
As for the Celtics and Bruins, they both finished March with winning records (11-6 for C's, 8-7-1 for B's), but the damage had been done earlier in the month.
They were both dead. For real this time.
Oh well. Time for Opening Day.
Chapter 4April: Ribbed for Yankee Pleasure
2010 was supposed to be Jacoby Ellsbury's breakout season. We knew he could steal bases, but now he finally knew how to get on base. He was getting bigger, stronger, more confident and comfortable at this level. He'd scraped the surface of greatness the year before, and this was the season to make the leap into the levels unseen at Fenway Park. Seriously, when was the last time the Red Sox had a player like Jacoby Ellsbury? In 2009, he'd broken the franchise's single-season stolen-base record by 16. There was no one in his league. Maybe he wasn't the best player the team had, but he was hands down the most exciting and more than anything, that was something the 2010 Sox lacked. Ellsbury gave you a reason to watch every single night. He was the Red Sox' Rajon Rondo. You tuned in because with Ellsbury, there was a chance you'd see something you never had before. Maybe he's beat out a ground ball to second base. Maybe he'd score from second on a sac fly. Maybe he'd steal home. You never knew. But you knew this year would be big it had to be.
Of course, it just turned out to be a big headache.
On April 11, Ellsbury collided with Adrian Beltre on a bloop fly ball to left field, injured his ribs and left the game. At the time, it wasn't considered a huge deal. Day-to-day probably; a little hiccup to start the season but no reason to worry. He's a tough kid! He'll be back.
By the end of April he still wasn't back, and the Red Sox were a 11-12. Six of the 12 losses had come to the Rays and Yankees including a four-game sweep at Fenway at the hands of Tampa and they were in fourth place, already six back. Not a great start.
From April 22-24, the New England Patriots selected 12 players in the 2010 NFL Draft, to mixed reviews.
In the first round, cornerback Devin McCourty from Rutgers wait, who? He wasn't on any of the mock drafts? Does Mel Kiper even known who Devin McCourty is?
Two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round) seriously, Belichick? More tight ends? Didn't we learn our lesson from Watson and Thomas and Mills? Wouldn't one do?
Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham (both second round), who along with Hernandez made three Florida Gators yes, Bill, we get it; you went down and watched practice with Urban Meyer. God, you're so quick to fall in love! Don't you realize the same thing would happen if you went down to watch Texas or Oklahoma or Alabama or any other big time school?
And Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round?!?! OK, he's actually kind of cool.
It had just been so long since the Patriots had experienced a successful draft. You couldn't help but question what they were doing, who they were taking, why they kept making so many trades?! There was so much bad blood left over from that loss to the Ravens and the doomsday cloud from early January still hadn't quite dissipated. Although two days after the draft, on April 26, the Pats made another important move in releasing Adalius Thomas. Maybe Wilork's job will be a little easier now.
Finally, let's check in on our two resident corpses.
The Celtics had back into the playoffs with a 3-5 April record. The Bruins had finished strong at 4-1-1. But the one thing they had in common is that each had drawn a very favorable matchup in the first round.
The Celtics had the Heat, who were a one-man show with Dwyane Wade. And there was no one better at devising a scheme to shut down a one-man show than Tom Thibodeau. Inspired by the start of the second season, the Celtics kept their promise and stepped it up against Miami, making quick work in a 4-1 series win. Paul Pierce's buzzer-beater in Game Three was probably the most lasting image, but the most important moment came in Game One, when Kevin Garnett was ejected for an altercation with Quentin Richardson. Although Garnett was wrong to put himself in the position to draw a suspension which he did, for Game Two the incident seemed to energize the team, and brought a sense of unity that had been lacking at many points throughout the year.
The Bruins landed the sixth seed, and a meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, whom the B's had beaten four out of six times in the regular season. Boston's biggest fear came in the form of the Sabres' goalie, Ryan Miller, who was stood on his head, and even on his ear for a tiny bit, for Team USA that winter, and seemed capable of winning the series all by himself especially considering the Bruins' issues with putting up goals.
