Kaufman: Celtics, Bruins Ready To Spring Into Action

BOSTON (CBS) — This is how it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?

Sure, we’re greedy around here – those 10 championships in 14 appearances among Boston’s big four since the calendar turned to 2002 – but the last few springs just haven’t felt the same.

Two straight years absent a postseason for the Bruins after consecutive late-season collapses under Claude Julien. Brad Stevens guided his Celtics to the playoffs each of those years, but his teams didn’t have enough talent to make any reasonable noise.

It’s different now. There’s an expectation for basketball in May, maybe even June, and another month-plus of hockey certainly isn’t out of the question with the way Bruce Cassidy’s bunch has played since he was named interim head coach.

It would mark the first time since 2012 both the C’s and B’s entered their respective postseasons with hope for a lengthy run, though those groups from five springs ago had more realistic title aspirations.

The Doc Rivers-led, division-winning Celts went 39-27 during a lockout-shortened campaign and still had their aging but productive Big Three on the roster. LeBron James’ Heat ended the championship chase in the East finals in a wild seven-game series that Boston led 3-2 before double-digit losses in Games 6 and 7. After getting knocked out by the Green the previous two years, James quieted his critics by earning his first of three rings to date.

The C’s TD Garden roommates enjoyed a division-winning year as well with a 49-29-4 record and 102 points, Julien’s fourth-most productive regular season team. But, a year after winning their first Stanley Cup since 1972 and a year ahead of a return to the Cup final, the playoffs proved a dud. The second-seed defending-champs were upset in round one by Braden Holtby’s seventh-seeded Capitals in another series that went the distance. All seven games were decided by one goal and four went to overtime, including the clincher.

With Tuesday’s shutout of the Lightning, the B’s ended their brief albeit long-feeling drought and inevitably saved some jobs on Causeway Street. Cassidy likely even ensured he’ll get to keep his for years to come.

While there was a four-game hiccup that sent waves of panic through the masses two weeks ago, Boston’s responded with six straight wins to take the club into its final two games of the regular season. As part of an 18-7 run since Cassidy took the reins, it’s a far cry from how the Black and Gold finished the last two years.

After five consecutive wins in early March 2015, Julien’s B’s went 5-5-4 the rest of the way, including an 0-2-1 skid the last three games to miss the postseason. Last year, the Bruins opened March 5-0-2, then fell apart with a 2-8-1 finish, capped by losses in three of four to again fall short.

Boston’s winning streak is its longest since 2014. They’re averaging 3.3 goals while surrendering just six total with goalies Tuukka Rask and back-up Anton Khudobin playing as well as they have all season. The penalty kill has silenced all but one of 20 chances, and the power play’s clicking at an impressive 26.7 percent rate.

In 25 games under Cassidy overall, the B’s have the NHL’s most wins (18), goals (89), fifth-fewest goals against (58), fourth-best man-advantage (27.5%), and 10th-ranked kill (83.8%). They’ve played, at most, three or four really bad games.

There are a number of ways to put this, but here’s a simple one: The Bruins are hot. Scorching hot, and at just the right time.

Brad Marchand’s averaging better than a point a game and he’s been just as consistent all year. David Pastrnak, fresh off a two-goal performance, has 15 goals and 29 assists his last 40 games. David Krejci has seven goals and four assists his last 14. Patrice Bergeron has 17 points and 27 assists his last 46. Those are just a few of the reliable point-producers.

Rask’s won his last four decisions (he has a career-high 37 wins) with two shutouts, three goals against, and a .972 save percentage, while Khudobin’s won all six of his starts since a banishment to the minors. He has a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percent his last seven appearances.

Hockey’s unlike basketball, as most know. In the NBA, it’s virtually impossible to hoist a Larry O’Brien trophy without a collection of stars and it’s been that way for decades. The 2004 Pistons were the exception to the rule when they upset Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers in five. In the NHL, there’s more parity and a productive line or hot goaltender can make all the difference.

The 2012 Stanley Cup final featured the Devils and Kings, sixth and eighth seeds, respectively. Los Angeles won. In 2010, the seven-seed Flyers upset the Bruins in the conference semis en route to the Cup final. Eleven years ago, the eighth-seeded Oilers forced the Hurricanes to seven games in the championship round.

You get the point.

On the hardwood, the Celtics are still in the running for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but a wake-up call sounded blaring alarms Wednesday in a 23-point blowout loss to the Cavaliers. The game didn’t feel nearly that close, either. The C’s were at full-strength – though Avery Bradley was returning from a two-game illness-forced absence, and Jae Crowder’s elbow isn’t 100 percent – and the Cavs were missing arguably their most talented rebounder in Tristan Thompson. Still, Boston was embarrassed in virtually every way imaginable.

The Celts’ effort and energy was inconsistent, the bench was horrendous, the Cavs had a plus-13 advantage on the glass, and Cleveland reminded everyone in this fan base and elsewhere why James has reached six straight NBA finals.

Big picture, though, Boston has enough talent and heart to force another matchup with Cleveland in the conference finals. Even without the presence of a true superstar on the roster, All-Star Isaiah Thomas and well-paid addition Al Horford have the ability to lead the 50-win and perhaps eventual top-seed Green through two competitive rounds.

No matter who the C’s face in the opening round – whether it’s the Bulls, Heat, Pacers, Hawks, or even the Bucks – getting beyond that point for the first time since that 2012 spring remains the baseline expectation for progress. With as many as 54 wins by season’s end, anything less than a place among the league’s final four would be disappointing. Fortunately, that sentiment doesn’t just belong to fans and media. Players in that locker room have indicated as much all year.

The Celtics are an imperfect bunch and consistent balance has been problematic. In 21 games since the All-Star break, the team has followed Thomas’s lead. Boston’s offensive rating is 24.6 points per 100 possessions better with the guard on the floor than when he’s not and, while the defensive rating is 6.8 points worse with the vertically-challenged star, the advantage is clear. Against Cleveland, the team’s offensive rating without Thomas was 69.1. Woof. For the C’s to have any success in the playoffs, that will have to be rectified. Thomas can’t play 48 minutes a game. His teammates, namely Horford, Bradley, or Crowder, will have to sustain and build leads without him.

It’s important to remember the Celtics have won nine of their last dozen and they’re about as healthy as any group could hope to be with the playoffs approaching. They’ll have home-court to begin the playoffs and maybe as long as the first three rounds. At 31-8, they have the second-best home record in the entire NBA behind only the championship-favorite Warriors (34-4). Their defensive rating (103.9) since Jan. 25 ranks sixth in the league and they’ve been top-10 in rebounding since the start of March.

And, most of all, the Celts have an ever-growing chip on their collective shoulder that relishes being the underdog. All of their key players have played in the postseason. Horford’s reached the semifinals. There’s a knowledge of what to expect now.

If expectations and reality intersect this spring for both the Celtics and Bruins, along with a promising start to the Red Sox season and the busier than ever Patriots ruling the NFL offseason, we should be in for some fun between now and June.

Adam Kaufman, a native of Massachusetts, works for WBZ NewsRadio 1030 and 98.5 The Sports Hub and has worked as a television and radio anchor and broadcaster for various outlets since 2004. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMKaufman.

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