That Boston Celtics' Death Certificate: Don't Sign It Yet

Bob BachelderContributor IApril 19, 2009

BOSTON - APRIL 18:  Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics looks on in the second half against the Chicago Bulls in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at TD Banknorth Garden on April 18, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Chicago Bulls defeated the Boston Celtics 105-103 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Just about everybody from Beantown to LA seems to think Kevin Garnett's absence from the lineup presents a doomsday scenario for the Celtics in the playoffs; they may be right.  However, they probably are wrong. Allow me to explain.

A team's culture, rooted in its history, is a stubborn thing. And no NBA club illustrates this fact better than the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics' fundamental approach to the game has not changed very much through the years. The defense is still fearsome, just as it was in the day of Larry Bird—and Bill Russell before him. Only now it is Kevin Garnett who has been the most formidable defender on the court.

And Boston still features a deadly inside-outside game, just as it did when Bird and Kevin McHale were teammates. Only now the names are Garnett, Pierce, and Rondo.

As important as Garnett has been to his team's success, though, another element of Celtics culture remains intact even after he is removed from the equation.

The Celtics have always understood that physical odds are not the only thing that count in a game, nor even the thing that counts the most. There is another key ingredient, something called Celtics Pride.

If you are inclined to deride or mock such an idea, go right ahead. If the Bulls or Cavs or Lakers choose to do that, and they probably will, you can be fairly certain they will pay the price.

At least that is what the historical record suggests.

Consider Game Seven of the 1969 championship series between Boston and LA. It was the first NBA game to be televised in prime time on a weekday.

It also was a game the Celtics were supposed to lose. The average age of the team was 32. It had endured the shame of finishing fourth in the Eastern Division before squeaking into the finals. Russell, the greatest winner in the history of his sport, was weary and would retire after the season.

The Lakers, in contrast, had dominated the West with an unprecedented concentration of offensive firepower supplied by Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain.

The series opened in LA and the Lakers handily won the first two games. Jerry West scored 53 points in the first contest and 41 in the second.

The Celtics managed to win the next two games at the Boston Garden, including an 89-88 victory in Game 4 on Sam Jones' buzzer-shot from the top of the key.

The teams split the next pair to send the series back to the Forum in LA.

That was when Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers' owner, committed one of the biggest blunders in NBA history. With his team favored by three points, he decided to publicize his plan to celebrate the impending victory.

Fans arrived on May 5 to discover that thousands of purple and gold balloons had been suspended from the Forum's rafters with fishnet.

They also found fliers on their seats that outlined the festivities: "When the Lakers win the championship, the USC marching band will play Happy Days Are Here Again. Balloons will fall down."

It's not clear who told Bill Russell about the balloons. But he made good use of the information when he addressed his team before the game.

He told the Celtics: "One thing cannot happen, the Lakers cannot beat us. It's not something that can happen. But it will be fun watching the Lakers get those balloons down one at a time."

The aging and aching Celtics out-ran, out-rebounded, and outscored their opponents. Sixth man Don Nelson scored 12 points in the third quarter to give his team a 91-76 lead. LA made a run in the fourth quarter, but Boston held on to win the championship, 108-106.

Team culture is a stubborn thing. Despite their injury-prone season, today's Celtics appear to embody the franchise's most historic attribute. They want to win.

Whether they possess "an absolute commitment to winning," as Bob Cousy said of Red Auerbach, remains to be seen. But there are encouraging signs.

When the national anthem is played before games at TD BankNorth Garden, Paul Pierce invariably lifts his eyes toward the rafters where the retired numbers of Russell, Cousy, Bird, and other Boston immortals reside.

The Celtics captain knows the price of admission to this pantheon is steep. He needs at least one more championship for entry because Celtics basketball has always been about the team and not the individual, no matter how many points he scores.

Garnett's replacement, meanwhile, is developing quickly, not only on offense, but also on defense. Glen Davis, Big Baby, a classic Celtic in the making, relishes his team's underdog status.

Then there are the others: Allen, House, and Rondo. To a man, they play like Celtics because team culture is such a stubborn thing.

So go ahead, you fans in Chicago, Cleveland, and LA. Go ahead, you sportswriters across America. Spin your stories about the Celtics' imminent demise, just as your predecessors used to do.

Ignore the history. Place your bets. Hang the balloons.

Join the proud tradition of Jack Kent Cooke. Give the Celtics the incentive they need to to defy the odds and make history again. Help them cement their place as the premier dynasty in the history of American sports.

Go ahead, you naysayers. Go ahead and make Boston's day.

Read more about the Celtics Lakers rivalry, its history and prospects at CelticsvLakers.com.


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