A month to play, and the Red Sox led the Rays by nine games. The Sox couldn’t lose.
Three games to play, headed to Baltimore for a three-game set while the Rays prepared for the Yanks, still ahead by a game. The Sox couldn’t lose.
Tampa down seven runs in the season’s final game heading into the eighth inning, the Sox ahead by one run in a rain delay during the seventh. The Sox couldn’t lose.
Tampa came back, tied the game 7-7 on a home run while down to their last strike, but at least the Sox were still ahead by one, Papelbon on the mound. The Sox could lose, but it was still improbable.
Papelbon worked Baltimore to their last strike, with some Oriole named Nolan Reimold — he of the .246 batting average and warning track power — at the plate. Meanwhile, in Florida, the Rays were still tied with the Yankees in extra innings. Once again, the Sox couldn’t lose.
But they did.
Is there a Celtics equivalent to blowing a nine-game lead in the season’s final month, coughing up a one-game lead during a three-game series against the Baltimore friggin’ Orioles, giving away a ninth-inning lead in a must-win game, a pack of gutless, more-than-well-compensated players playing each game with the intensity of a grandmother knitting a yarn scarf, and meanwhile, Tampa Bay comes back from seven runs down and wins on a walkoff home run in the twelfth?
Probably not, mostly because eight teams make the playoffs in the NBA, but let me try. For the purposes of this exercise, I am throwing out all limitations, such as a salary cap or even common sense.
The Celtics spend the offseason bulking up their roster with big names. They sign Jeff Green (let’s call him Carl Crawford) and Dwight Howard (let’s call him Adrian Gonzalez), entering the season with a Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Howard-Green top six that everyone instantly hails “the best lineup ever.”
And then the Celtics start the season 1-7. Jeff “Carl Crawford” Green struggles in his new role and WEEI callers compare him to The Tin Man from Wizard of Oz — no heart. Howard is dominant as usual, at least defensively, but the mainstays — the Fantastic Four — struggle to regain their past magic. It’s as if they’re getting old or something. Everyone begins to jump off the bandwagon… just in time for the Celtics to start playing like the best team in basketball.
For the next three quarters of the season, the Celtics become who we thought they were. Howard swats shots into the fifteenth row. Garnett screams gutturally after every win. Rondo handles the passing, Pierce and Allen handle the scoring, and, well Jeff Green is still doing his best impersonation of The Tin Man. The Celtics enter the final month of the season (12 games remaining) ahead by seven games for the eighth and final playoff spot (remember, this is just an excercise, so pretend they could play like the best team in basketball for three-quarters of the season and still be that close to missing the playoffs).
Suddenly, everything goes wrong. Rondo starts throwing passes into Mark Wahlberg’s courtside seat. Allen gets hurt. Pierce doesn’t seem like he cares very much. Howard smiles too often. Garnett, who we’ll now call Dustin Pedroia, is the only player who acts like he still gives a damn. The ship is sinking and Jeff Green is still coming off the bench, a painful reminder of everything that wasn’t supposed to go wrong. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers won’t lose a goddamn game and Boston’s seven-game lead isn’t dwindling — it’s being thrown off the Empire State Building and free-falling until it reaches a painful death.
The Celtics are still tied going into the season’s last day. Their opponent is the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 76ers are playing the Lakers, but the Lakers have clinched the West’s top seed and will rest their biggest assholes… err, I mean their biggest stars. Boston trades for Travis “Bruce Chen” Outlaw in case they need some help in a possible one-game playoff.
But it doesn’t look like they’ll need Outlaw. The Lakers jump to a 25-point lead against Philly and maintain it into the fourth-quarter. The Celtics, meanwhile, build a five-point lead against the Wolves. Even though it’s not a huge lead, they seem to have control of the game.
And then hell has its first snowstorm. Andre Iguodala hits two four-point plays. Lou Williams cannot miss. Thaddeus Young dunks on Luke Walton’s head (remember, the Lakers are playing their scrubs). When Iggy scores five points in less than twenty seconds, the 76ers are down only three points with ten seconds to play.
Meanwhile, Boston’s lead is maintaining. But they are missing opportunities to put the game away — or, as my fifth-grade baseball coach used to say, to close the damn door. Garnett misses some bunnies. Howard slams a dunk into the back rim. Rondo misses free throws (surprise, surprise). Pierce’s month-long fog still hasn’t lifted. And Green sits on the bench, where he will stay unless a starter fouls out. With twenty-five seconds left, Boston’s lead is still four. No need for a fire alarm yet.
But the 76ers pull a miracle from their behinds. The Lakers miss two free throws that would have sealed the game (for some reason, we’ll call it “trying to sabotage another team’s season”, Steve Blake shoot both free throws with a blindfold on) and Philly gets one more chance to tie. Iguodala is not a fan of the three-point arc, but he drains one at the buzzer, sending Philly fans into a seizure of celebration.
Then the Celtics surrender a bucket to Ricky Rubio, who scores approximately one bucket every ten games. He’s fouled, too, by Ray Allen, and it’s Allen’s sixth. That means The Tin Man enters the game. Celtics fans everywhere hold their breath. Rubio cans the free throw, cutting the Celtics lead to one with nine seconds left. Michael Beasley steals the ensuing inbounds pass. As time runs out on the clock, he drills a three-pointer while Jeff Green, who was supposed to guard Beasley, saunters after him like a high school bully who enjoys being late to class.
Before the Red Sox can even say “what the fuck just happened?”, Iguodala dunks home a Lou Williams miss as time expires to send Philly into the playoffs. Dwight Howard says something about how “it wasn’t God’s plan” for the Celtics to make the playoffs this season, and millions of viewers think to themselves, “yeah, I imagine God spends most of his time worrying about who gets the 8th seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.”
There is good news for the Celtics, though: they still have The Tin Man under contract for six years and $120 million.
Thank God this is only a hypothetical, huh?