Celtics return to Finals with history on the horizon

By Peter F. Stringer
June 1, 2010

LOS ANGELES - Some say it's not the destination, but the journey that matters.

If that's the case, the 2010 playoff run may stand up in retrospect as being more interesting, more inspiring and even more memorable than that of 2008. While no Celtic directly involved in both voyages is willing to compare them until this magical ride concludes, there's no rule saying that the rest of us can't, right?

Two months ago, there appeared to be no line on the horizon for the 2010 Boston Celtics, and the sun was setting fast. They were a team with an early curfew on prom night; allowed a first round win but little else beyond. Now, they find themselves right where they thought they'd be all along: back on center stage at the big dance trying to win another title before midnight strikes on the New Big Three era.

Manifest Destiny is a term that comes to mind thinking about the 2008 run. That team was assembled with one goal in mind in the summer of 2007, and right out of the gates, the team destroyed almost everything in its path, dismantling would-be contenders with blowout wins, demoralizing them with third quarter runs and embarrassing them with early fourth quarter disco-dancing from Gino, the VHS victory cigar who'd been running on the jumbotron in obscurity for years until Kevin Garnett embraced his presence and mimicked his moves during garbage time.

2010 proved itself a different animal altogether. With Garnett on the mend from the knee injury that robbed the C's of a proper title defense in 2009, the C's came out of the gates with similar fire to start the season, climaxing with a Christmas Day victory in Orlando that had fans and pundits alike talking about another banner. With a 23-5 record and national TV audience watching, the C's looked unbeatable.

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce

Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce both suffered mid-season injuries, sending the Celtics into a tailspin.Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty

But a transformation was taking place inside the team and it threatened to throw the Celtics off course. Age appeared to be catching up with the New Big Three, and the team lost 27 of its last 54 games. Ray Allen, in his last season under contract with the team, was facing the very real prospect of being dealt away for an infusion of young talent. After all, Danny Ainge played for the 80s teams that got old before his eyes as mileage mounted on the Old Big Three, and he witnessed first hand how sentimentality (along with tragedy and a large dose of bad luck) could run an organization aground for years to come.

In today's NBA economy, where getting under the cap is a far more reachable goal for most franchises than winning a ring will ever be, players with expiring contracts are highly desirable assets. All-Stars with expiring contracts? Even better. So there was no shortage of suitors looking to deal for Allen, and in terms of flexibility, he was the one tradable chip at Ainge's disposal.

After weighing offers, the Celtics brass never found an option that would upgrade the team significantly enough to roll the dice. Ultimately, even as team performance wavered, Doc Rivers believed his team was "close," and told the media as much after wins and losses alike. He never let his team stop believing in themselves, keeping them focused on the same goals the team broke training camp with in October. So as the trade deadline passed, Allen remained a Celtic, Nate Robinson joined the team and the C's slowly started piecing things back together.

"The one thing that Doc said all year was 'I like this team. I like the guys on this team. We can win it with the guys that are on this team,' " said Allen. "Whether it was offense or whether it was defense, the one thing he always used to say, when things went bad, we lost things, somebody scored on us -- as players we kind of fight a little bit. 'We need to do this. We need to do that.' And Doc would come into the locker room and say, 'We're not changing anything. What we're going to do is do what we're doing harder.'"

There were nights when the team showed signs of making an inspired run, evoking visions of the 2008 team. And for Garnett, who spent most of the season playing below the rim and favoring his surgically repaired knee, some days were better than others. For every impressive showing, there were just as many nights when the squad looked old, tired, and frankly, tired of each other. The 2008 rally cry "Ubuntu," an African term meaning something along the lines of, "I am because we are," was losing relevance in its third season, and some wondered if the championship window, originally estimated at three-to-four seasons wide, was slamming shut before their eyes -- or perhaps already sealed for good.

Meanwhile, a power struggle was brewing beneath the surface as team dynamics started to change. Rajon Rondo, the team's budding young star, was emerging as the team's best and most consistent player. He'd spent his first two seasons with the Big Three being overshadowed, questioned or just flat-out ignored, both by the media and opposing defenses daring him to shoot the jumper. But Rondo began imposing his will on the NBA and his teammates alike. While he frequently ducked out on the media after games and made little secret of his disinterest in doing interviews, the point guard who grew up playing quarterback (and says he didn't watch hoops as a kid) was trying harder to take command of his huddle.

Predictably, friction ensued. Professional athletes compete for a living, and to that end, are typically competitive about everything they do, every day of their lives. Whether it's a card game on the team plane or a post-practice shooting contest, pride (and typically money) is on the line 24/7, 365. No one wants to step aside or admit that their time is passing them by. But as Rondo continued to improve and Garnett, Pierce and Allen battled nagging injuries and the collective effects of years of mileage, something had to give.

When it happened will likely remain in house until someone digs it out of the principals involved, but the "when" is far less relevant than the "why" in this case.

