Playoffs -- down to one

Here we are but a fortnight into playoff season and our field is already cut in half. The Celtics are gone. Might the Bruins soon follow? For the Celts, the beginning was an ending and how deeply that term obtains will be their off-season's total pre-occupation.

Of course, the Celtics are eternal. Our other teams are far more sensitive to the uncertainties of a rise in fortune and the perils of a dip. The Red Sox go in the tank for a year and it's as if a plague of locusts has invaded us. The Patriots will never be allowed to forget the misery of their existence before they hit the glory road. As for the Bruins, when they fade -- as now and again every team must -- they simply get tuned out; totally. Indifference is the unkindest cut of all.

But the Celtics bear on -- sometimes battered but always unbowed -- along the same serenely even plane, decade after decade. ''They'll be back,'' is ever the governing assumption.

It's the legacy of Red Auerbach; a kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is about as permanent as anything can be in sports. Nor do many have the temerity to point out they haven't won much since their last certified legend -- Brother Bird -- departed.

Ah, but is this the year all that magic ends at last? Maybe!

Kissing-off the era of "the Big Three" was all the rage a year ago when the troika's Third Man, the elegant Ray Allen, correctly sniffed out changes in the prevailing breezes and split for Miami seeking another ring. Consequent expectations of further erosion were entirely fulfilled, as what was left of the troika -- Brothers Pierce and Garnett -- got older, faster. The Celtics this season were a mediocre team and worse still over the last six weeks of the regular season. In a balanced league they would not have made the playoffs.

It's only because the Knicks are the Knicks (also eternally) that the opening round lasted six games. It should have been over in three, as the wise guys like to say. Such was the difference in the relative wherewithal.

Everyone wanted them to bite the bullet last year and seek creative ways to market the Pierce-Garnett axis while there was still market value worthy of being discussed. Instead, they opted to hang on and squeeze out another year of mediocrity in return for a painful single playoff round. Was that worth it? Doubtful!

Now, how much value is left? Will possible suitors of Paul Pierce wonder if they're getting the chap who can still light up the building, now and again, or the one who went four for fourteen from the field and one for nine heaving three-pointers in his most important game of the year?

As for Garnett, a strong team could conjure ways to use him as creatively as the Celts once deployed Bill Walton or even -- way back -- the likes of Arnie Risen, Clyde Lovellette, and Wayne Embry. Red was a master at squeezing the last ounce of greatness from worthy old pros. Garnett might be brilliant at such a role but he should no longer be asked to even try to serve as a mainstay. Hey, maybe he ends up with Miami. Wouldn't that be a hoot!

Apres Pierce and Garnett, what should we expect? The real and unmitigated deluge? Do we at long last learn what it's like to be a devotee of the contemporary Washington Wizards or the historical Sacramento Kings?

There's the danger the Celtics and their diehards will allow the thin illusions of the Knicks' series to mislead them. Much is being made of the electrifying if faintly preposterous 20-0 run that near miraculously pulled game six of the Knicks series from the flames of elimination. It's being rhapsodically touted as yet another epic Celtic moment, a valiant gesture for the ages of which few teams aside from this one could possibly be capable.

That's silly. In the end it was merely a parting thrill that took a bit of the sting out of the end-result but was no more than an aberration that could only have been possible against a too often dumb team like the Knicks. It had no bearing on the outcome. On the other hand, New York's 21-5 spurt at the very beginning of that final game essentially decided the outcome. The Celtics should have no more illusions.

Is the party over? One has enough respect for the myth to avoid any such leaps to over-statement. But the task just ahead is colossal and it's tougher than ever to re-build in these times.

Things aren't as bad -- for example -- as when they crashed in the late '70s and had John Y. Brown for an owner and his sidekick, Phyllis George, suggesting trades and draft-picks. On the other hand, we don't have that wonderful old rascal Boss Auerbach around anymore to redeem all such folly by pulling the likes of a Larry Bird out of his bag of tricks. Ah, the good old days!

Let's just say a chapter is over; not one of the strongest and most remarkable in the Celtics' storied history, but interesting, nonetheless. When as the season ended Garnett and Pierce bolted heads down from the court -- disdaining even a polite shake of the hand with the victors let alone a look back -- you got the feeling they were saying "goodbye" to more than just the New York Knickerbockers.

So, now we only have the Bruins to kick around. As this is written the series is tied at one-apiece. There had been too much chortling about the Bruins dominance of Game One and their much touted "vast edge in experience." Sure enough, all of that ragtime went up in smoke in Game Two. Come playoff time, talk is cheaper than ever.

This alone is for sure; the Bruins will be life and death in this series and if they are lucky enough to survive, it will be more of the same in the next one. Stanley Cup Hockey! There is nothing like it.

As never before, officials -- both on and off the ice -- will play major roles. An important issue throughout these playoffs is the safety question and the league's huge but fumbling effort to curb violent extremes, reduce the shock of serious injury, and police the offenders. The effort is unquestionably sincere but the methods are inadequate with the results, therefore, poor. Indeed, it may be an impossible task with no plausible remedy but to take the thump out of the game, and that's unacceptable.

In two of the first games in the opening round there were severe tests of the process that clearly illustrated its futility.

In the Montreal-Ottawa opener Eric Gryba, a beefy Senators' defenseman, absolutely steamrolled the Canadiens' Lars Eller. It was a brutal open-ice hit. I've watched the replay a dozen times and there's no question Gryba lined Eller up, cocked his shoulder, and lowered the boom with full intent to injure. Eller hit the ice face-first, lay unconscious in a pool of blood, suffered facial and dental fractures plus a concussion, was removed on a stretcher, and hospitalized two days. But NHL officials, ruling there was no ''malice'' in the incident, suspended Gryba only two games.

Meanwhile in the Boston opener, Bruins defenseman Andy Ference delivered a glancing elbow to the side of the Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski's head. It was worthy of a two minute penalty but none was called. Grabovski wasn't hurt. No blood was spilled. Play continued. No one complained. And one day later, League officials suspended Ference -- a vital Bruin -- for Game Two.

The point is the difference in the two incidents was infinite and the handling of them was ludicrous. If Ference deserved a one-game suspension, Gryba should have been banished until next season.

There will be more of this stuff in these playoffs. This may even be a major factor in the outcome. And all it will prove is that the cause is hopeless.

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