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Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 1: Bombings strike finish line of Boston Marathon 12.31.13 at 10:47 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, has been counting down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 1: Bombings strike finish line of Boston Marathon. To see the previous entries, click here.

It started off like any other Patriots Day in Boston.

As 26,839 runners took off from the starting line in Hopkinton on April 15, the 117th Boston Marathon began, signaling the start of one of the most cherished and celebrated days of the year in Boston.

As the thousands of runners raced through Framingham and Wellesley, over Heartbreak Hill, past Kenmore Square and down Boylston Street — all while being cheered on by thousands of locals, college students, tourists, friends and family — it seemed like it was shaping up to be another picture-perfect Marathon Monday.

And then, in a blink of an eye, a day filled with excitement, fun and triumph morphed into a scene of horror and bloodshed.

At 2:49 p.m., around two hours after Lelisa Desisa crossed the line in first place, a bomb detonated outside of the Marathon Sports store on Boylston Street. A second bomb detonated 13 seconds later, about a block down the street.

As first-responders and bystanders tended to the hundreds of injured victims strewn along Boylston, law enforcement shut down the race. More than 5,000 runners who had not finished were diverted to Kenmore Square or Boston Common.

Just seconds after the smoke surrounding Boylston subsided, it became clear that the two bombs had been horrifically effective. Three onlookers were killed in the attacks: 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, 23-year-old Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi and 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester. At least 264 people were injured in the bombings, with 14 losing limbs.

As the victims were transported to local hospitals, police shut down a 12-block area around the blast site and officially called off the rest of the race.

As the shock began to set in, so too did a sense of pride and community spirit.

“Boston is a tough and resilient town. So are its people,” President Barack Obama said during a press briefing at the White House that day. “I’m supremely confident that Bostonians will pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city. And as they do, the American people will be with them every single step of the way.”

The investigation into the bombing, led by the FBI, started immediately and eventually led to the release of photographs and video of two suspects on April 18. As the photos of the suspected bombers spread across the Internet and other media outlets that night, the two men shown in the pictures allegedly shot MIT police officer Sean Collier and then carjacked an SUV in Allston, taking the driver hostage.

After the hostage escaped, the suspects were located in Watertown. A ferocious gunfight erupted between the suspects and law enforcement, and it led to the death of one of the men, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, while the other suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, fled the scene. An MBTA office, Richard Donahue, was critically injured in the shootout, but he recovered.

A large-scale manhunt for Tsarnaev ensued on April 19, as thousands of law enforcement personnel searched a 20-block radius in Watertown. A “shelter-in-place” was ordered in Boston, as public transportation was shut down while many schools and businesses — including the Red Sox — closed down for the day.

Police eventually located Tsarnaev hiding out in a boat in a Watertown backyard just a few blocks from the site of the original shootout. Tsarnaev surrendered to authorities at 8:42 p.m. prompting celebrations across the city.

The shocking four-day stretch, starting with the bombing on April 15 and ending with the apprehension of Tsarnaev on April 19, was unlike anything that Boston and its residents had ever experienced. While fear and terror struck the city, the days that followed featured a heartfelt and emotional response that represented the strength of Boston and the people who call the Hub home.

The One Fund, established by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on April 16 as a way to raise money for the victims of the bombings and their families, received thousands of donations in the months following the attacks. By September, more than $69 million had been raised.

Boston sports played a huge part in both uniting and supporting the people of Boston following the tragedy. Look no further than the Bruins’ first game at the TD Garden since the bombings, on April 17. After a touching video tribute prior to the puck drop, Rene Rancourt gave the packed house at the Garden the opportunity to sing the national anthem, which resulted in an unforgettable moment as over 17,000 fans stood and sang as one.

The Red Sox would also pay tribute, as Fenway hosted many members of the Boston Police Department, as well as some of the individuals who were unable to finish the race earlier that week. Perhaps the biggest highlight was a speech by David Ortiz, who memorably addressed the Fenway crowd at the end of the event.

While the savage attacks likely will remain ingrained in the minds of many Bostonians for the rest of their lives, it also became apparent in the weeks that followed the bombings that the strength of the city of Boston and its people certainly did not waiver. In fact, it seemed to only grow stronger.

