24 wins. A superstar coming off of an injury-riddled season. A shot at the best player in the draft squandered on the bounce of a ping-pong ball.
For any other NBA team, this sequence of events would lead to a basketball exodus with no end in sight.
For the Boston Celtics, it led to a 17th NBA championship.
Coming off of a 39-point, Game 6 dismantling of the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers last Tuesday, winning 131-92 at the Garden, the Celtics have completed one of the largest single-season turnarounds in North American sports history. In so doing, they have further separated themselves from the rest of the league as the NBA’s most storied franchise. After last season, however, no one could have seen this coming.
With the recent success of the New England Patriots (4 Super Bowl Appearances and 3 titles in 8 years) and the Boston Red Sox (2 World Series titles in 4 years), the Celtics were looked at as the outcast of New England sports. For years, they wallowed in abject failure, and only recently began to show promise in 2004 under new head coach Doc Rivers. That season, they won 45 games, but lost to the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. The next two seasons almost sounded a death knell for Rivers, winning 33 and 24 games, respectively. As one of the worst teams in the league, many Celtics fans leaned on the draft to change their spirits – hoping that, with a lucky stroke, Boston could land the #1 pick, and draft prized Ohio State C Greg Oden. Unfortunately for them, they got stuck with the 5th pick in the draft.
Unbeknownst to the fans, however, it was actually the best thing that could have happened to the Celtics.
Seeing that changes needed to be made, GM Danny Ainge finally decided to open up the franchise’s check book and give their star player, Paul Pierce, a little more help. Ainge, on a draft-day trade, gave the Seattle Supersonics the rights to their 5th pick (Georgetown F Jeff Green), F Wally Sczerbiak and G Delonte West, for All-Star SG Ray Allen, and a second-round pick. Next, Ainge went after Minnesota’s All-NBA PF Kevin Garnett, throwing seven players and cash at the Timberwolves. The deal was done in July, marking the most players ever traded for a single player in NBA history. With that, “The Parkay Posse” was born.
Or was it “The Three Basketeers”? “Barrage a Trois (It’s French)”? My mistake – it was “The Boston Three Party”.
Regardless of what anyone called them, the superstar trio was immediately branded with one title: Favorites to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The pressure of that expectation would crush most teams – and many argued that it could possibly crush this one. There was no question that all three superstars have had relative success in their careers: Garnett led his Timberwolves to the 2004 Western Conference Finals; Ray Allen had made the Eastern Conference Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2001; and Paul Pierce’s Celtics also reached the Conference Finals in 2002. However, none have achieved true playoff success, failing to reach the NBA Finals with their respective teams. More than anything else, Garnett was notorious for his failures in the postseason – with the exception of 2004, he never led the Timberwolves past the first round of the playoffs.
As the 2007-2008 season approached, many more questions arose: with three All-Stars on the same team, who was their true leader? On top of that, how would the three of them gel on the court? Would the Celtics, with all the potential of other legendary teams, truly live up to the hype?
The Celtics’ Big Three insisted that the team would be ready for the immense expectations in the upcoming season, showcasing their teamwork and talent to the fullest. And, boy, were they ready: the Celtics, newly equipped with a revamped roster and their patented Boston Three Party, burst out of the gate with an 8-0 start, and never looked back. After a calendar year of 2007 that saw Boston with a 26-3 record, many pundits no longer doubted whether the Celtics would be successful – they pondered whether they could be the only other team, besides the famed 1996 Chicago Bulls, to reach the elusive 70-win season.
As the season progressed, it was clear that these Celtics, despite their relative inexperience, were a force to be reckoned with. This was reflected in their surprising records during the regular season – for starters, their lack of reliance on the Big Three was startling. Without Garnett in the lineup, their record was 9-2; they accrued an 8-1 record without Ray Allen; without Paul Pierce, they were 2-0. While they played in an “inferior” Eastern Conference, they were still superior against the West. Their record against, arguably, the most competitive conference this century? 25-5.