But the Bruins got to Miller, and then the second round, taking the series in six game, and suddenly looking like the team everyone had seen on January 1.
Maybe neither winter would make it passed the next round; the Celtics, for one, definitely weren't going to. But we took solace, and appreciated the fact that each team had at least put up a fight; at least gave us a respectable showing.
Great! They'll keep us side-tracked until Ellsbury gets back.
Any day now.
Chapter 5May: BestWorst Week Ever
One of the city's most miserable sports winters inexplicably gave way to one of its most memorable springs. May became the month where we learned how little we actually know about sports. It became a time when all the rules that we'd been taught growing up about always having to give your all, about the respect you must always have for the game, about the fact that there is no onoff switch in sports were thrown out the window.
May became the month where the Celtics and Bruins made history for different reasons, of course. But history nonetheless.
As it turned out, the Bruins weren't the only team to pull an upset in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. In fact, the top two seeds Washington and New Jersey also went the way of Buffalo. As a result, the once-dead Bruins now had home-ice advantage in the second round against the Flyers; coincidentally enough, the team they beaten in the Classic.
Game One: Marc Savard returns to the ice for the first time since the Matt Cooke cheap shot and scores the game-winner in OT. 5-4, Boston. Bruins lead 1-0. (This should have been one of the greatest and most memorable moments of the year, but has been largely lost in the mess.)
Game Two: Milan Lucic breaks a 2-2 tie in the third with a game-winning goal of his own. 3-2, Boston. Bruins lead 2-0.
Game Three: The series moves to Philly, where the Flyers jump out to a 1-0 lead before surrendering four straight goals to Boston. Tuukka Rask stops 34 of 35 shots. 4-1, Boston. Bruins lead 3-0.
And at this point, it's a done deal. Conference Finals, here we come!
Meanwhile, as it turns out, the Celtics and Bruins schedules had completely collided. But the Celtics' matchup with the top-seeded Cavs isn't playing out as well.
On May 7, the night of BruinsFlyers Game Four, the Celtics were destroyed on their home court, 124-95 to fall behind 2-1 in their series.
No one was surprised. Even after the way the Celtics played against the Heat, the Cavs series was still expected to be over in six. They were playing against the best team in the league, with the best player in the league. Cleveland had the best chemistry of any squad in the East. The Celtics were curmudgeons. Not to mention that once things started, Paul Pierce couldn't stay on the court (foul trouble), and now home court had once again been lost (not that it mattered with this group).
Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. And hey, at least the Bruins will still be playing in the next round!
What followed was without question the craziest sports week of 2010:
May 7: The Flyers outlast the B's in overtime to take a 5-4 victory. Bruins lead 3-1.
May 9: The Celtics score a 10-point victory at the Garden to even the series at 2-2.
May 10: The B's are stonewalled at home in Game Four. Philly takes a 4-0 win, and all the momentum. They still have two chances to seal it, though. And still have home-ice. Regardless, Bruins lead 3-2.
May 11: LeBron James goes 3-for-14 and essentially quits on his team as the Celtics go into Cleveland and destroy the Cavs, 120-88. The entire state of Ohio is in shock. The NBA is in shock. No one could have predicted this! (Except for maybe the Celtics, who had been predicting it, ad nauseum, through the entire regular season.)
May 12: Uh oh. The Flyers take a 2-0 lead and, despite a late-game Bruins flurry, push the series to Game Seven.
May 13: Uh oh. The Celtics aren't who we thought they were. They just knocked off the King and with relative ease. The regular season could not feel farther away. These are not the 2009-10 Boston Celtics. These are imposters. Or were the other guys imposters? Who knows, but this is just too weird. We know nothing. This can't be life.
May 14: Crash. Disaster. The worst storyline you could possibly imagine.
The Bruins go up 3-0 in the first period of Game Seven, and don't score again for the rest of the season. Simon Gagne's third-period goal wraps it up for Philly, and the Bruins are the 2004 Yankees.