“You will run again,” Obama said during his speech at the Boston Marathon memorial service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on April 18. “We finish the race. … We build, and we work, and we love — and we raise our kids to do the same. And we come together to celebrate life, and to walk our cities, and to cheer for our teams. When the Sox and Celtics and Patriots or Bruins are champions again — to the chagrin of New York and Chicago fans — the crowds will gather and watch a parade go down Boylston Street.

“And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston Marathon. Bet on it.”

Part of this declaration was realized on Nov. 2, almost seven months after the bombings, as the world champion Red Sox led a parade down Boylston Street, stopping at the finish line to pay tribute to those who lost their lives during that traumatic day in April.

Despite the attacks, it looks like the 118th Boston Marathon will be stronger than ever, as more than 36,000 runners are expected to take part in the race, signifying that despite being temporarily knocked down, Boston and its many proud residents will get back up and will once again cheer for thousands of runners on another memorable Patriots Day.

Read More: Bombing, Boston Marathon, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Boylston
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 2: Aaron Hernandez charged with murder at 10:29 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 2: Aaron Hernandez charged with murder. To see the previous entries, click here.

On Aug. 27, 2012, the Patriots rewarded tight end Aaron Hernandez, one of the team’€™s most promising players, with a lucrative contract extension. The deal would lock up Hernandez until 2018, paying him $40 million over five years.

“As soon as we started talking about contracts, I was emotional from that day on,” Hernandez said at a preseason gala hosted by the team just after the details of his contract were revealed.

“Honestly, it’s hard for me here [at the gala] to stay, keeping my mind off it, and it’s just, like I said, it’s surreal. Probably when I’m done with this conversation I’ll get some tears in my eyes. But it’s real, and it’s an honor.”

But less than one year later, the 23-year-old Hernandez was in a whale of legal trouble, and football and the monstrous contract he’€™d signed seemed immensely inconsequential. On June 26, Massachusetts State Police took Hernandez into custody on first-degree murder charges and five gun-related charges. Nearly two months later he was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a semipro football player from Boston who hung around with Hernandez. There also reportedly are ongoing investigations into other shootings in Florida and Massachusetts as well as gun trafficking that have links to Hernandez.

New England acted swiftly, cutting the third-year tight end.

“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss,” the team said in a statement. “Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Matt Light
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 3: Red Sox go from worst to first, win World Series 12.30.13 at 9:24 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 3: Red Sox go from worst to first, win World Series. To see the previous entries, click here.

As John Farrell sat in front of the Boston media on Nov. 22, 2012, for his introductory press conference as manager of the Red Sox, it became apparent that expectations were not necessarily at an all-time high for the 2013 campaign.

Boston had just come off of a nightmare of a season, as the Bobby Valentine-led Sox finished in last place in the American League East with a 69-93 record. It was the first time that Boston had finished a season with less than 70 wins since 1965.

Despite the pessimistic atmosphere surrounding the once-proud Boston franchise, Farrell maintained a positive outlook on the upcoming year, even hinting at a possible playoff berth.

“There’s a lot of quality players that are currently here, and yet the won-loss record doesn’t reflect that. It’s my job and my intent — and I’m eager to get started — to identify what took place and how do we best address it and correct it,” Farrell said. “I think this has got an opportunity to be a fairly quick turnaround and get to the point of contending next year.”

While Farrell was optimistic about his team’s chances going forward, not even he could he have predicted what was about to transpire in 2013. Less than a year after that press conference, Farrell celebrated a World Series win, Boston’s third title in 10 years, in front of over 37,000 rabid fans at Fenway Park on a chilly October night.

“You know, still trying to take all this in,” Farrell said after the series-clinching victory. “When the fireworks went off at the presentation of the trophy out there, when the ballpark was filled with smoke, it was completely surreal. To be in this position, given where we’ve come from, reflecting back a year ago at this time, there’s been a lot that’s happened in 13 months.”

The groundwork for Boston’s incredible season was established during the 2012 offseason, as Sox general manager Ben Cherington stuck to a conservative, albeit very crafty game plan during the hot stove season. Rather than pursuing big-name free agents such as Josh Hamilton and Zack Grienke, Cherington instead focused on bringing in low-risk, high-reward players such as Mike NapoliKoji Uehara and Shane Victorino. Cherington, looking to reverse a toxic atmosphere that permeated through the Sox clubhouse over the last few seasons, also made it a point to sign players known for their positive influence in the locker room, inking contributors like Jonny GomesRyan Dempster and David Ross to short-term deals.

