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Is it time to lower the bar?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 3, 2010 10:23 AM

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Didn’t you want more? Didn’t you hope for something better? Didn’t you expect the Celtics to come out with a vengeance after losing to the Nets, the Bruins to begin the homestretch of their season the way they played much of last year?

In Boston these days, the disappointment never seems to cease.

So maybe it’s time to lower the expectations.

Three days after a home loss to what could be the worst team in NBA history, the Celtics last night worked awfully hard for a five-point victory over the moribund Detroit Pistons. Meanwhile, the Bruins blew yet another late-game lead – on the eve of the annual trading deadline no less – and skunked their way to a 4-1 loss against a Montreal Canadiens outfit with whom Boston is competing for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Maybe there’s a reason why we frequently refer to our winter teams as the B’s and C’s. Maybe it’s because even an A- now seems so difficult to attain.

Leaving open the possibility that things can always change in an instant, reality now seems to be dawning on what has been a breathtaking Boston sports landscape. Beginning with the Patriots' Super Bowl win in early 2002, Boston teams won six championships in slightly more than six years. Additionally, there were a few near-misses (the 2003 and 2008 American League Championship Series, an undefeated 2007 NFL regular season). We had such an extraordinary run of success in this region that anything less than a championship has seemed entirely unfulfilling, which is the danger that comes with winning so frequently in such a short period of time.

In 2009, the reality was that the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots all qualified for the playoffs. And yet, as the year closed, one couldn’t help but get the feeling that all four clubs were moving farther from a championship, not closer.

Spoiled? You bet we’re spoiled. (Some of us more than others.) And as is often the case with everything, coping with the reality has as much to do with perspective as it does with the reality itself. Instead of expecting championships, maybe we should demand nothing more than steady growth and maximum effort, though with the Bruins and Celtics, there have been occasions to question the latter at various points this season.

Of course, that leads to an assortment of philosophical questions, some of which are difficult to answer: if we lower our expectations for our teams, is that letting them off the hook? In a place like Boston, which is now among the biggest and most successful sports markets in America, shouldn’t we demand excellence a regular basis given the money invested in our teams and the correlating prices in tickets? At what point do we become too accepting of failure – or too demanding of success?

For the moment, let’s hold off on the Bruins, whose case is far different than that of the Patriots, Red Sox or Celtics. Those three teams all have won conference or league championships since the start of the 2005 calendar year. Overall, the Patriots and Red Sox have been as successful as (or more than) any other team in their respective leagues, and those clubs have made it quite clear that they prioritize an extended run at success.

Whether that philosophy truly works is entirely open to debate – see the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s or, for the matter, the Bruins of the 1980s – but let’s all give them their due. The specific odds may change on a year-to-year basis, but the Red Sox and Patriots always seem to be in the game at the end. And as long as they win a championship or two every five or 10 years, there really is not much reason to complain.

As for the Celtics, we knew the terms when Danny Ainge made his deals with the devil during the spring and summer of 2007. Time was precious. The Celtics subsequently went out and won a championship immediately, sating a hunger that had existed here for more than 20 years. If the Celtics don’t win the championship this year, fine. We can live with that. The far more disturbing part of this season is that the Celtics are deteriorating so rapidly that the 2007-08 championship is beginning to feel like some cheap one-night stand.

With an aging roster, the biggest question for Ainge right now is whether he can find a way to extend this window the way the Patriots and Red Sox have.

As for the Bruins, their fans are tired of waiting. Team officials have made it quite clear that they would not overpay for help at this trading deadline, but the appropriately named B’s – after all, haven’t they been a B to a B+ team for the last 38 years? – have not won a Stanley Cup since 1972. Yesterday, the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins executed a deal for Toronto’s Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has as many goals as anyone on the Bruins. Meanwhile, Ilya Kovalchuk got traded from Atlanta to New Jersey for what seemed like a very modest collection of talent. Bostonians cannot question the commitment of Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics management the way they can the Bruins, which means there is pressure on the B’s to prove not that that they are intent on winning a championship, but obsessed with winning one.

Are things that bad here? Of course not. The disturbing part of the last year is that the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics all have regressed enough that they cannot beat elite competition, slipping into something of a competitive purgatory; they’re better than the poor and average teams, not quite as good as the championship-caliber ones. Assuming you believe that there is an ebb and flow to professional sports, the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics all could be a move or two away from a championship – depending on the level of optimism you wish to apply.

In the much bigger picture, Boston remains one of the more successful sports cities in America. We don’t have any real dogs here and recently we have won our share. The one issue with winning is that it leaves you no room to grow, and no title is ever as gratifying as the first. And yet, there is still a considerable distance to fall back to place where no one wants to be.

After all, we’ve been there.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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