Legacy, a far greater force than most athletes recognize while they're still playing at a high level, kicked this team below the belt. At some point it had to become clear: the Ubuntu Celtics could be a one-hit wonder, or they could put aside their squabbles and try to join the great squads in team history that hung multiple banners. It was that simple.

Celtics starters

Boston's starters put aside any hidden agendas down the stretch to help the team turn the corner in the playoffs.NBAE/Getty

Improbable isn't really the word to describe the 2010 playoff run. There was always a possibility that the Celtics would "turn it on" once the postseason got here, but it was getting harder to see from outside the bunker. All the while, Rivers maintained his team was close to turning the corner. It's not clear how many people believed him, but you have to credit him for pronouncing his faith that he had a championship-caliber club on his hands in the face of growing doubt, and then keeping his team tuned in to the idea that they still had a run in them.

Rivers stood resolute.

"As a coach, I just believed that I saw what they did and what they had," Rivers said. "And we kept saying as a staff, it's in us. We've got to try to get it back out of us."

The deeper question is, did the coach think his team was close because they were getting healthier and becoming a better team on the floor, or was he working on repairing relationships away from the court that would ultimately decide the fate of a team that was "reloaded" for what might be one last run at another NBA title?

Probably a little of both. When the postseason arrived and the Celtics found themselves in a First Round matchup with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, it was the last time they'd be favored in a postseason series in 2010. Despite handily dismissing a one-dimensional Heat team in five games, few gave them any hope of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team awaiting anointment in a culture that too often looks to crown the next king instead of respecting those who came before him. These days, as Jay-Z would say, the motto is "On to the next one..."

Casual observers played the age card and named the Celtics underdogs, a designation that sat fine with the C's. But they dismantled the Cavaliers, exploiting mid-season pickup Antawn Jamison with an epic mismatch in the low post as Kevin Garnett's dynamic game ate him alive. While league observers talked about Jamison being the potential final piece that would put the Cavs over the top, the Celtics secretly loved the move. They knew Jamison's below average defensive play could be exposed in the postseason, as matchups are magnified in a seven-game series and the Celtics attacked the Cavs' Achilles heel with gusto. And Rondo, who'd emerged as the team's premier player, picked the Cavs apart, posting one of the all-time great playoff triple-doubles in Game 4 (29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists) at the Garden to tie the series at 2-2.

The C's went on to close out the Cavs in six games, blowing them out in Game 5 and then fending off a great performance from LeBron James in Game 6.

With Cleveland deposed, the Celtics moved on to face the Magic, and once again, the talk revolved around Dwight Howard, the baby-faced pitchman who puts up huge numbers but still hasn't figured out how to get it done when the money's on the line. The Magic had eliminated a Garnett-less Celtics team the previous spring, but the C's really looked at Orlando, not Cleveland, as the team to beat in the East. After all, the Magic had beaten both Boston and Cleveland to advance to the NBA Finals last spring. Rivers made this point to his team in training camp, and never wavered on the point despite the Cavs' gaudy record and growing reputation as a team of destiny. And when the Magic swept the Bobcats and Hawks in the first two rounds, it looked like Orlando might just be the juggernaut Rivers suggested they were.

But with vengeance on the brain -- the C's never got a chance to defend their title at full strength -- they were determined to get a second chance to make a second impression. Winning the first two games in Orlando, the Celtics made a huge statement, making it clear that they were back in business and legitimate title contenders. And when they went up 3-0, the Magic were left for dead. A few mistakes down the stretch of an intense Game 4 cost the Celtics the series sweep and they ended up dropping Game 5 in Orlando, causing alarmists to push the panic button, erroneously equating the Celtics' missteps with the epic collapse of the neighboring Boston Bruins (who led 3-0 only to lose four straight games) in their Conference Finals series with the Philadelphia Flyers just weeks before.

Most players laughed off inquires from the unenlightened who asked about similarities to the Bruins demise, given the vast difference between the sports, but even if the questions were dumb, at the end of the day, the weight of history could have crushed this team had they faced a return trip to Orlando for a Game 7. But the Celtics wasted little time eradicating any possibility of a collapse, jumping out early in the first half and then finishing the Magic in the fourth to bring on the "BEAT L.A." chants from a rabid Garden crowd.

Now on the ground in Los Angeles for their first two games, the Celtics are right where they expected to be, and frankly, where the old-school NBA universe wants them: In the Finals playing the Lakers for all the marbles.

"This is an opportunity that I have for my second trip to the Finals, knowing that a lot of guys never made it," said Pierce, whom of all the Big Three seems the most consumed with franchise history and where he may someday stand in the retelling of that legacy. "So we're real excited about this. Going to soak it all up. Going to enjoy it. There's nothing like it. Twenty-eight NBA teams get to watch us now. So we never take these moments for granted. Especially at this point in my career where it's winding down. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. To get back here is a great accomplishment, but even greater if we win another one."

From Rivers on down, everyone knows that for this Celtics team to live up to the standards set by Boston squads of the past, they need to win at least a second title.

"We've talked about that, that we want to join that club," Rivers said. "No one can ever take away the first title. But we want to join another club, too."

They're just four wins away from membership.