While the new-look Sox started off hot out of the gate, posting an 11-4 record over their first 15 games, many still doubted the legitimacy of the team. The team showed its resolve on April 20, as the Sox played their first home game since the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt and capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

After two straight years of rolling out a collection of players who seemed like they could care less about each other, let alone the city they play for, the 2013 Red Sox adopted the “Boston Strong” movement, as David Ortiz‘s rallying address to the Fenway faithful prior to the game against Kansas City still reverberates throughout the entire city to this day.

The Sox also showed off their flair for dramatic in the game, a reoccurring theme for the entire season and subsequent playoffs, as Daniel Nava slugged a go-ahead three-run home run in the eighth inning to give Boston a thrilling 4-3 win. After such a stirring victory over the Royals, it became apparent that this season would be very, different from 2012.

The Sox steamrolled through the regular season thanks to a resurgent pitching staff and a balanced lineup, finishing the year with a 97-65 record, improving their 2012 win total by 28 games.

Offensively, the Sox were once again carried by Ortiz, as the 37-year-old designated hitter led the team in batting average (.309), home runs (30), RBIs (103) and on-base percentage (.395). Ortiz continued to add to his already impressive resume during the year, as the slugger passed Harold Baines for most hits by a DH (1,689) on July 11 against the Mariners.

On the mound, the Sox pitching staff was anchored by Jon Lester, whose post All-Star break stats (7-2, 2.57 ERA) were a far cry from his disappointing 2012 splits (9-14, 4.82 ERA). Out of the ‘pen, the Sox received a huge boost from Uehara. Signed as a free agent in 2012 with the purpose of pitching in the seventh inning and supporting Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, Uehara was thrust into the role as closer after both Bailey and Hanrahan went down with season-ending injuries.

Despite only accumulating 14 saves in his career prior to signing with Boston, Uehara put together one of the most dominant seasons for a reliever, as the 38-year-old closer recorded 21 saves while posting a microscopic 1.09 ERA and punching out 101 batters in 74 1/3 innings of work.

By the time the regular season had concluded on Sept. 30, the Sox had wrapped up the best record in the AL while winning the AL East for the first time since 2007.

Boston opened up its first entry into the postseason since 2009 by taking on its division rival, the Rays, in the American League Division Series. The Sox outscored Tampa by a 19-6 margin to get out to a commanding 2-0 series lead, but the Rays would not go quietly, as the Joe Maddon-led squad forced a Game 4 after Jose Lobaton crushed a walk-off home run in Game 3 off of Uehara.

Game 4 was a bizarre affair, as Maddon utilized nine pitchers during the contest after pulling starter Jeremy Hellickson in the second inning. While Tampa held a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning, the Sox once again put together some late-inning magic, scoring two runs in the seventh and one more in the ninth to win, 3-1, and advance to the American League Championship Series, where they faced off against the Tigers.

After almost being no-hit in Game 1, the Sox seemed well on their way to being down 2-0 in the series, as Detroit built a 5-1 lead in Game 2 going into the eighth inning. However, in what was perhaps the turning point of the postseason, Ortiz stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and drove the first pitch he saw from Joaquin Benoit past a leaping Torii Hunter and into the Sox bullpen, tying the game in dramatic fashion.

Boston evened up the series at one game apiece just an inning later, as Jarrod Saltalamacchia drove in Gomes with an RBI single in the ninth inning to complete the 6-5 comeback.

While Boston took a 2-1 series lead after John Lackey outpitched 2011 AL MVP Justin Verlander in a 1-0 Game 3 win, Detroit would answer back with a convincing 7-3 victory in Game 4. After the Sox put themselves on the brink of a series victory with a 4-3 victory in Game 5, Shane Victorino delivered his biggest hit of the postseason in Game 6, crushing an 0-2 curveball from Jose Veras over the Green Monster for a grand slam, giving Boston a 5-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning. Uehara closed out the game with a perfect ninth inning, sending the Sox to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2007.

