As the Red Sox limped toward the end of a last-place baseball season, New England’s hopeful eyes turned to the Patriots. But as the Patriots stumbled to a 1-3 start, hope was forced to look for another new home. It landed at TD Garden, where the Bruins and Celtics boasted rosters brimming with talent, and the promise of winter success beckoned.
One look at the NHL and NBA standings confirms that hope was well-deserved, with the Bruins and Celtics in possession of the best record in their respective leagues. The Bruins improved to 17-2 with a win Monday night in Tampa Bay, and their 11-0 record at TD Garden represents the best home start in franchise history. The Celtics weren’t as lucky Monday night in Chicago, losing to the Bulls, but at 13-4 overall and 6-1 at home, they also are riding high. The Hub is hosting the best sports party in town.
Yet the numbers don’t tell the full story of what the Bruins and Celtics are accomplishing. What each group has done in the face of unexpected coaching changes, inexplicable front office gaffes, and various other distractions is a testament to the power of strong locker room leadership, to the unique effect of good team chemistry, and really, to the enduring power of sports to upend any predicted narrative with stories all its own.
As Celtics star Jayson Tatum put it earlier this season, back when the Celtics were 2-0, “Everybody’s of the same mind-set of do whatever it takes to win, do what’s best for the team. Once you do that and everybody has that same mind-set, everybody will shine individually anyway. That’s just how it happens. Obviously, you need talent. But a group of great guys, that’s the formula for success.”
So let’s start with the Celtics. It’s almost hard to remember how much uncertainty and confusion surrounded the start of training camp, when a shocking season-long suspension of coach Ime Udoka, announced just before the team convened to begin practicing, shattered the illusion of franchise stability.
Udoka was set to begin his second year on the bench after a debut season that took the Celtics within two games of an NBA title, but he was sidelined by Celtics management reportedly for being involved in an inappropriate office relationship with a subordinate. In a whiplash-inducing series of moves, Udoka was out, little-known assistant Joe Mazzulla was in, and players were left answering questions about a situation they knew little about.
One by one, Celtics players sat behind a microphone on media day, and there was really no other topic than how they would overcome all the distraction and change. The words of veteran Al Horford tell a lot about how they’ve done it.
“I think it takes honesty,” he said. “We all have to be honest about where we are and where we want to go. It’s definitely a time of adjustment and a time of change right now. That happens in the league, but I think it breeds a collectiveness moving forward. Having Joe as a head coach now, he’s going to have to rely on us and we’re going to have to do the same.
“We have a lot of guys who understand how we need to come together and move in the right direction. It’s just important for us to have the right mind-set. We understand the opportunity we have in front of us. This is a special group. A really good group with a lot of high expectations still, and it’s about embracing that and moving on.”
The Celtics have done that, with Mazzulla holding a steady yet un-smothering hand, allowing his players to play their way out of tough situations while showing deep faith in a bench that is proving it can support Tatum, Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart et al.
The Bruins also are deep, going four lines strong as they continue to burn through the early part of their schedule. Unexpected change came for them as well in the form of first-year coach Jim Montgomery, but that transition was handled on a more traditional timeline in the offseason. Shocking, yes, for the way the front office bailed on Bruce Cassidy and his record of taking the team to the playoffs every year at the helm and getting them all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, but smooth in the way Montgomery’s lighter hand has allowed players to flourish.
The same cannot be said for the still-inexplicable decision to sign troubled junior player Mitchell Miller, a move that preceded the last game the Bruins lost, back on Nov. 5, when the conversation made a sharp and ugly turn from on-ice success to off-ice controversy.
Once again, players were left facing questions about something they did not control, but in their responses, in their collective pushback in the face of adding a player with a history of racist and bullying behavior toward a developmentally disabled former classmate, they seemed to strengthen an already growing team bond.
Not surprisingly, it was team captain Patrice Bergeron, whose 1,000-career-point achievement was the cause for celebration Monday in Florida, who made sure the locker room was heard. But just as importantly, he was the one to make sure the anger and confusion didn’t linger, evidenced by the team’s play since then.
“At the end of the day, we obviously had to deal with it, and in a way it was [a distraction] for a few days, but now I think we can refocus to the important matters of playing a game,” Bergeron said in the aftermath of the front office’s self-inflicted black eye, one that has since spawned the commission of an outside investigation.
“I think it was important to take the time [to talk about it], I’m not downplaying anything, but at the same time now I feel like we can turn the page and kind of move on.”
The results speak to the way both teams continue to move forward, to the way players can find escape in the games they love, to the way strong leadership and good chemistry can keep a team afloat. With so many examples of the opposite — from chicken and beer in Boston or a quarterback in New York who can’t even take responsibility for his putrid offense — the TD Garden teams are proving their poise.