Last month, the Boston Celtics clinched their 17th NBA championship in style with a 131-92 mauling of the seemingly hapless Los Angeles Lakers, who looked as though they didn’t even deserve to be on the same floor as the Celtics throughout the series.
Things have not always been this easy in Boston. In fact, the Celtics had not won an NBA championship since Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish brought home a trophy back in 1986. Since Bird’s early retirement in 1992 due to chronic back and ankle problems, the Celtics as a franchise had struggled mightily both on the court and off. The tragic deaths of 1986 #2 overall pick Len Bias, who succumbed to a cocaine overdose, and Reggie Lewis, who fell victim to a heart problem called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 1993, set the Celtics back noticeably from a talent standpoint.
“They [Celtics fans] were very taken aback by it [Reggie Lewis’s death]” said Mary Bordonaro, who has worked as a waitress for the Garden’s private suites for 31 years. “These people [Reggie Lewis and Len Bias] were heroes. They did things that normal people hadn’t even thought of doing. To see that they had this kind of problem (referring to the drug addiction of Len Bias and the alleged drug addiction of Reggie Lewis) kind of took them off of their pedestal.”
Boston’s luck worsened in 1994, a year after Lewis’s death. In that year’s draft, they passed over Temple guard Eddie Jones, who averaged 14.8 points per game during his career, in favor of North Carolinacenter Eric Montross. Montross averaged 10 and 7.2 points per game respectively in his two seasons with the Celtics and retired in 2002, capping off an uneventful career during which the former Tar Heel averaged 4.5 points per game and played for 6 different teams.
Their luck was not much better in 1997, when the Celtics had two lottery picks and a 36.3% chance of landing Wake Forest forward Tim Duncan. Of course, Boston ended up with the third and sixth picks in that draft, and Duncan continues to play hall of fame caliber basketball in San Antonio.
The Celtics did make up for the mistake they made with Montross by drafting embattled Kansas combo forward Paul Pierce with the tenth overall pick in the 1998 draft four years later. Pierce had been labeled as “immature” and “one dimensional” by most draft experts and was drafted behind such household names as Michael Olowokandi (first overall pick), Raef Lafrentz (third overall pick), and Robert “Tractor” Traylor (sixth overall pick). Pierce has managed to dispel any complaints about his play throughout his career in Boston, as illustrated by the fact that he has averaged a respectable 1.6 steals per game, as well as 6.4 rebounds, to go along with his 23.1 points.
Perhaps most importantly, Pierce has also remained good natured and hard working throughout what has been by most accounts a very arduous tenure in Boston. Never once did he demand a trade or even voice his displeasure about the travails of the Celtics to the ravenous Boston media, despite the fact that the Celtics have accrued an underwhelming 387-401 win-loss record during Pierce’s tenure in Boston, and that number includes this year’s +50 win-loss differential.
Even before this season, Pierce had come up big for the Celtics when he was given the chance. For instance, during the 2001-2002 season, with the help of forward Antoine Walker, he led a Celtics team that had not made the playoffs for the previous six years to an improbable 49-33 regular season record and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Despite the fact that Boston ultimately fell to a more balanced New Jersey Nets team in six games, Pierce certainly did his part to keep his team alive. He scored 19 points in the fourth quarter of game three to cap off the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NBA playoff history, a 94-90 victory over the Nets, who led by 21 going into the final quarter.
Pierce’s Celtics were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs the following year and had two first round exits after that. During the 05-06 season, Boston would go on to struggle its way to a miserable 33-49 record and a 3rd place finish in the Atlantic division. Unfortunately for Pierce, the worst was yet to come.
“They had lottery team written all over them,” said avid Celtics fan Sean Crowe. “Remember, going into the season there was Paul Pierce and nobody… Tony Allen was probably the second best player on the team: Tony Allen.”
Expectations for the 06-07 Celtics going into the season were tepid at best, due mostly to the fact that Pierce’s increasingly inept supporting cast consisted of the unproven Al Jefferson, an undersized and physically lacking Ryan Gomes, an average player in Tony Allen, Wally Szczerbiak (Ricky Davis before he was traded for “Wally World”), and an overweight and seemingly uninterested Kendrick Perkins.
The Celtics were clearly rebuilding and had no designs of even pretending to contend in the east, and it showed when Gang Green stumbled its way to a horrendous 24-58 record, which was the second worst mark in the NBA behind Memphis’s 22-60 disgrace of a season. Pierce had another great statistical season in 06-07, averaging 25 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game.