Boston’s final opponent in 2013 was the NL champion Cardinals, who, like the Sox, led their league in wins with 97 on the year. It was the first time since 1999 in which both teams in the World Series finished the regular season with the best record in their respective leagues.

“We’€™re going up against a very complete team,” Farrell said. “They have very good young pitching, they have good pitching in general. Just what I’ve looked at so far, they are well-balanced, they hit with runners in scoring position like no other and they look to put guys in motion with the hit and run quite a bit. They are a complete team.”

The Cardinals certainly did not make a good impression in Game 1, as St. Louis committed three errors while their ace Adam Wainwright was spotted for five runs over five innings of work. Meanwhile, Lester was superb, shutting out the Cards for 7 2/3 innings en route to a 8-1 victory.

Boston’s hot start would not transfer over to the next day, as St. Louis’ pitching corps of Michael WachaCarlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal held the Sox to just two runs and four hits while striking out 12 as the Cardinals evened the series with a 4-2 victory in Game 2.

Game 3 was a back-and-forth affair, as the Sox came back to erase a two-run deficit in the eighth inning to tie the game at 4 heading into the ninth inning. What followed next was classic postseason baseball, as a controversial obstruction call on Will Middlebrooks in the bottom of the ninth sent home Allen Craig, giving St. Louis the 5-4 win and a 2-1 series edge.

Game 4 followed the same format as the previous two games, as Boston and St. Louis spent most of the game deadlocked at a 1-1 tie, until the Sox broke the game open in the sixth inning with a clutch three-run home run from Gomes. The game once again ended on a bizarre note, as Uehara picked off Kolten Wong at first for the final out, sealing the 4-2 win for Boston. It was the first World Series game to end on a pickoff.

The Sox were lifted once again by Lester in Game 5, as the southpaw held the potent Cardinals offense to just one run over 7 2/3 innings as the Sox won, 3-1, setting the stage for Boston to clinch the World Series title at Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years.

Boston made sure that Game 6 would not be a tension-filled contest, as the Sox scored six runs in the third and fourth innings to give themselves a comfortable cushion. Uehara was brought into the ninth inning with a 6-1 lead and easily retired the first two batters, bringing Matt Carpenter up to the plate.

With a packed house at Fenway standing as one, Uehara struck out Carpenter to end it. As the Fenway Faithful roared, an ecstatic Uehara jumped into the arms of Ross before being swarmed by their teammates.

“In the first two minutes I was in the clubhouse, the words, ‘€˜We’€™re going to win the World Series’€™ was spoken by both [Gomes and Saltalamacchia] — on August 1,” said Sox pitcher Jake Peavy after the game. “When those words came out of their mouth, instantly I believed. … It’€™s what I’€™ve played for since I’ve played [as a kid] — to be a champion. To do it here, in this city, with this group of guys, with this fan base. It’€™s unbelievable.”

Ortiz, who posted an incredible line of .688/.760/1.188 with six RBIs during the Fall Classic, was named World Series MVP. Ortiz is the first non-Yankee to win three World Series titles with one team since Jim Palmer did so with the Orioles in 1966, 1970 and 1983.

Three days later, the world-champion Sox loaded onto the ducks boats and paraded in front of thousands of fans from Fenway down to the Charles River. The highlight of the parade undoubtedly had to be the a touching moment near the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street, as Gomes and Saltalamacchia placed the Commissioner’s Trophy at the line and draped it with a Red Sox jersey that read “Boston Strong — 617.” The emotional tribute was capped off with a stirring rendition of “God Bless America” by tenor Ronan Tynan.

It was a fitting, if not symbolic ending for this determined and lovable Sox team. Despite having many doubters at the start of the season, the Sox remained focused throughout the long 2013 campaign, keeping their clubhouse loose while maintaining excellent play on the field.

After the devastating Marathon bombings, the team recognized its importance and connection to the city and took up the role as a savior, an escape for people of a shaken community who needed to get their minds off the dreary news surrounding their city.

It likely still seems like a dream to most, but yes, despite how improbable it was, the Sox are champions once again, proving to both their fans, their city and to themselves that they truly do embody everything it means to be”Boston Strong.”


Read More: Boston Red Sox, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, cardinals, David Ortiz
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 4: Bruins reach Stanley Cup finals, lose heartbreaker 12.29.13 at 9:17 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 4: Bruins reach Stanley Cup finals, lose heartbreaker. To see the previous entries, click here.

