As 2011 begins, let’s look at back at how Boston’s four professional sports teams fared in 2010. There were no championships, but three teams made the playoffs, and the seeds of the 2010-2011 seasons were laid in the failures of the 2009-2010 teams. Every team’s weaknesses were exposed, and management has set out to fix them, usually succeeding.
Bruins: 39-30-13 (third in Northeast division; sixth in conference), lost in the conference semifinals. The Bruins seemed well on their way to a second straight conference finals appearance in the 2010 playoffs, up 3-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-seven series. They then lost four straight games, becoming just the third NHL team to lose four straight playoff games after going up 3-0. In Game Seven, the Bruins seemed like they were going to dodge that fate, going up 3-0. But the Bruins took their foot off the Flyers’ throats after that third goal, and the Flyers scored four goals to win the game and knock off the Bruins. It was a stark reversal of fortune from 2004, when the Red Sox won four straight games against the Yankees in the ALCS.
The problem with the 2009-2010 Bruins during the playoffs were two-fold: they couldn’t score goals, and suddenly they couldn’t stop them either. In their four losses to the Flyers, they were doubled up in scoring, 15-8. Tuukka Rask, who had been such a monster in the regular season, allowed four-plus goals in three of those four games. No matter how good your offense is, if your goalie is allowing that many goals a game, you’re not likely to win. Luckily, the 2010-2011 Bruins have solved that problem, though Rask has not yet recovered from his meltdown during the playoffs. Tim Thomas has re-emerged after an off-year, leading the NHL in goals allowed average (1.80), save percentage (.945) and shutouts (five). He is also tied for fourth in wins with 18. Thomas has led the Bruins into first place in the Northeast division and third in the conference. The Bruins still aren’t shooting well (no one is in the top 10 in either goals or total points), but with a goalie like Thomas, they don’t exactly need to. The Bruins run their offense fairly efficiently, with two players in the top 10 in plus-minus, a measure of whether a team scores more with the player on the ice (or court in basketball) or not. Right winger Nathan Horton and defenseman Andrew Ference are tied at seventh in the NHL with a 16 plus-minus differential. The team may need to generate more offense down the stretch to prevent a Thomas collapse similar to Rask’s, but as of now the Bruins are at least a lock for the playoffs. Bruins fans are getting desperate for a Stanley Cup, and this might not be the team to do it. But at least they seem back on track after last year’s disaster.
Celtics: 50-32 (first in Atlantic division; fourth in conference), lost in NBA Finals. The Celtics proved last year that you can essentially check-out mentally on the regular season, and it pretty much doesn’t matter. Despite a strong start, the Celtics played .500 basketball over the final two-thirds of the season, favoring rest and relaxed usage of its veteran (old) stars over wins. This led to numerous late-game comebacks by other teams, as the Celtics bench could not hold leads and Doc Rivers did not play his starters long enough to extend them. But apparently, none of that really matters, because the Celtics played fantastic basketball in the 2010 playoffs. They handled the Heat with ease, out-shot the Cavaliers and out-muscled the Magic. Then they got to the NBA Finals against the Lakers and basically ran out of steam. They lost for the same reasons they lost all their other games: they couldn’t rebound, they couldn’t stop fouling and they couldn’t hold a lead. It was the same story all over again. Most Celtics fans were heartbroken over this loss, but the reality is that the Lakers were the better team, and usually in basketball the better team wins. The Lakers had an A-plus player in Kobe Bryant and an A-level player in Pau Gasol. Kevin Garnett still hadn’t recovered from his knee injury, Ray Allen’s shooting went cold after setting a record for three-pointers in Game Two, and an old team finally showed its age against a younger Lakers squad. The Celtics played as hard as they could, and the Lakers just played a little better. If you want to feel bad about that, go right ahead. But the Celtics didn’t lose that series so much as the Lakers won it.
The 2010-2011 Celtics have shown some traits that last year’s squad never did. The addition of Shaquille O’Neal has given them an offensive presence under the basket, one who can use his bulk to back down opposing centers and score easy layups or dunks. O’Neal is also a better rebounder than Kendrick Perkins is and, with the return of a fully healthy Garnett (before his calf strain), the Celtics now have a far better rebounding presence in their starting rotation. This team currently leads both the Atlantic division and the Eastern Conference, despite losing both Rajon Rondo and Garnett to injury (not to mention approximately 60 different centers, forcing the Celtics to start Semih “the Ottoman Emperor” Erden). Rondo is now back, and he’s quickly resumed his role as the best passing point guard in the universe. When Garnett comes back in about 10 days, the Celtics will be back to full strength. They haven’t shown a tendency to blow late-game leads this season, and they look like they’ll finish the regular season with a better record than last season. This will mean an easier path to the NBA Finals this year and, until the Lakers or Spurs prove otherwise, this Celtics squad looks like it can beat anyone in a best-of-seven.