However, he only managed to play in 47 games that season due to his constant struggle with injuries. Tony Allen and Al Jefferson played well in Pierce’s stead, but when Allen got hurt, the wheels really began to fall off for Boston.
Without Pierce and Allen, the Celtics and their fans suffered through a franchise record 18 game losing streak. During that stretch and even after Pierce returned to the team, Boston looked uninterested and out of sorts, as if they were merely going through the motions day in and day out, waiting for the season’s merciful end.
Thankfully enough for the Celtics and their fans, Boston’s sudden descent to the cellar of the NBA was not without its advantages. After all, Greg Oden, who had drawn numerous comparisons to former Celtic great Bill Russell due to his tenacity on defense, and Kevin Durant, who was one of the most athletic prospects of the decade, headlined an otherwise weak 2007 draft class.
Due to their lowly 24-58 record, which gave them the second worst mark in the NBA and therefore the second best chance of procuring the draft’s #1 selection through the lottery, Boston had a 40% chance of landing one of those blue chip prospects. But unfortunately for the Celtics, that was not to be. They ended up with the #5 pick in the draft, which was used on Georgetownswingman Jeff Green.
Embattled Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who was in jeopardy of losing his job on the heels of two poor seasons, took advantage of his team’s seemingly hopeless situation by dealing the draft rights to Green, along with the expiring $9.4 million contract of Wally Szczerbiak and unproven point guard Delonte West for veteran shooting guard Ray Allen, who had averaged 26.4 points per game for the hapless Seattle Sonics during the previous season.
“The key to the Ray Allen trade was that Danny Ainge pulled it off without giving up Theo Ratliff and his expiring contract,” said lifelong Celtic fan Stew Winkel. “I knew Ainge had at least another move to make.”
One month after the Allen deal, Ainge would execute his coup de gras, getting superstar forward Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for a seven player package headlined by power forward Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, draft bust Gerald Green, and of course Ratliff’s expiring contract. With that move and the subsequent signings of role players Eddie House, James Posey, and Scot Pollard, the Celtics went from being a laughing stock to a powerhouse in the East and a possible championship contender.
This sentiment was echoed by Boston fan Daniel Iascone, who said, “I thought they were the favorites to win the east. Clearly the talent was there. They would be even with Detroit at the very least.”
And win the east they did. Boston started the season with an eight game winning streak and never looked back en route to an amazing 66-16 record. There were questions going into the season about whether Pierce, Allen, and Garnett, all of whom were used to taking upwards of 20 shots per game and having their team’s offense flow through them, could share the ball efficiently. Throughout the year, those doubts and others were put to rest as “The Boston Three Party” combined to average 55.8 points per game on only 41.1 field goals attempted.
“I honestly didn’t have any [doubts going into the season]” said Stew Winkel. “I thought, especially after Ainge brought in House and Posey to fill out the roster, that this team was as well put together as one could realistically hope for.”
There was also a palpable change in the team’s psyche from game to game due to the infusion of veteran leadership brought on by Ainge’s dealings. Kevin Garnett’s passion and gutsy play were particularly indispensable for Boston, especially on defense, as illustrated by the fact that the Celtics allowed only 90.3 points per game despite the absence of a particularly surprising statistical improvement from any individual player. Garnett’s enthusiasm, along with the arrival of assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, transformed what was by most accounts a listless defensive team into one of the best post Jordan era defensive units in the NBA.
Boston held the best record in the NBA by the end of the season and were eight games ahead of the next best team, Detroit, which ended up with a 58-24 record. Garnett was given the defensive player of the year award and finished fourth in the voting for the league’s MVP award, behind Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, and Clevelandforward Lebron James.
Going into the playoffs, Boston was the prohibitive favorite to win the Eastern Conference and to win the NBA championship, and rightly so. The Celtics hit a speed bump early on in their hunt for a championship in the form of the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks, who had won just 37 games during the regular season. The Hawks’ youth and athleticism proved to be difficult for the older Celtics team to contain, or at least that was the case in Atlanta. No road team won a game throughout the seven game series.
The Celtics blew out Atlanta whenever the teams played in Boston, where their smallest margin of victory was a more than healthy 19 points. Interestingly enough, Boston’s defense seemed to vanish on the road. Atlanta never scored more than 85 points in Boston, but managed to put up 102, 97, and 103 points respectively in their wins in games 3, 4, and 6. Game 7 served as a fitting indicator of the disparity in talent between the Hawks and the Celtics, as Boston obliterated the Hawks 99-65 to finish what was quite possibly the most lopsided seven game series in NBA playoff history.