After a miraculous playoff run that featured the Bruins overcoming a three-goal deficit against the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to win in overtime, posting a five-game victory over the Rangers in the semifinals and then coming up with a shocking sweep of the top-seeded Penguins in the conference finals, it seemed like Boston was destined to claim the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years.

However, it was all for naught, as the Bruins fell to a stacked Blackhawks squad in six games, losing the final contest in heartbreaking fashion at TD Garden.

What was already a thrilling and dramatic Cup finals featuring three overtime games seemed set to go to a Game 7, as the Bruins held a 2-1 lead over Chicago in the waning minutes of Game  6.

The Blackhawks opted to pull goaltender Corey Crawford for an extra skater, a move that paid off when Bryan Bickell tied the game with 1:06 remaining after receiving a picture-perfect feed from captain Jonathan Toews.

While it seemed like the teams were headed to yet another extra period of hockey, the Blackhawks would score again just 17 seconds later, as Dave Bolland pounced on a rebound off the post to give Chicago the lead in stunning fashion with just 58 seconds remaining.

It felt like a bad dream. Just a few minutes beforehand, the Bruins were still alive, ready to fight for the Cup in what certainly would be a memorable game at the United Center. And then it was over.

“We had Game 7 in front of us,” said Bruins center David Krejci after the game. “It was right there. I felt we played a pretty good game, and we lost it. We just gave it to them, basically.”

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Read More: Boston Bruins, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Brad Marchand, Chicago Blackhawks
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 5: Patriots lose to Ravens in AFC championship game 12.28.13 at 9:24 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 5: Patriots lose to Ravens in AFC championship game. To see the previous entries, click here.

The 2012-13 postseason looked like the Patriots’ opportunity for redemption.

One year after New England lost the Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in five seasons, the path to Super Bowl XLVII looked relatively unobstructed. The Patriots blew away the competition in the regular season, as they finished 11-1 vs. the AFC (12-4 overall) and finished first in the AFC East for the fourth consecutive season.

After a first-round bye, the Pats began the postseason with a 41-28 trouncing of the Texans at Gillette Stadium.

More good news came when the Ravens stunned the top-seeded Broncos in overtime in Denver, meaning the Patriots would host the AFC championship game. The bad news? The game was against Baltimore, the one AFC team that beat the Patriots in the regular season.

The Ravens and Patriots faced off in the AFC championship game on Jan. 20 and Baltimore emerged victorious, 28-13, ending the Patriots’€™ hopes of their first NFL title since the 2004 season.

“They made more plays than we did,” wide receiver Wes Welker said after the game. “At the end, it just wasn’t enough for us. That’s the way it goes.”

“We’ve lost before. It takes a while to get over,” quarterback Tom Brady said.

Baltimore used a dominant second half to upset the Patriots. New England led 13-7 in the first half. Stephen Gostkowski kicked field goals of 25 and 31 yards, and Welker and Brady hooked up for a 1-yard touchdown pass. On the other side, Ray Rice scored a rushing touchdown from two yards out.

But the Ravens shut out the Patriots in the second half, while exploding for 21 points. Joe Flacco threw three touchdowns, the first to Dennis Pitta and the final two to Anquan Boldin, and the defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers. Brady tossed a pair of interceptions and Stevan Ridley lost a fumble.

“It was pretty awesome,” said Flacco, who outplayed his counterpart, completing 21-of-36 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. “We were here last year and thought we had it, but came up a little short. Guys came out in the second half and made plays. … We put pressure on them like that, and it worked pretty well.”

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Read More: Anquan Boldin, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Dennis Pitta, Joe Flacco
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 6: Celtics trade Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers 12.27.13 at 9:23 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 16: Celtics trade Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers. To see the previous entries, click here.

The move seemed incomprehensible at first.

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn Nets jerseys? Impossible.

Sure, Pierce and Garnett’€™s best days clearly are behind them, but these men had led Boston to two NBA Finals and the organization’€™s first title since 1986.

But on June 27, Celtics€™ president of basketball operations Danny Ainge completed a trade that marked a changing of the guard. Boston traded Pierce, an revered 15-year Celtic who persevered through incredibly ugly times in Boston, and Garnett, the man perhaps most responsible for the franchise’s drastic turnaround, and began the inevitable rebuilding process for the Celtics.