They're the laughingstock of the league. Why couldn't they have just rolled over and died after Pittsburgh like everyone said they would? Why put everyone through all that excitement if you're just going to deliver 15 times the agony?
It was a dark time for Bruins fans. But it was a feeling all too familiar. The Flyers would take out the No. 8 seed Canadiens in the conference finals and play Chicago for the Stanley Cup, while the Bruins would spend the next month thinking about whether to trade up for Taylor Hall, or just roll the dice with Tyler Seguin.
They could have been there. If any number of things had occurred at any number of times, they would've been there. But it wasn't meant to be. We knew that as early as January.
There wasn't too much time to harp on the Bruins not that that stopped us because suddenly the upstart Celtics were up 3-0 themselves. After winning the last three against the Cavs, they'd gone and taken the first two games in Orlando, then Game Three at home. When they lost Game Four in OT, and then Game Five away, the similarities were starting to get a little freaky.
Any other time, we'd have been confident in the Celtics' ability to close it out. Sure, they'd had problems in the regular season, but that was long gone. This new team was unstoppable. They were clicking with each other, feeding off each other they actually enjoyed being together. They were the team we thought they might be way back in November and December. We had to admit it we were wrong. They were right. Did they just get lucky and happen to find their groove at the right time? Was it really a matter of caring? Did they actually just flip the switch on and seamlessly cruise through two of three best teams in the league? Who knows, but Game Six erased any doubt. The Celtics were heading back to the Finals. They were playing the Lakers.
Not that anyone was paying much attention partly because of the B's and C's, but also because that were so damn vanilla but the Sox picked up the pace in May after that awful April. They went 18-11 on the month, and although they were still in fourth place, were now only five games back. Josh Beckett had gone on the DL (about six weeks after signing a five-year extension), but his absence was somewhat offset by the fact that Clay Buchholz was now pitching like a young Josh Beckett. Lackey was still getting comfortable; Lester had experienced his annual May resurgence. Beltre was actually pretty good! Still no Jacoby, but it had to be soon . . .
But for now, the Red Sox could wait.
Chapter 6June: 13 points
What happened between June 3-17 is still kind of a blur.
Boston was an emotional mess; we didn't know how to act.
On one hand, the NBA Finals were the expectation coming into the year. Even for the first month or two of the season, we'd been able to envision this team in this specific position; against this specific opponent. Back in November, this seemed very real.
But then we stopped believing. As they were losing to the New Jerseys, Washingtons and Memphi (yes, that's the plural) of the world, it literally became impossible to see them in the Finals. Never mind winning the title. So we shut off that part of our brain.
Then all of a sudden it was real again, and that was just unbelievably strange.
In a way, it felt like you were just supposed to be happy that the Celtics made it this far, and gave you an amazing extra two months of basketball. But in another way, once you were there, it was impossible not to readjust that expectation and go championship or bust. I think most people ultimately crossed back over to the dark side, but it still felt different.
They deserved to be there, but also somehow didn't deserve to be there. If that makes any sense.
Anyway, despite the awful ending, we were all witnessed to an unbelievably historic NBA Finals. When you consider the teams involved, the players involved, the seven games, the story lines and the last-second drama, it's definitely up there as one of the best of this era. And that's still pretty amazing, when you consider where they were against Memphis. But it still stings.
They were up 13 points, and 20 minutes away from changing everything.
And that was that. The memory is like 80 pain, 20 grateful.
So . . . the Celtics grabbed Avery Bradley; the Bruins took Tyler Seguin more on him Friday and we were ready to turn our attention to the Sox.
Only problem was they weren't the Sox anymore. Over the last week of June, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Dice-K went on the DL, joining Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron and Josh Beckett.
But still, whoever these Sox were, they were winning. They went 18-9 in June, despite all the injuries, and headed into July in second place, only one game back of the Yankees.
Three months before, you'd have heard of like four guys in the current Sox starting line up, but somehow they were winning.
God, if they can just hold it together until Ellsbury comes back!
And that was the first half of the year . . .
Part 2 comes on Friday. Hey, WAKE UP! Part 2 on Friday.