Saturday, February 28, 2015

How are the Bruins and Celtics in the Same Boat?

The absence of David Krejci likely won't help the Bruins' 23rd ranked offense or 22nd ranked power play, but the recent addition of diminutive Isaiah Thomas has helped the Celtics close out a pair of key games late.
 By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Before the start of the NHL and NBA seasons, experts predicted the Boston Bruins to be championship contenders and the Boston Celtics to be a doormat. About 70% of the way through, their seasons have played out more similarly than anyone expected.

The Bruins are clinging to the final Eastern Conference wild card spot while the Celtics find themselves just percentage points behind the Pacers in what is practically a tie for the final playoff spot in their Eastern Conference. Additionally, the Celtics actually have more room to climb the standings than the Bruins. They are just 1.5 games behind the 7th-seeded Miami Heat, while the Bruins are 7 points (or the equivalent of 3.5 games) behind the next highest team in the standings, the Washington Capitals.

How did this happen?

First of all, the NBA’s Eastern Conference is miserable. 9 of the 15 teams in the conference are 25-32 or worse. At 23-33, the undersized Celtics aren’t a great team, but they have managed to scrap out some wins and stay relevant after trading star point guard Rajon Rondo and leading scorer Jeff Green. Finally adjusting to new personnel, they are playing as well now as they have all year.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have struggled with adversity this year. They lost captain Zdeno Chara for 19 games, mostly because of a torn ligament in his knee. One of their most productive forwards, David Krejci, is on long-term injured reserve with a partially torn MCL. Players haven’t stepped up to fill the voids.

The Bruins only rank 13th in goals allowed this year after being consistently elite in that category since 2008. They rank 23rd in goals scored, and their leading goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, each have 17 goals. 71 other players in the league have scored 17 goals or more.

Celtics Outlook

Once Rondo and Green departed, Jared Sullinger took over as the Celtics’ leading scorer, averaging a whopping 14.4 points per game. Sullinger will miss the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his foot, so now the Celtics will turn to recent acquisition Isaiah Thomas, a 5’9” point guard. Thomas has averaged 22.3 points per game since joining the Celtics. He provides a spark that gives the Celtics a chance to compete going forward.

The Celtics are one of five teams within one game of 8th place in the East. No. 8 Indiana simply hopes to tread water until two-time All-Star Paul George returns from a horrific leg injury, which will give the Pacers a significant advantage over the other teams in the race. He should return by mid-March for the final month of the season. The Celtics are 10th while No. 9 Charlotte, No. 11 Brooklyn, and No. 12 Detroit will try to muster all they can with their comparably lackluster rosters.

The Celtics will be underdogs to reach the postseason, but it is a testament to Brad Stevens’ coaching that they are even in playoff position. If they can build on their current winning streak to gain ground on the Pacers over the next few weeks, they will have a realistic chance, even with a winning percentage hovering in the low 40s.

Bruins Outlook

The Bruins have a slightly better chance to reach the playoffs than the Celtics. They already hold a playoff spot, and they simply have a more talented team. But the Florida Panthers are only four points behind the Bruins, and they recently acquired future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr for the playoff push. The Philadelphia Flyers and surging Ottawa Senators are also in contention for a spot, but the Bruins are in the driver’s seat. A statement 6-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks last weekend showed that the Bruins are still capable of championship-caliber hockey.

Chances in the Playoffs

So the Bruins and Celtics have fairly similar chances to qualify for the playoffs. But if they do qualify by the skin of their teeth, will they have a chance? For the Celtics, the answer is probably no. They did beat the No. 1 Atlanta Hawks earlier this month, but sustaining that level over the course of a series would be a tall order. They could have opportunities to beat No. 2 Toronto, but by the end of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers will probably surpass the struggling Raptors. If Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk can outduel LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, that might be the biggest upset in NBA history.

The Bruins won’t need a gigantic upset to make a playoff run. If David Krejci returns to full health by the end of the regular season, the Bruins will be legitimate contenders regardless of their seeding. They will likely stay right where they are in the standings and face the top seed in the first round. But there is a logjam at the top of the conference with a number of talented, but beatable, teams vying for the No. 1 seed. Upsets have also been historically more common in the NHL than the NBA.

Anything can happen come playoff time, so the Bruins just want to get there. The Celtics just want to get there too, even though there’s a limit to what can happen with them. It will still be fun watching the scrappy Celtics make a push, and hopefully watching the Bruins return to top form.

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