The Nets also received Jason Terry, who disappointed in one season for the Celtics. His year in Boston will be remembered more for the posterizing dunk LeBron James laid on him than his contributions to the team.

“We would like to thank Paul, Kevin and Jason for everything that they have done for this franchise,”€ Ainge said. “€œWe would not have won Banner 17 without Paul and Kevin, and they will go down amongst the all-time great players to have ever worn a Celtics uniform.”

The Celtics garnered three first-round picks (2014, ‘€˜16, ‘€˜18) along with Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans for the trio.

“We are excited to welcome Gerald, Kris, Keith, MarShon and Kris to the Celtics family. They bring a wealth of talent, experience, depth, and flexibility to our team,” Ainge said.

With Terry, Pierce and Garnett scheduled to make a combined $33.4 million in the 2013-14 season, and considering that the most appealing return Boston received was the three first-round picks, the move was widely viewed as a salary dump and the beginning of the Celtics’€™ rebuilding process.

The band began to break up earlier in the summer when Boston shipped coach Doc Rivers to the Clippers.

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Read More: Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Danny Ainge, Gerald Wallace, Jason Terry
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 7: Patriots stung by injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, other key players 12.26.13 at 9:40 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 7: Patriots stung by injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, other key players. To see the previous entries, click here.

In any sport, but especially football, injuries are viewed and accepted as an unfortunate part of the game. While every team has to deal with injuries, the 2013 season has been particularly cruel to the Patriots, who have had to endure the absence of some key contributors.

While the Patriots offense struggled to string together impressive performances for most of the first half of the season due in part to lingering injuries to players such as Rob Gronkowski, as well as the release of Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with murder, an improved defensive unit, featuring players such as Jerod MayoChandler JonesVince Wilfork and Aqib Talib gave New England hope.

Over the first five games of the year, the new and improved New England defense allowed an average of just 14 points per game. With players such as Gronkowski expected back later in the season, expectations were high for this Patriots squad, as it promised to have better balance than the last few seasons.

However, these expectations were soon dashed, as injuries to key players on the roster quickly began to pile up.

During the Patriots’ 30-23 victory against the Falcons on Sept. 29, New England lost the anchor of its defensive line, as Wilfork went down early in the first quarter after stepping on another player’s foot and was carted off the field. After the game, it was revealed that the All-Pro defensive tackle had torn his Achilles tendon and would miss the rest of the season.

The loss of Wilfork was a big hit to the Patriots defense, as the five-time Pro Bowler has been an integral part of New England’s stout defensive line since his arrival in 2004.

“I just want to thank everyone for your support and encouragement. … I know what signing up to play football means and I know the rewards and the risks,” Wilfork said in a message to his fans. “This is my job and I will switch positions for now and play the role of patient, but that is only temporary. I have so much confidence in my team and I know that they will do great and I will be right besides them maybe not in uniform but in all other ways. Thanks again.”

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Read More: Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots, rob gronkowski
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 8: Patriots let Wes Welker walk, receiving corps struggles 12.25.13 at 9:31 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No.8: Patriots let Wes Welker walk, receiving corps struggles. To see the previous entries, click here.

Entering the 2013 offseason, the Patriots seemed to only have one major task: Re-sign wide receiver Wes Welker.

Acquired from the Dolphins before the 2007 season, Welker entered Foxboro as a relatively unknown wideout and quickly became the best slot receiver in the NFL. In six seasons with the Patriots, Welker had 672 receptions (an average of 112 per season) and became the first player in NFL history to post five 100-catch seasons.

After placing the franchise tag on Welker in 2012, the Patriots opted to refrain from tagging the five-time Pro Bowler in 2013, apparently hoping they could lock up Welker to a long-term deal.

“I love Wes Welker. I hope he remains a Patriot for life. Just like Tom Brady,”€ Patriots owner Robert Kraft said on March 11.

However, the team and Welker were unable to come to terms on a new contract, resulting in Welker signing a two-year, $12 million contract with the Broncos.

Welker left an undeniable mark on the Patriots, as he exited Foxboro as the team’s all-time leader in receptions (672) and second in receiving yards (7459), trailing only Stanley Morgan. Yet to many it appeared that New England didn’t make enough of an effort to retain him.

