BOSTON — It wasn’t all that long ago that the Boston sports landscape looked a little bleak.
That is, of course, a relative term in this city. But with the Red Sox having blown their opportunity in the ALCS, with the Patriots licking their wounds after an embarrassing playoff loss to a divisional opponent on the rise, with the Bruins looking to be several rungs shy of contention, and with the Celtics sitting below .500, there weren’t too many people in the region who were overcome with championship fever.
Yet here we are, some four months later, settling in to watch the Celtics take on Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
It serves as the latest reminder that even when things are “bad” in Boston, the turnaround never seems to be far away.
In the four major sports, the Celtics’ final appearance will be the 19th Boston sports team playing in a championship series/game since the Patriots ushered in a new way of life in February 2002. They’ve won those championships 12 times, with the Patriots (six) and Red Sox (four) doing the heavy lifting in that regard.
Dating back to the 2001 season, Boston sports fans have not had to wait more than two years without seeing at least one of their teams playing with a championship on the line. In fact, the two-year wait had only happened once before — in 2005-06 — prior to the painful, interminable wait between the 2019 Bruins’ Stanley Cup Final run and the 2022 Celtics’ NBA Finals trip.
It’s been an unfathomable run in this city. For anyone over the age of, say, 30, it’s still an unfathomable run. Yet it goes on.
This one in particular is a bit stunning. The Celtics were 23-24 on Jan. 21, following a home loss to the Trail Blazers. They had gone 5-5 in their previous 10 games, 10-10 in their previous 20 games, 14-16 over their previous 30 games. They were the picture of underperforming, underwhelming, uninspiring mediocrity. People fairly wondered whether the shifting of Brad Stevens to the front office and the hiring of Ime Udoka were the right moves. Marcus Smart called out his star teammates. Real debates broke out regarding the potential to trade away one of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown — not because they aren’t great players, but because things were clearly not working with the mix that existed in Boston.
But then … everything just sort of clicked together. The Celtics went 28-7 to end the regular season. Smart became the Defensive Player of the Year. Dennis Schroder, Enes Freedom and Josh Richardson were sent out. Derrick White and Daniel Theis were brought in. A defensive identity was established. Pride — real, actual pride — became evident.
Still, questions lingered. Those blown leads from the regular season were hard to forget, so when the playoffs kicked off with a series against the Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant-led Brooklyn Nets, it was fair to wonder how the Celtics would measure up to the team that eliminated them with ease a year ago. The Celtics went out and swept that series. Then they beat the defending champs and the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Then they won the conference finals against the top-seeded Miami Heat, albeit only after making it harder on themselves by needing to win Game 7 on the road.
Yet in the perfect picture of what this Celtics team has come to represent, they never trailed for a single second in that game, in that environment, with those stakes.
It could — and probably should — provide a reminder that even when the local outlook is “dark,” folks probably shouldn’t despair. The Red Sox almost made that clear last October, when they rebounded from a painfully wasted season in 2020 and found themselves six outs away from taking a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS. They let that one slip away, but they still showed (for the third time in a decade) that a bounce back from a last-place finish was well within the realm of possibility. Perhaps the sketchy outlooks for the Bruins and Patriots can be rectified faster than we might be able to imagine. At the very least, that can be the lesson learned from observing the 2022 Celtics.
Of course, as Udoka said himself, the city of Boston doesn’t care about Eastern Conference titles. The city of Boston cares about championships. There’s work to be done in that regard in the coming weeks.
For now, though, we ought to at least recognize that even when things are “bad” around here, they’re never far away from getting very good, very quickly.
You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.
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