Despite beating Atlanta so handily at home, most Celtics fans were concerned about Boston’s struggles on the road when the fourth seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (AKA Lebron and the Lebronettes) came to town for the second round of the playoffs. The Celtics played solid defense at home early on, smothering Lebron James and holding the Cavs to 76 and 73 points respectively in the first two games. James, who was without a doubt Cleveland’s best player, shot a combined 8-42 from the field and was unable to drive to the hoop in the face of Boston’s defensive wall.
Despite their typically impressive showing at home, Boston’s road woes continued as their defense seemed to fall apart at the seams despite the fact that Lebron James scored just 42 points during the two games and shot 12-36 from the field. The Celtics were embarrassed during game 3, 108-84. This 24 point beating proved to be the most one-sided loss that the Celtics would endure during the playoffs. Similarly to the Atlanta series, no road team won a game throughout the series, but unlike the Hawks, Cleveland put up a fight at the Garden, losing by a combined 32 in four road losses.
Games 5 and 6 were predictably won by the home teams, which set the table for a duel the likes of which Boston fans had not seen since the 1988 conference semifinals, when Larry Bird and Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins combined for 80 points in game 7, which the Celtics won by 2, 118-116. Lebron James, who had been struggling noticeably throughout the series, scored 45 points on 15-29 shooting and took over the game at times, while Paul Pierce scored 41 and carried his Celtics to a 96-89 victory.
Pierce and James seemed to answer each other throughout the game. For a time they held serve, basket for basket, blow for blow, like two heavyweight fighters, circling each other, waiting for the other to make a move. Pierce and the Celtics ended up winning of course, and Lebron’s Herculean performance, like that of Wilkins in 1988, was not enough to overcome Boston’s superior play.
“It was the Cleveland series that made me doubt them” said Sean Crowe when asked about the Celtics’ early playoff struggles. “Kevin Garnett was timid down the stretch, Ray Allen was playing like crap, and Paul Pierce didn’t seem like he was at 100%. Plus, it was hard to envision a team that couldn’t beat the Lebron pu-pu platter on the road winning a championship.”
After two consecutive seven game series, many thought that Boston would be burnt out by the time they faced a well rested Detroit Pistons team, which had easily dispatched Orlando in five games, in the Eastern Conference Finals. After splitting the first two games in Boston, many fans were worried that Boston’s playoff road struggles would cost them the series. Previously, Detroit had only lost once at home and seemed unstoppable at the Palace. Boston would dismiss the constant doubts of their ability to win away from home by taking not one but two games in Detroit against the Pistons, en route to a six game series victory.
After beating the Pistons, the Celtics headed into the NBA Finals as a clear underdog to the streaking Los Angeles Lakers, who had accumulated an amazing 12-3 playoff record against the rugged Western Conference, which sported an eighth seed (the Denver Nuggets) that won 50 games. Boston on the other hand, had struggled their way to a 12-8 playoff record, including two seven game nail biters against a clearly inferior Atlanta team and a Clevelandteam that seemed content to watch Lebron James engage the entire Celtics team in a riveting game of 1 on 5.
“The Lakers were playing extremely well as a team and everyone was contributing.” said Lakers fan Jeff Little when asked about all of the hype the Lakers received heading into the finals. “Several people felt that the competition in the Western Conference was at a higher level than the Eastern Conference. Due to the majority of teams making late season trades to beef up their teams to make a stretch run, every game in the West became important and took on playoff standing implications.”
The Lakers had an early opportunity to set the tone for the series in game one, which the Celtics ended up winning 98-88. Paul Pierce had sustained what was thought to be a serious leg injury after 280 pound Kendrick Perkins fell on his knee under the basket. After leaving the game in a wheelchair and receiving some cortisone shots, Pierce returned to the game with a brace on his ailing knee and led his team to victory. The game was close. Had Los Angeles managed to steal one in Boston, they would have had a noticeable advantage due to the 2-3-2 format of the NBA finals. The Lakers were undefeated at home in the playoffs, so a sweep of the three games in LA and a five game series win for the Lakers would not have been far out of the realm of possibility.