“Everyone in our organization wanted Wes Welker back,” Kraft insisted in a press conference with the media. “Anyone who doubts that, or thinks we weren’t serious, just doesn’t get it. Like I’ve said many times, I really wanted Wes to be with us through the rest of his career, but it takes two sides to do a deal. I really believe in this case, his agents misrepresented what his market value was. When you come right down to the bottom line, he accepted a deal in Denver which is less money than what we offered him.

“If he had called one day earlier, he would have been with us. I’m very sad about it and I wish he would have been with our team.”

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Read More: Aaron Dobson, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Denver Broncos, Kenbrell Thompkins
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 9: Jacoby Ellsbury leaves Red Sox to sign with Yankees 12.24.13 at 9:14 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 9: Jacoby Ellsbury leaves Red Sox to sign with Yankees. To see the previous entries, click here.

Just over a month after picking up his second World Series ring with the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury swapped out the uniform he has worn since 2007 for a set of pinstripes.

The center fielder, whom the Red Sox picked up in the first round of the 2005 draft, became the 14th-highest-paid player in baseball on Dec. 3 when he agreed to a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees. Ellsbury’€™s agreement also included the option for an eighth season that would make his deal worth $169 million.

The Sox reportedly let Ellsbury know early on that they had no intention of coming close to his asking price or contract length.

“I’€™m excited to be a New York Yankee,’€ Ellsbury said during a press conference at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 13. ‘€œDefinitely very excited for my family and I. I know [my wife] Kelsey is excited to be here. You guys have treated me so great, all day. I’€™m very appreciative.

“I’€™m excited for this opportunity, coming to a storied franchise. Looking outside today, seeing the banners on the wall, seeing the great players that have played here, this is a truly honor. … It’€™s an honor and I’€™m excited to go out there. Can’€™t wait to get to spring training, get to work, meet my teammates. And hopefully when it’€™s all said and done, we can hoist that trophy above our head. With that being said, I’€™m excited to be here.”

In seven seasons with the Sox, Ellsbury had a .297/.350/.439 line. The leadoff hitter’€™s best year came in 2011 when he had career numbers for games played (158), RBIs (105), home runs (32) and OPS (.928).

During his final year with the Sox, Ellsbury led the league with 52 steals while putting up a .298/.355/.426 line with nine home runs and 53 RBIs. He went on to hit .344 during the playoffs.

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Read More: Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Carl Crawford, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jacoby Ellsbury
Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 10: Boston College’s Andre Williams named Heisman Trophy finalist, nation’s top running back 12.23.13 at 11:12 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 10: Boston College‘s Andre Williams named Heisman Trophy finalist, nation’s top running back. To see the previous entries, click here.

Before 2013, the name Andre Williams did not resonate in the college football world.

In fact, it did not even stand out at Boston College, where the senior running back plays football.

This anonymity for Williams was not unwarranted. His previous three seasons with the Eagles were serviceable, but he never topped 584 rushing yards in a single season, and there was no reason to think year four would be any different.

But sure enough, on Dec. 14, Williams found himself in a completely unpredictable place given his college football history before the 2013 season — at the Heisman Trophy award ceremony in New York City as a finalist for college football’€™s most coveted honor.

Williams did not win the Heisman; that distinction went to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. But this did nothing to diminish the accomplishments of the product of Schnecksville, Pa., who was BC’€™s first Heisman finalist since Doug Flutie won the program’€™s only Heisman in 1984.

In one year, Williams went from an average running back on a horrible football team to the best running back in all of college football. His contributions helped lead to a 7-5 turnaround season for Boston College and a bowl appearance, one year after the Eagles finished 2-10.

Williams led Division 1 FBS in rushing attempts (329) and rushing yards (2,102), and accounted for 17 rushing touchdowns, which placed him fifth in college football among running backs.

“€œI don’€™t necessarily think there was anything I did physically that played a huge factor,”€ Williams said in an interview with Dennis & Callahan. “Just the fact that we came together so strong this year as a team, we were able to form a strong identity on the offensive side of the ball. My [offensive] line, they really came together this year, they’€™re really just embracing the fact that BC is historically O-line U.”

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Read More: Andre Williams, Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Doug Flutie, Jameis Winston