The second round is where the true separation occurs, where championship hopefuls are dismissed in favor of bona fide threats. The Celtics have oft viewed the second round as a stepping stone. The Bruins have oft discovered it to be an insurmountable obstacle. And yet, at the moment, the latter looks far more equipped to endure.
Here in Boston, we are in the thick of the playoff season now, and a funny thing happened over the weekend on the first step to the conference championship: the Bruins looked far more capable than the Celtics did. Exploiting the ineptitude of Philadelphia Flyers goaltending – is that an oxymoron? – the Bruins methodically punctured their way to a 7-3 victory in Game 1 of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 2 is tonight.
If you could bet on one team today to reach the conference finals, which would it be?
Yes, in the case of each, we are talking about one game. The Celtics lost Game 1 of their second-round series to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year and actually trailed the series after three games, 2-1. The Bruins lost the first two of this year’s first-round affair against the Montreal Canadiens and rallied back to win. We can all agree that Game 1 means relatively little with regard to the bigger picture, and the Bruins last year proved that Games 1, 2 and 3 combined can mean relatively little, too.
Still, there are continuously developing themes with each of these clubs as we venture into May.
The Bruins appear to be maturing.
The Celtics just look like they’ve gotten old.
Let’s start with the hockey team. Trailing the Canadiens by a 2-0 series score entering Game 3 in Montreal, the Bruins have since won 5 of 6 without the benefit of a single power-play goal. Think of that. They overcame deficits of 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 in Montreal during Game 4. They demonstrated a resiliency throughout the series. The Bruins had the chance to fold on numerous occasions – after deficits, bad penalties and accompanying power-play goals – and they continued to push forward.
We all know the shortcomings of this Bruins team. Frequently, they play not as if they are afraid to lose, but rather that they are afraid to win. Up until Game 7 of the Montreal series, the Bruins were 2-8 in potential series clinchers under coach Claude Julien. In the postseason, the Bruins seem to have played their best at the most desperate times, stumbling most notably when they have been ahead or when their opponent had the same level of desperation that they did. (Translation: Game 7.)
In that way, maybe Game 7 of the Montreal series served as a breakthrough for them. The Bruins tried to give the game away and couldn’t. When Nathan Horton beat Carey Price on a deflection in overtime of Game 7 at the TD Garden last week, you could all but hear the entire fan base exhale, as if the Bruins were putting their past behind them.
Whether the Bruins did – or didn’t – remains to be seen. They still have demons to exorcise. But as long as the Bruins can avoid special teams – both ways – there is suddenly sufficient reason to believe that they are capable of winning more than one round.
Of course, nobody should assume anything with the Bruins at this point, but you get the general idea.
They look invested.
As for the Celtics, maybe it is time for everyone to admit that the first-round series victory over the New York Knicks had as much (or more) to do with the ineptitude of the Knicks as it did with any level of execution by the Celtics. Quite simply, Boston was lucky to win Games 1 and 2. The Celtics certainly played better in Games 3 and 4, but their core problems remain. Their bench stinks. Rajon Rondo disappears for games at a time. And in Game 1 yesterday against the Heat, the Celtics were repeatedly beaten to lose balls, Miami demonstrating far more of a desire to win than a Celtics club seemingly in the midst of a perpetual confidence crisis.
Oh, right. And now their captain – their captain – is getting ejected from playoff games, rightly or wrongly, because he can’t keep his mouth shut.
Do not be fooled by yesterday’s final score. A 99-90 game looks reasonably competitive, but this one wasn’t. The Heat took control of the game late in the first quarter and never let the Celtics back in it. The Celtics made James Jones look like Glen Rice. The Celtics were slow to defend on the perimeter, missed more open shots than many are willing to acknowledge and played with a general passivity will have them soon sipping cocktails in the Caribbean if they are not careful.
And here’s the thing:
Do Celtics players really care? Do they? Or have they resigned themselves to the fact their time has come and gone, that the impending labor problems will signify the end of their era?
Yes, yes, yes – each team has only played Game 1. We all know that. But this morning, during the onset of the second round, one Boston playoff team looked like it had more to prove than its opponent did. The identity of that team is ultimately for you to decide.
But here’s a hint:
They were wearing skates.
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