Celtics top Boston sports story in ‘08

Posted Dec. 26, 2008, at 11:02 p.m.

BOSTON — It was another championship year in Boston sports.

Just not quite perfect.

The year’s highlights began with the New England Patriots failing in their attempt at a 19-0 season and ended with them struggling simply to reach the playoffs after Tom Brady’s season-ending injury in the opener.

In between, the long-dormant Celtics took home their unprecedented 17th NBA title, the Red Sox reached the AL championship series with league MVP Dustin Pedroia and the perennially struggling Bruins rose to the top of their league in the 2008-09 season.

It would be fitting for the Bruins, who led the Eastern Conference as the New Year approached, to end a title drought that has gnawed at their ever-patient fan base since Bobby Orr brought the Stanley Cup to Boston in 1972.

After watching the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics all parade through the city since 2004, a return of the Big Bad Bruins is all that’s needed to fill up the city’s virtual trophy case.

But for 2008, it was the Celtics rolling through town on amphibious tourist vehicles known as Duck Boats after they won the team’s first title since Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish led them to the 1986 NBA championship.

With the new Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the 2008 Celtics dominated the regular season with a 66-16 record to earn the home-court advantage through the finals. They needed it, going seven games against the surprising Atlanta Hawks and seven more to oust LeBron James and the Cleveland Cava-liers. James outscored Paul Pierce 45-41 in the finale, but it was the Celtics who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit.

After ousting the Pistons in six games, Boston had a long-awaited rekindling of its rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers. The tightly contested finals turned into a laugher back in the Garden in Game 6, when the Celtics began celebrating early in the 131-92 clincher; Pierce, the holdover from the years of losing that set the stage for the NBA’s biggest offseason overhaul that brought in Garnett and Allen, was the finals MVP.

Just like that, the Patriots’ stunning 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl was overshadowed.

Despite the videotaping scandal that cost them a first-round draft pick and $750,000, the Patriots made NFL history by being the first team to complete the regular season 16-0. Two more playoff wins put them in the Super Bowl for the fourth time since 2002, but a last-minute collapse against the Giants deprived them of a fourth NFL title.

Then, another blow: Torn knee ligaments ended Brady’s 2008 season in the first quarter of the first game, leaving the team in the hands of untested Matt Cassel.

The four-year veteran, who hadn’t started a game in seven years in college and the pros, emerged as a much more than adequate replacement for last year’s NFL MVP.

Cassel became only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games. But other long-term injuries — Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas, Laurence Maroney, Tedy Bruschi — left the Patriots hoping just to make the playoffs.

Boston College also brought home a title: the Eagles won their third men’s NCAA hockey championship by beating Notre Dame.

Then they beat the Fighting Irish in football — their sixth straight win over their more illustrious but slumping Catholic school rival. The Eagles made it back to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and lost to Virginia Tech for the second straight year, missing a chance to play in the Orange Bowl and settling for the Music City Bowl.

The usually tumultuous Red Sox had a relatively quiet year — at least after they traded Manny Ramirez — ending it with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS that uncharacteristically brought neither overwhelming disappointment nor rapturous joy to their fans.

Even the long-anticipated departure of Ramirez — after he said he was too hurt to play but an examination showed no knee damage — was more of a sigh of relief than the cataclysmic release that accompanied the departures of past stars like Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez.

Besides, the Red Sox had plenty of players whose work ethic could never be questioned.

Scrappy second baseman Pedroia added the MVP award to his 2007 rookie of the year trophy after leading the AL with 213 hits, 118 runs and 54 doubles while batting .326 with 17 home runs, 83 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. Soon after, he agreed to a $40.5 million, six-year contract.

Intense first baseman Kevin Youkilis finished third in the MVP voting, Jon Lester emerged as a dominant starter and fiery closer Jonathan Papelbon had another outstanding season.

On the same April day the Red Sox beat Texas 8-3 for their ninth win in 10 games, Kenya’s Robert Cheruiyot and Ethiopia’s Dire Tune won the Boston Marathon. But the Americans got a chance to celebrate, too. The day before the traditional race, Deena Kastor, Magdalena Lewy Boulet and Blake Russell qualified for the Bei-jing Olympics by winning the U.S. women’s marathon trials in Boston.

Two days after the Marathon, the Bruins were eliminated by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs, but first-year coach Claude Julien had built the foundation for a much better second season.

And two months later, the Celtics won their championship.

AP PHOTO BY ROSS D. FRANKLIN

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates a touchdown run by Laurence Maroney during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz. last February.

The New York Giants rallied for a 17-14 win over the previously undefeated Patriots.

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