- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- In the time of Bad Ben and a fallen Tiger, the antihero is as much a part of sports as the hero, and it doesn't stop with misguided and reckless players. Runaway lust for profits at the expense of the quality of the game and enjoyment for the fans, and to a certain extent steroids were offenses perpetrated both by individual team owners and the commissioners of their respective leagues. Disillusionment, in other words, comes with the territory.
But sport has always lived best in the imagination, and on Friday a perfect storm will coalesce around the city of Boston. To the west, a wobbling, transitioning Red Sox team plays the Yankees for the second series in a little over a month (7:10 p.m.). At North Station, the Celtics, old and supposedly overmatched, hold home-court advantage against the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers (Game 3, 7 p.m. on ESPN). Three-hundred miles to the south, in Philadelphia, the Bruins, listless and underscoring for six months, are a win away from the Eastern Conference finals, a place they haven't been since 1992 (Game 4, 7 p.m.).
That Friday represents a Boston sports fan's Christmas is secondary to the general surprise that there are compelling games to be played in Boston at all, at least in the postseason.
The Bruins, closest to playing for a championship, are also the city's most compelling story -- a change for a franchise that hasn't won a title since 1972, hasn't played for the Cup since 1990 and hasn't been part of the postseason championship conversation since 1992-93.
For all of the season, the Bruins maddened their fan base, appearing to choose a shopworn plan (dump, chase and hit) that has never performed well in the playoffs over players (paying Phil Kessel and accepting the notion that players who score but aren't necessarily the toughest guys still have value). The Bruins paid Milan Lucic and never compensated for the loss of Kessel's production. Tim Thomas reverted back to being a good but not great goaltender and the entire season was not only rudderless, but additionally bitter because it would not salve the wound of the previous season, when the Bruins played .700 hockey and won 53 games (their most in a season since beating the Rangers for the Cup with Orr, Espo and Bucyk in '72) only to crumble against a grittier, hungrier Carolina team in the second round.
Same old, same old.
Then suddenly came an inspiring win in Buffalo in Game 2, and another in Game 3, and another in Game 4, all against Team USA hero and the Best Goalie in the World, Buffalo's Ryan Miller. Destiny, as Rick Blaine once said, took a hand. It is the Bruins who have the series-changing goalie in Tuukka Rask instead of being eliminated by the Dryden, Parents and Roys of memory. There were inspiring come-from-behind wins and local heroes (Recchi! Satan!), and the Bruins even won a game in which the Sabres were called for too many men on the ice -- poetic justice for perhaps the lowest moment in Bruins history, the too-many-men call up a goal against Montreal back in the 1979 semis.
Even more delicious for Boston are the historical possibilities: Should the Bruins close out the Flyers (the team that tortured the Bruins during their greatest decade, the 1970s), they will face either Montreal (the team that tortured the Bruins for a century) or Pittsburgh (the team that denied the best Bruins teams in a quarter century -- the Neely-Adam Oates Bruins -- from reaching the Stanley Cup) in the Eastern Conference finals. Can't beat that.
Meanwhile, on the hardwood, the Celtics were expected to be cardboard cutouts for LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The series, however, has been anything but easy. The Cavaliers have been in existence for 43 years. They haven't won a championship and the one time they actually played for one -- against San Antonio in 2007 -- they did not win a game.
And yet it was the Cavaliers who played the first two games of this conference semifinal series as if a title were preordained, bored with the mundane chores of running an offense or stopping the opposing point guard from entering the paint. The Cavaliers are supposed to win this series handily because they have a fourth-quarter difference-maker in James and the Celtics no longer have one in Paul Pierce, at least not consistently. Cleveland plays as though it knows it can beat the Celtics when it wants, and in Game 1 did exactly that, uninspired, waiting for the Celtics to tire before engineering a decisive run for the game.
James is perhaps the greatest, most unwatchable player in the history of the NBA (dribble, dribble, dribble, barrel into the lane, then repeat while teammates watch in awe) not simply because he is inelegant but because he's just too good. He has the speed of Worthy, the power of Barkley, the ballhandling of Magic, the elevation of Jordan and more size than all of them. No one in the league can guard him; only his erratic free throw shooting, inconsistent outside shot and inexplicable lack of a low-post game keep him from being completely unstoppable.
But the Celtics, like the Bruins, seem to have found themselves just as the flowers begin to bloom. Rajon Rondo is their best player and it appears, at last, that everyone in a green uniform seems to know it. The Celtics are playing as they have not all season, as if they understand the sand may be leaving the hourglass, but it is not yet empty. Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen are playing for a last stand. It is obvious they are inspired to beat Cleveland to augment their obvious dislike of the Cavaliers with a fine upset. Boston, conserving energy and playing with purpose, looks mature and weathered, Spurs-style, while the Cavaliers don't seem yet aware that they can actually lose this series, which if they play as they have is precisely what could very well happen.
Meanwhile, in an odd turn, the Red Sox and Yankees provide the least amount of drama. The Yankees took two from the Red Sox in their season-opening series and have proceeded to steamroll the competition while the Red Sox struggle to find .500. The Red Sox walk on eggshells these days, unsure of their stamina and unfortified by results. Nevertheless, this is a $170 million team -- nothing to easily dismiss.
At a low murmur, a growing feeling exists that it is time for baseball to abandon the imbalanced schedule the leagues returned to in 2001, at least in part to escape from 19 Red Sox-Yankees conflicts. The Rays would certainly welcome the balanced schedule, where teams play four intradivisional series instead of six. The Superpowers, so goes the feeling, was the greatest drama in sports from 2003 to 2007, but may have finally run its course.
These two teams live within their own bubble, and suddenly it is not a compliment. Last year, the average time of an American League game was 2 hours, 55 minutes. But the average time of a Red Sox-Yankees game was 3 hours, 41 minutes. Far from compelling, these two teams engage in what can only be called a pitch-taking contest, wearing each other -- and the paying customers -- down into a beaten mass.
Still, the Red Sox, somewhat resurgent against bad and struggling teams, have not yet had a positive result against a team that is playing well. The Yankees, perhaps finally wearing down themselves -- Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are all injured and Curtis Granderson is on the disabled list -- will provide another test. The Yankees and Rays are the standard and the Red Sox will not contend this summer unless they can compete with both, head-to-head.
The sports pages are never clean these days. David Ortiz talked in the dugout Thursday about his troubles at the plate, but couldn't help but interrupt himself, shaking his head in bewilderment about Lawrence Taylor being arrested for the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl. But, on the field, there is rejuvenation, and for this city, for at least one day, the most compelling stories will take place on the field, on the court and on the ice.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
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