Never would have figured before their parallel seasons — or even halfway through them, really — that the Bruins rather than the Celtics would be the Boston winter sports team with the better chance of winning a championship this year.
But here we are, 63 games into the Bruins season and 62 into the Celtics, and all trends indicate that it’s the unified fellas on skates who have the better chance of getting those duck boat engines revving again come June.
It wasn’t expected to be this way, of course. Sure, the Bruins were supposed to be good, a surefire playoff team, one that ought to win a round or maybe two, with good play and good fortune.
But it was the Celtics who carried what seemed to be genuine championship aspirations, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from injury to join a roster featuring both precocious and veteran talent. In preseason, even players from the champion Warriors acknowledged that they thought the Celtics were the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.
But for some bewildering reason — actually, that’s reasons, plural, a jumble of variables that Brad Stevens has not yet been able to solve — the Celtics looked far better on paper than they have on the parquet. They split their first 20 games (fine, we all knew it would take time for Irving and especially Hayward to reacclimate with teammates who had succeeded without them), and they have never truly melded into a team since.
They’ve had encouraging stretches where it seemed it was happening, such as winning 10 of 11 before the All-Star break, with the loss coming to those Warriors. But it never turned into anything bigger.
Instead, at a point in the season when they were supposed to be delivering harsh clues to the league that they were a serious championship contender, they’ve played their worst and most dispiriting basketball of all, having lost all four of their games since the break, and six of eight overall.
They have 20 games left and no major injuries to speak of (valuable Aron Baynes will be back soon), and yet there is no reason to believe in anything about them other than their specific individual abilities, which add up to a heck of a lot less than they should.
The most interesting thing about them lately is not their performance on the court, but waiting to see how the players will contradict each other during the postgame autopsy of the latest embarrassing loss.
Believe in this team? Go ahead, if you still have it in you. But here’s what I believe:
■ Stevens made a major mistake in starting Hayward early in the season, because he clearly wasn’t ready and it put a “coach’s pet’’ onus on him with the younger players who had to sacrifice time and shots;
■ Irving is a truly brilliant player who is deliberately obtuse and whose detrimental passive-aggressiveness is surpassed only by LeBron James among contemporaries (man, did they ever deserve each other);
■ Marcus Morris is cool so long as he gets his shots;
■ and only Marcus Smart gives it his all every single night, and sometimes even his all is misguided.
If Stevens repairs this and they make a deep playoff run, it will be his greatest coaching achievement since making Jordan Crawford look useful enough that they were actually able to trade him.
Here on the edge of March, it’s the Bruins who are playing like the Celtics used to, with selflessness and joy that both comes with success and leads to more.
I don’t want to underestimate their talent, because they have a lot:
■ Patrice Bergeron remains one of the league’s premier all-around players (he finished third behind Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid in a recent The Athletic poll of NHL players)
■ David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand are extraordinary;
■ Zdeno Chara is a marvel at 41 years old (I hope the “Thanos’’ nickname sticks);
■ Charlie McAvoy is flashing his superb skills more and more now that he’s healthy;
■ Tuukka Rask remains the most underappreciated goalie in franchise history;
■ Jake DeBrusk has 20 goals riding along with David Krejci, who has 40 assists;
. . . yeah, there is a lot here.
Unlike their fellow Garden dwellers, the Bruins are getting the most of their talent, and they’re getting it at the right time of the season. Their 4-1 win over the Sharks Tuesday night was their eighth win in nine games, and the 14th game in a row in which they’ve collected at least 1 point.
Only the mighty Lightning have more points (102) in the Eastern Conference than the Bruins (83). Thursday night’s meeting between the teams will go a long way toward revealing how close the Bruins are to being a true Stanley Cup contender this year.
Tampa Bay is the only team in the league hotter than the Bruins, having won 10 straight. I’m not betting against the Black-and-Gold legitimately confirming their contender status with a win, though. They’re so unified right now that they can bring in a player at the trading deadline (Marcus Johansson from the Devils) who was once viciously cheap-shotted by Marchand, fences are quickly mended, and he fits in immediately. Now that’s chemistry and a winning culture.
I’d suggest the Celtics try something similar with that open roster spot, but right now it seems like the only people who have enemies in their locker room are those already in it.