But alas, that was not to be for Los Angeles. After game one, games two and three were business as usual. Both went to the home team despite a second half Laker comeback in game two that brought what was at one point a double digit Boston lead to a mere two with 38 seconds left. Boston held on for a 108-102 victory, which gave them a commanding 2-0 series lead going to Los Angeles. Game four was where the series got interesting after a ho-hum 87-81 win for the Lakers in game three that went exactly as most people had thought it would.
During the first half of game four, Los Angelesdominated the Celtics to the tune of a 21 point first quarter lead and an 18 point advantage by half-time. During the third quarter, Los Angles would stretch their lead to 24 before the Celtics began to chip away at the seemingly insurmountable deficit. The Laker lead would shrink to only 2 by the end of the third quarter on the heels of an emphatic dunk from PJ Brown, who had been coaxed out of retirement during the all star break by the promise of championship glory.
The Celtics would take their first lead of the game on a jumper from the under utilized Eddie House with 4:07 left in the fourth quarter. The Lakers would threaten a few times through the remainder of the quarter, but a clutch three pointer from James Posey and a Ray Allen layup maintained the Celtics’ lead. Boston hit its free throws down the stretch to complete the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, a 97-91 victory in Los Angeles. Game five also featured a Boston comeback, this time from a 39-22 Los Angeles first quarter lead, but unlike game four, Los Angeles held on for a 103-98 victory, and forced the series back to Boston.
Since the series was going back to Boston for two home games, the Celtics were expected to win the finals, but the rout that was game six exceeded any and all reasonable expectations. Los Angeles kept the game close during the first quarter mainly due to Kobe Bryant’s 15 points, falling behind by a score of 24-20. The game didn’t stay close for long, as Boston went on an 11-0 run during the second quarter to expand their lead to 43-29. Role players James Posey and Eddie House accounted for all of the scoring during this stretch. The Lakers never threatened for the rest of the game as Boston began to pull away.
“The Celtics clamped down on Kobe Bryant by basically throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him defensively and none of the other Lakers stepped up.” said Jeff Little when referring to the ultimate cause of the Lakers’ downfall.
The Celtic lead grew to as much as 41 at one point in the fourth quarter, as Boston ended their championship run comfortably, to say the least, with a 131-92 blowout of the Lakers. Ray Allen set NBA Finals records for most threes made in an NBA Finals with 22 and most threes made in a Finals game with 7. Kevin Garnett, coming off of a performance that he had described as “garbage,” during which he missed three critical free throws to ice LA’s game five win, scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Paul Pierce was named the Finals MVP.
“The funny thing about my reaction [to the Celtics’ victory] was I don't know exactly when it was, due to the blowout.” said Stew Winkel, “but I remember being on the phone in the third quarter talking to my brother. Neither one of us wanted to say it was over. But then the lead went to 25, then to 30, and at some point it just hit us that this game was over. Our conversation changed from worrying about if the Lakers had one last run in them, to wouldn't it be great to win this game by 40 points. It was a combination of amazement at the blowout victory, and just pure joy thinking back on all the memories of the last 22 years.”
To some degree, the residual emotion from the Celtics’ magical championship run has not left the city of Boston despite the fact that the NBA season has long been over. Role players Sam Cassel, Eddie House, and PJ Brown are unrestricted free agents, so Boston could face a slight roster turnover this offseason
Danny Ainge’s intentions to keep James Posey, whose lockdown defense and clutch shooting were vital to Boston’s championship run, had been well publicized, but Boston's salary cap situation prevented Ainge from being able to offer Posey anything more than the $5.8 million dollar mid-level exception. Posey signed a four year, $25 million dollar contract with the New Orleans Hornets this week.
PJ Brown seems to be leaning toward retirement due to his advanced age and Sam Cassel doesn't seem to have drawn much interest from his former team in regards to retaining his services due to his often poor shot selection throughout his time in Boston.
Luckily for the Celtics, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett are all under contract until 2010 and one more championship run from this team is not an impossibility, especially in the increasingly mediocre Eastern Conference.
For the time being, the Celtics will likely have a quiet offseason, which is befitting of an NBA champion that is returning all 5 of its starters. This season was an amazing ride to say the least, and while it is pretty safe to say that we have seen the best from the aging Celtics, basketball is relevant in Boston again and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
P.S. I would like to take a moment to thank Mary Bordonaro, Daniel Iascone, Stew Winkel, Jeff Little, and Sean Crowe for their magnificent contributions to this article, which enabled me to procure an internship for the sports department of the Haverhill Eagle Tribune beginning this fall. Thanks for helping me chase the dream guys.