Patriots: Lost in Wild Card game on January 10; 14-2 (first in AFC East, first in AFC) in 2010 regular season. 2010 began with the Patriots getting demolished at home by the Baltimore Ravens in their only playoff game. But the end of that season also marked the beginning of the end of the three-year offensive experiment that began with Randy Moss’ signing in 2007 and ended with his getting traded to Minnesota after Week Four of the 2010 season. The experiment was whether Tom Brady could run a “featured receiver” offense, a more typical offensive package that utilized one consistent deep threat, with the rest of the wide receivers doing their damage in the now-open middle of the field, since safeties would have to double-cover the deep threat. It worked in 2007, with the Patriots going 16-0 in the regular season and breaking essentially every passing and scoring record in the game, and Brady’s injury in 2008 threw that season away (though Matt Cassell and Moss played alright together). But by 2009, defenses had figured out how to stop Moss, and the offense stagnated. The defense, meanwhile, continued to age. In the 2010 playoff game, the defense could not stop Ray Rice or Joe Flacco, and the season ended in ignominy.
But the 2010 Patriots have turned all of that around. Since Moss’ trade, the Patriots have clicked in ways never before seen in Foxborough. Yes, they lack a “deep threat,” since Brandon Tate is still maturing into a starting wide receiver. But Wes Welker, injured in Week 17 last season and unavailable for the playoff loss to Baltimore, looks like he has lost none of his quickness and agility in the middle of the field. The Patriots also have two rookie tight ends- Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski- that are the best tight end duo in the Brady era. Gronkowski has been especially impressive. He can out-jump linebackers in the middle of the field, then use his strength to turn catches into catch-and-runs, usually dragging tacklers for several more yards before going down. This offense has been as smooth as it’s ever been.
The defense, meanwhile, was maligned for its youth and inexperience at the beginning of the season. Most analysts wrote this team off as in a “rebuilding year.” But what’s been rebuilt this year has been the dominant Patriots of the first half of the previous decade. The defense allows a lot of yards, but they don’t allow a lot of points. Vince Wilfork has had a Pro Bowl season, as has Jerod Mayo (NFL’s leading tackler) and rookie Devin McCourty, who has morphed from a pass-interfering defensive liability to one of the best corners in the game. He has the speed to stay with his man and the timing to turn and play the ball. The Patriots have the best turnover differential in the NFL at plus-27, which makes it very, very hard to beat them. Opposing teams might rack up yards, but New England’s propensity for causing turnovers makes it hard to score enough points to beat the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. They finished this season with the best record in the NFL, and they look poised to go to Dallas in February and come home with their fourth Vince Lombardi trophy.
Red Sox: 89-73 (third in AL East), did not make playoffs. The Boston Red Sox looked like they were finally finding their groove by late-June, leading the wild card race and chasing down the Yankees for the division. Then they went to San Francisco, and they never came back. Their 2-1 series victory came at a price, losing several key players to injury, and several more over the coming month. They played just .500 baseball after that, fell apart after the All-Star break and did not make the playoffs. Red Sox fans lost interest, and ratings tumbled. John Lackey did not have the debut season fans had hoped for, Jonathan Papelbon had the worst season of his young career, and Jacoby Ellsbury never recovered from broken ribs, crippling the speed of the offense. The lone bright spots were team-MVP Adrian Beltre, the emergences of Daniel Bard as an elite reliever (and possibly future closer) and Clay Buchholz as a bona fide ace, and Daniel Nava’s grand slam on the first pitch of his major league career. That was it, but Red Sox management responded when the season was over. Since October, the Red Sox have addressed every hole in their team. They traded for Adrian Gonzalez (Kevin Youkilis will move to third) and overpaid Carl Crawford to the point that he had to come to Boston. The lineup is now stacked (except at catcher). The starting rotation will be stronger too, as Lackey will look to have a bounce-back season, and Beckett will be pitching in an odd-numbered year, when he’s always better. The bullpen has been stocked with proven veteran relievers, such as Tampa Bay’s Dan Wheeler, and Terry Francona will have no qualms about moving Bard to closer if Papelbon struggles again. It took the team six months to alienate the fans. It took two months to bring them back.
2010 may not have been the best season in Boston’s history, but perhaps we can see it as a stepping stone, a learning experience. Every team realized what hurt it last year, and they brought in the players who could turn those weaknesses into strengths (except the Bruins, who solved their problems internally). Now these teams are poised for another run of Boston domination. Just one year after Boston went without a single championship, it’s fans could very well enjoy three in 12 months. If the Bruins can score more, maybe even a fourth. Who knows? One year from now, Goose’s Gabs may look back and say 2011 was the best year in Boston sports history. And that would be saying something.