While all the attention fell on Pierce, Garnett and Allen, their teammates made the Celtics truly great. Rajon Rondo, a second-year PG out of Kentucky, was handed the responsibility of floor general to a star-studded team. Though, some questioned whether he was the right man for the job, he showed his muster, averaging 10.6 points and 5.1 assists per game. Even with the mid-season acquisition of veteran PG Sam Cassell, Rondo led the charge to the championship, starting all 103 games he played, including the postseason.
Their overall success also lay in the hands in their role players. Their listed center, Kendrick Perkins, may not have impressed in the stats department, but proved to be a defensive force down low. SF James Posey brought both a reliable jump shot, and championship experience to the Celtics: he won an NBA title in 2006 with the Miami Heat. Leon Powe didn’t make his presence known until the postseason, in which he played an important role as a presence in the paint.
Boston finished their regular season with a 66-16 record – best in the league, giving them home-court throughout the playoffs. This would play a key role in their early success in the postseason – while considered heavy favorites in their first round matchup against the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks, they struggled on the road. After convincing victories in Boston, the Celtics stumbled on the road. Led by midseason acquisition Mike Bibby, the Hawks gave them a fight, winning all their games at home. Many pundits began contemplating a monumental upset, when the Hawks took the Celtics to a game 7. All doubts were put to rest, however, when the Celtics put together a convincing win, 99-65.
Their next challenge came with one of the best players in the league – LeBron James – and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While having a relatively easy time dispatching the Cavs in the Garden, their games in Cleveland were a different story: they lost games 3, 4 and 6 by 24, 11, and 5 points, respectively. It took a close game 7 win in Boston to put the LeBrons away for good, winning 97-92.
Many thought they were in trouble with their next opponents in the Eastern Conference Finals: the Detroit Pistons. With their playoff experience, their stifling defense, and an incredible backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, the Pistons were the favorites to upset Boston’s title aspirations. The upset looked like a reality, as they won game 2 in Boston. With the Celtics’ recent road struggles, many felt that all it took to upset the Big Three was a home loss. With the help of Powe and Rondo, however, the Celtics decisively won Game 3, taking home-court back. They eventually won in 6 games, ironically taking the Eastern Conference title in Detroit, 89-81.
The victory brought them to the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years, and into the league’s dream matchup, against the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers, with recently-crowned MVP Kobe Bryant, and 9-time NBA Champion head coach Phil Jackson, were considered by some as favorites to win the title, with good reason. Jackson had enough motivation to win his tenth title, overtaking legendary Celtics head coach Red Auerbach for most titles in NBA history, by beating Auerbach’s old team. Bryant had his own motivations, wanting to show the world he could win a championship without former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, whom he won three titles with. With an overall more experienced championship roster, the Lakers had the tools necessary to take down a seemingly vulnerable and inexperienced Celtics team.
Ultimately, the Celtics’ talent, cohesiveness and league-best defense won out against the Lakers’ superior experience. Game 1 saw team leader Paul Pierce pull a memorable “Willis Reed”: after going down in the 3rd quarter with an apparent knee injury, Pierce was carried off the court, with no hope of returning for the pivotal 4th quarter. Pierce, however, limped back onto the court only minutes later, and led his team to a 98-88 victory, highlighted by two three-pointers to snatch the momentum for good. After a Game 2 victory, the Celtics lost Game 3 at Staples Center.
The Lakers seemed to gain an advantage by accumulating a 24-point lead in Game 4 of the series, looking to tie things up at 2 games apiece, and go into Game 5 with the momentum. It was snatched away by an amazing 4th quarter run, led by Pierce’s 20 points, with the Celtics winning, 97-91. While they forced a Game 6 back at Boston, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers ran into a buzzsaw. Ray Allen went off for 7 3-pointers, with both he and Garnett scoring 26 points. The Celtics outscored the Lakers 34-15 in the 2nd quarter, and never looked back. Their 39-point win was the largest series-clinching win margin in NBA Finals history.
Thus, it completed an unbelievable season for the fans in New England, and for the talents of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. What began as a too-good-to-be-true team, culminated into what everyone expected – the best team in the NBA.
24 wins? A distant memory.
NOTE: I realize this happened a week ago – I just thought I needed to cut my chops on sports writing again, since I hadn’t done it in awhile. Hope you enjoyed it.