I can’t recall the exact year -- sometime in the mid-to-late ‘80s, for sure -- but it was an early May Friday evening at Fenway Park. Sitting with my Dad in grandstand seats along the first base line, the Sox were losing, the crowd was growing impatient, and the Jumbotron had yet to update the fans with some of the more important scores on the evening.
Around the fifth inning, a few fans gathered their belongings and made their way down the concrete steps to the displeasure of the remaining seated fans, who hooted them on their way out.
“I’m going to watch the Celtics,” one of them reasoned. “I’ve got all summer for this.”
Upon processing this, the crowd did a 180, and cheered the man leaving early to chants of “Let’s go Celtics!”. A few more followed, and soon enough, my Dad and I had moved up a few rows, clean clear of the obstructed view pole that our day-of-game tickets provided us. Then I think Todd Benzinger struck out.
In the coming weeks, the World Champion Red Sox will open their season to packed houses at Fenway, where an early season chill will hover over bundled up fanatics who paid premium price for seats. But for the first time in a long time, they might not be the Mother's Day, Memorial Day, or perhaps even Flag Day focus of the Boston sports fan.
April, May, and possibly June are going to belong to the Boston Celtics in these parts, an unfathomable position to have proposed 366 days ago.
It has been 20 years since the Celtics last won the Eastern Conference, a goal they inched closer to last night with a convincing 90-78 win over the Pistons, shoving Detroit five games back in the loss column and clinching a playoff spot in the process. They are the first NBA team to do so this season.
“The cliché commentary is this was just a regular-season game and didn’t have any real meaning,” writes Foxsports.com’s Mike Kahn. “But that isn’t cliché because it isn’t true. The real cliché is it was a statement game by the Celtics because that is true. It was important to clinch the playoff spot against the Pistons, their chief rival in the East. It was important to get in their face defensively and stay there -- matching the intensity of the top defensive team in the league.”
One year ago on this date, Boston watched a three-game win streak snap at the hands of the Houston Rockets, a 111-80 loss that dropped its record to 17-43, and everybody had an Oden-Durant opinion to share. Today they only have the best mark in the NBA, 47-12, and are bound for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The turnaround in fortune has been indeed well-documented, but every once in a while it’s worth to take the moment just to sit back and ask, "How the hell did this happen?" Really. How did Danny Ainge turn one of the worst records in the NBA and a No. 5 draft pick into this All-Star juggernaut? Of course we know how he did it, but really, how did he do it? Is it just so simple to thank Kevin McHale and be done with it?
Remember the people bemoaning the loss of Al Jefferson? The best that can be said for them is, let's hope Jacoby Ellsbury is not Jefferson and Johan Santana isn't Garnett.
Despite his inaccurate view of Brian Scalabrine being the “crowd favorite” and using that in a veiled racial attack on the city by reasoning “(a) this is Boston and (b) he is one of two white members on the team,” Chuck Klosterman (who also later describes the crowd’s reaction to a Scalabrine basket as one of “unreasonable delight”) tries to grasp the historic turnaround in a recent piece for New York Times’ Play Magazine:
So that, on the surface, is the entire explanation as to why the Celtics are good again: They traded away most of a bad team to get two guys, one of whom is awesome. They fused the new guys with Pierce, whose career scoring average was already 23 points per game. Now they win 80 percent of the time. It’s math. But what is one to make of the pieces that did not change? Along with Pierce, there are five other players around from last year’s train wreck: Rondo and Powe, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen. Two of these players are starters. None of them is famous. But they all share a rarefied view of what it’s like to be great and what it’s like to be terrible, often for reasons that have little to do with who they are.
They have emerged, none moreso than Rajon Rondo, to the point where a good number of fans can’t understand the need for a backup of Sam Cassell’s stature. Still, despite the success the Celtics have had since November, there hadn’t been that "moment" that proved they were the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. That came last night in a post-fireworks haze at the Garden that Mike Gorman fittingly pointed out reminded him of nights in the old place. When the smoke cleared, Garnett dominated the floor, Kendrick Perkins the boards, and Boston went home with a gold star that read “Best team in the East.”
“Yes, it's time to go ahead and make that statement,” writes ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan. “The Boston Celtics are better than the Detroit Pistons. They proved it Wednesday night in ways big and small, looking fresher, hungrier, deeper and more efficient than the team they've been measuring themselves against throughout their season of rebirth.”
Granted, from the Pistons’ point of view, they were coming off a win at home against Seattle, and had to travel to Boston in the wee hours yesterday morning, so it’s little wonder Rasheed Wallace and company may not have appeared as fresh as Paul Pierce’s crew. The Celtics win the season series, 2-1, with the added bonus of course of trying to do it again. Sometime in May, shall we say?
"It's going to be a good playoff series," Rasheed Wallace said. "That's it."
That is it. If they do meet in the Eastern Conference Finals in late May, it’s going to do more than eat into the local receipts for the new Indy flick. Every other sport in town will suddenly be secondary, including the Bruins should they be lucky enough to still be playing (and since they likely will have faced Montreal in the playoffs by then, the likelihood of that is nil and shrinking).
The Red Sox will be in a stretch in which they host the Royals, then travel to Oakland, Seattle, and Baltimore. It will be the most ignored period of Red Sox baseball since the fraud fans announced themselves at the tail end of the injury-plagued 2006 campaign. The Patriots will be wrapping up minicamp around that time. Not that anyone will notice, even in the unlikely event that Darren McFadden is in Foxborough.
It’s not as if the Celtics haven’t made the playoffs since the days of Bird, Parish, and McHale, even getting to the Eastern Conference finals a few years back. But those teams never realistically gave fans the mindset that they could get it done. In the grandest of circumstances, they might sneak into the NBA Finals in order to get smoked by someone from San Antonio or Los Angeles. Today, one year after being among the dregs of the NBA, they are arguably the best team in the league.
For the first time in a long time, they are going to absolutely own this town through June. The Sox will see you at the All-Star break.