I heard the chatter, and maybe you did, too. Some of us probably were part of the chorus singing it this weekend as we enjoyed the first thick slate of Boston sporting events since the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down and inside out in March.
“It’s good to have sports back. It’s good to have some normalcy back.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, hopeful and optimistic, and we could all use a few more doses of hope and optimism these days; I trust that’s better for the mind, body, and soul than hydroxychloroquine or assorted injectable cleaning products.
But in watching the Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox all take to their respective venues Sunday to resume/continue their unprecedentedly unusual seasons, the vibe decidedly was not “yay, normalcy!” Of the three teams’ performances, only the Celtics’ entertaining victory over the Trail Blazers resembled what we typically get from them in an uninterrupted and, yes, normal season.
The Bruins were sloppy and sluggish in their 4-1 loss to the Flyers in the first of their three round-robin games that determine seeding in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins, who compiled a league-best 100 points before the pandemic halted the season in mid-March, have a legitimate beef with the NHL’s restart plan, which requires the top four teams in each conference to battle it out for seeding.
The Bruins should have been the No. 1 seed. But since they do have to reestablish their place in the pecking order, they’d better show more fight than they did Sunday. I trust that Bruce Cassidy, who had smoke billowing out of his ears after the lethargic loss, will get it out of them.
The less we say about the Red Sox the better. The synopsis: They’re 3-7, just lost three in a row to the Yankees, and have a 5.79 staff earned-run average. Manager Ron Roenicke is hamstrung by a 16-man pitching staff that features at least eight pitchers who would be in the minor leagues if, you know, there were minor leagues this year, and yet he still manages to make very curious in-game decisions.
The Red Sox could sign three out-of-work peanut vendors to their roster tomorrow, and they’d probably be as effective as some of the actual professional pitchers they are using, and Roenicke would deploy them in bewildering ways.
The small blessings? Xander Bogaerts remains a joy to watch, everything you want in a ballplayer and leader, and Christian Vazquez is proving his offensive outburst last year was no fluke. Other than that? Well, the season is 10 games in, and it’s already 16 percent over. Nope, there’s nothing normal about this. Here’s to 2021.
That really did feel like a quintessential Celtics game Sunday, even though strange new quirks abound, from virtual video of Paul Pierce and members of players’ families appearing courtside to the RailCam that makes every player look like his NBA 2K20 self, to the still-unbalanced piped-in crowd noise that for some reason cheered for an Enes Kanter free throw as if Havlicek had just stolen the ball.
It’s all a work in progress, I suppose, but the NBA bubble, save for a stray Clipper’s brief flight to get some wings, seems to be working. (I used to think of commissioner Adam Silver as the anti-Roger Goodell, but he’s really the anti-Rob Manfred, right down to actually enjoying the sport he oversees.) And the Celtics do look just like the Celtics that we know from better days.
Sunday’s win over the Blazers was actually a microcosm of who they are. They built a 24-point lead in the first half behind some brilliant offense by Jayson Tatum, who bounced back from a dismal Bubble Opener against the Bucks with a 34-point, 8-assist performance.
Tatum occasionally will have a game where it looks like the Monstars stole all of his ability and have no intention of giving it back, but he’s also shown a remarkable knack for putting those stray lousy performances aside. He’s learning how to become a superstar, and make no mistake: He is becoming one.
Still, the Celtics don’t win that game without a spectacular performance by Tatum’s young running mate, Jaylen Brown. Brown has been in the league a year longer than Tatum, but he’s often overshadowed by his younger teammate with a more refined offensive game.
But Brown is coming to the forefront on and off the court to great effect and admiration; his hard work is evidenced in his improvement at virtually every aspect of the game, and he was downright dazzling Sunday, with 30 points, including 6-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter and a dagger 3-pointer that effectively ended the Blazers’ hopes.
With Tatum and Brown looking like they’ll be the best-case scenarios of what we hoped they’d be when Danny Ainge drafted them in successive years, and Marcus Smart remaining the heartbeat of it all, the Celtics are set up well for the future. Oh, yeah, the present looks pretty good too, with Kemba Walker looking healthy and quick while on a minutes restriction and Gordon Hayward chipping in with 22 points.
Sure, you could say that blowing the big lead was evidence of the Celtics’ brand of enjoyable if occasionally maddening normalcy. But they stuck together, worked as a team, and prevailed in the end. It’s an obvious lesson, and one that was more than welcome Sunday, or any other day, really.