In high school, my English teachers used to rant that students didn’t understand the element of irony. We were barred from highlighting it in our essays and the adults cringed when they heard us use it incorrectly.
After following the 2014-15 Celtics and Bruins seasons, I now clearly understand an ironic turn of events. You almost have to laugh when you see how it’s all turned out, whether it’s a mocking guffaw (for Boston haters) or sheepish acknowledgement (for Boston fans).
It started in October, when both seasons were set to commence.
The Celtics came in with very low expectations. They were ranked 27th in ESPN’s preseason power rankings, ahead of only Utah, Orlando and Philadelphia. Brad Stevens’s group seemed like a sure lottery team, and the boys in green were expected to tank for Duke center Jahlil Okafor or (at the time) international point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. After all, the roster is mainly filled with role players
Yep, it looked like hockey was the only thing to look forward to for Massachusettsans over the winter- but that wasn’t going to be a bad thing. After all, the Boston Bruins were defending President’s Trophy winners, fifth in ESPN’s preseason power rankings and the top-ranked East team. “Keep them away from the Habs, and the Bruins should be back to the Cup finals once again,” wrote Scott Burnside. The loss of Jarome Iginla was not seen as a demoralizing one because every other major offensive player was back from last year, when the Bruins had the third-best scoring unit in the league.
As the calendar flipped to 2015, it was easy to see that things were not going according to plan in Beantown. At 11-18, the Celtics were nothing special, but they found themselves in ninth place in the weak Eastern Conference, a game behind Miami for the final playoff spot. The main debate among fans was if Stevens was too good of a coach, helping the team thrive when they should have been focused on losing for the lottery.
The Bruins were shockingly in ninth place on New Year’s Day as well, with a record of 19-15-4. The once-potent offense was struggling mightily, with 101 goals; eight teams had scored more. Zdeno Chara was out from Oct. 23 to Dec. 11 with a knee injury, Torey Krug missed time with a broken finger and Adam McQuaid missed over a month with a broken thumb. The mediocrity was something no one was used to in the Claude Julien era, where scoring was usually plentiful and the team was a near-certainty to make the postseason every year.
At the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 19, the Celtics were in tenth, a game and a half behind of Miami for the eighth spot. Boston General Manager Danny Ainge had a decision to make: be a buyer and try to make the playoffs or be a seller and accept a lottery spot. On one hand, a fire sale would have been understandable considering that the talent level of the team didn’t exactly scream “Larry O’Brien Trophy.” On the other hand, Bostonians live for Celtics playoff games at the Garden. Once a wild deadline day progressed, however, it looked like Ainge and company weren’t going to be able to find any deal to take part in. At 3:00, the news came when Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Suns had traded Isaiah Thomas to Boston for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick.
The Thomas trade was like a signal flare to the city: the Celtics’ days of tanking were over, and the playoff push was on.
A couple weeks later, at the NHL trade deadline, the Bruins were sitting in the eighth spot, two points ahead of the Florida Panthers. The scoring was still not there, as they were now 11th in the conference in goals for. Peter Chiarelli and the front office needed to make some moves at the deadline, and they did, but there were no groundbreaking trades. A 31-year-old Maxime Talbot and prospect Paul Carey were acquired from the Colorado Avalanche, while prospect Zack Phillips was acquired from the Minnesota Wild. It was a fairly underwhelming deadline day, with the black and gold standing pat for the most part.
Every Boston sports fan knows the results by now: the Celtics made the playoffs and the Bruins didn’t.
The C’s have gone 19-11 since the trade for Thomas, who has averaged 19.5 points and 5.4 assists a game since the swap. The Bruins went 10-5-5 after deadline day, including three straight losses to eliminate them from postseason contention. GM Peter Chiarelli was fired this morning.
If you can find a more ironic role reversal than the one the Celtics and Bruins treated their city to this season, let’s hear it. When a lottery team becomes a playoff team (even in one of the weakest conferences in sports history) and a Cup contender is sent packing in April, it has thousands of fans scratching their heads. The parquet floor will be out in the Garden next week, not a sheet of ice. Bostonians will watch Thomas and Marcus Smart battle Kyrie, LeBron and the Cavs rather than seeing Patrice Bergeron take shots on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Sports works in funny ways sometimes.