NBA Playoffs: Celtics Back Where They Belong

Stew WinkelSenior Analyst IApril 18, 2008

In the Summer of 1986, I remember getting this white plastic cup from a local gas station.  On one side was a Celtics logo, and on the other was a slogan, “16 going on 17.”  That was 22 years ago. 

I was only nine years old, but I remember that cup, and thinking it was almost a foregone conclusion that title 17 would happen sometime soon.  When the Celtics lost to the Lakers in the 1987 NBA Finals, I still had that cup, and just assumed that in 1988, the Celtics would beat the Lakers for their next banner.

Then the inexplicable happened in 1988 – the Pistons beat the Celtics that year, stopping Boston from getting to the finals for the fifth straight season.  I could not believe it.  I thought it had to be a mistake.

In 1989 Larry Bird only played in six games.  Title 17 would have to wait another year.

I don’t need to go year by year, everyone gets the point.  It has been a while.

The point was even hammered home to me last night – with the 2008 NBA playoffs only a few days away, I wanted to start preparing.  I went to my DVD collection and pulled out the Boston Celtics NBA Dynasty Series a Complete History.  The DVD documents the Celtics dynasty from the 1950s through the 1986 season.  Then there is a final chapter – searching for number 17, a recap of the team from the 1990s through today.

Searching is the perfect word.

The organization searched for ways to keep the dynasty alive, but always came up short.  For decades, nearly everything the Celtics did worked.  Suddenly, all the years of good fortune came to a crashing halt. 

There were the tragedies of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis.  The injuries that impacted both Bird and McHale. Trying the quick fix by signing Dominique Wilkins for the 1994-95 season.  The terrible draft picks – Michael Smith, Jon Barry, Acie Earl, Eric Montross, Jerome Moiso, Kedrick Brown and Joseph Forte.  Rick Pitino.

After winning 16 of the first 40 NBA titles, it has been 22 years since the last championship for Boston.  Twenty-one years since the team made the NBA finals, and at least 16 years since the team was even in the conversation of which team could win the title.  Between 1994 and 2007, the Celtics won only three playoff series, while making ten trips to the lottery.   

The low point for fans I believe had to be May 23, 2007 – the night of the NBA Draft Lottery.   The Celtics had the second worst record in the league.  Celtics fans were already dreaming of teaming either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant with a healthy Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson.  Then fans learned the team had the fifth pick.  The fifth pick.  How could this have happened again?

In case anyone forgot, the Celtics thought they had a great shot to land Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft.  They didn’t.   The Spurs have won four titles since then. 

As Celtic fans consoled each other, Danny Ainge went to work.  He wanted Kevin Garnett and thought he had the young talent (and Theo Ratliff’s expiring contract) to get a deal done.  But KG wanted no part of Boston.

Then Ainge brought Ray Allen into the fold.  Boston now became more attractive to KG.

July 30, 2007.  Kevin Garnett is traded to the Celtics.

In one day the entire outlook changed.   KG's impact I have to believe is similar to the impact Bird had on the franchise in 1979 (the Celtics won 29 games the year before Bird, 61 in his first season). 

In fact, during "Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend," the narrator says Bird arrived in Boston "at a time when [the Celtics'] fortunes have never been lower and expectations have never been higher." The narrator could easily change the name Bird for Garnett, and the statement would remain completely accurate. 

This is where I am going to make the case for KG for MVP.  The award is for the most valuable – how can anyone be more valuable than Garnett?

If Kobe or Chris Paul wins, I will have no problem.  They each have had great seasons.  But the Celtics as a franchise were dead last summer.  KG changed that.  The Celtics were a terrible defensive team.  KG changed that.  No one wanted to come play for the Celtics.  KG changed that.

I use a Celtics pen at work.  I watch every game.  I own green Celtics sneakers.  For years I have been mocked for all of those things.  Not this year.  KG changed that as well.  

Everything about the Celtics this season starts with Garnett.  Everything.

Pierce has been great.  I am so happy for him.  He has had to endure the Pitino era, then the team getting close only to be torn apart due to mismanagement by Paul Gaston and Chris Wallace.  Then the team tried to rebuild, and then they tried to rebuild again.  Then there was last season.  He has stuck with the Celtics all these years, and this season, he has put his ego aside and turned in arguably the best all-around season of his career.

The team other than KG/Pierce/Ray Allen, particularly Rajon Rondo, has been much better than most people expected.  The bench is a great combination of young talent (Powe, Davis, Tony Allen) and quality veterans (Posey, Cassell, P.J. Brown and Eddie House).  

But the reason this team has won 66 games, the reason they have played so hard every single game is because of Kevin Garnett.

Back in the 1980s, the talk was always how Larry and Magic could dominate games without even having to score a point.  KG has done that, albeit in a much different way, all season long.

I don’t really expect KG to win the MVP.  And that is fine with me, and I am sure it is fine with him too.  He has an MVP.  He doesn’t have a championship, and that is what he came here to do.

This was supposed to be a preview of the Celtics-Hawks series.  It hasn’t been that.  The teams played three times this year, with the Celtics winning all three games by double figures.  The Celtics are on a mission.  The Hawks I believe are just happy to be in the playoffs.

The Celtics are the best team in the league.  Does this mean they are going to win the championship?  Absolutely not.

There are at least eight teams I could see winning the title – I can not remember there ever being that many legitimate title contends in an NBA playoff.

But Boston has as good a chance as any team – and as a Celtics fan, that is all I could ask for, and it just feels good having the Celtics finally back where I grew up thinking they would always be – among the NBA’s elite with a real chance to win the title.