As a Boston sports fan over the past 10 years or so, I’ve been incredibly spoiled. It’s something that I declare regularly, as my father continues to remind me. Can’t blame him for the fact that after dealing with the years of the Patriots being terrible pre-Parcells, the Sox never winning pre-Greatest Comeback Ever, the Celtics irrelevance in the post-Big 3 Era (Bird/McHale/Parish), and the 1990s/2000s Bruins who seemingly either missed the playoffs or were never a serious threat; maybe he didn’t think I deserved the right to watch contender after contender challenge their league’s competition for the title after the past few seasons. True, I’ve seen my share of tough losses – the Aaron Boone game, the Celtics Game 6/7 losses to the LA Lakers in 2010, two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (including a game which would have given the Patriots the unquestioned title of Greatest Team of All-Time) – but never have I endured yearly disappointments. I’ve always expected a contender, and when it didn’t seem possible, I wanted that team to stop whatever it was doing, and start over.
So it’s no real surprise that months ago, I wrote in this very blog that it was time to put all Celtics fans out of their collective misery, blow up the New Big 3 (Pierce/Garnett/Allen), and suffer a few years of expected futility to build from the ground up. My father disagreed – “you don’t know how well you have it right now as a fan” he said – but I knew. I knew how much fun it had been to watch the Celtics over the past few seasons; regardless of KG’s phantom injury in 2009 and the Perkins trade in 2011 which cost the Celtics the title last year (I will forever believe that); it was great to have a dog in the fight in May/June. This was different, though. These Celtics were clearly old. There were too many injuries. Our bench was an absolute joke…or maybe beyond a joke. Avery Bradley? Keyon Dooling? Mickael Pietrus? Come on…you can’t be serious. So I thought, wrote, and was confident that Danny Ainge should ensure he did what he has always said he would – not hold on too long to aging players and get something of value for them before it’s too late.
The modern day Big 3 Era, in my opinion, should have come to an end.
You know what? I was wrong. Completely, 100%, dead wrong.
Just as TVM’s Jared Shalek wrote just a day or two later after my column was posted on the same blog, the wrong decision would have been to blow it up. He scribed about the variables with this team – the experience, the grit, the attitude, and talent that was still harnessed. He wrote about Garnett and Allen still being able to bring it, that the shortened, busy NBA schedule might result in some strange things happening that might allow the Celtics to get a little lucky. I wasn’t buying it, and even today, I don’t blame myself for never seeing it. But, nonetheless, I was wrong.
I don’t know how many people could have seen this coming, but what the Celtics have done to this point – now standing with a 3-2 series lead against the overrated, cherished Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, with two chances to win one game and return to the NBA Finals – is the reason I love sports. It’s the reason I start every season with any team I root for truly believing “this can be our year”; the reason why when the Celtics are down 7 points with 16 seconds left, I draw out the scenario in my head where we win the game. This team could easily lose the next two games, be eliminated from the playoffs, and have the core of the team broken up prior to next season, but in no way will it take away what it has given to Celtics fans this season.
Where did this run come from? What has been the catalyst? Seemingly, there are too many places to touch on. The starting point is Kevin Garnett, who over the past two seasons (and in particular, the beginning of this one) has looked to be more of an aged, disgruntled, jealous older player who couldn’t accept that his body was breaking down and talent deteriorating after being in the NBA since graduating high school. It’s as if Garnett found the fountain of youth, as his resurrection over the last few months has been beyond impressive. What’s more is that nobody – the “experts”, the fans, or others around the league – seem able to pinpoint why exactly he looks more like KG4MVP Garnett instead of a 36 year old, 17 season NBA veteran. To call it impressive is an understatement…it’s downright dumbfounding. The passion, commitment, and dedication KG has shown to his craft, and to this team, has been inspiring. Rajon Rondo falls in right next to him. For years, Celtics fans heard about how great he’d be, how he’d develop into one of the game’s best point guards. I don’t know if many thought he’d turn into this…somebody who can completely control a game, even when shooting a miserable 3-of-15 from the field. He’s smart, he’s athletic, he’s gifted; but he has always been those things. Perhaps the difference this year is that he’s respected. He’s respected by the fans, by other teams, his head coach, and most importantly, his teammates. That respect, I’d imagine, has allowed him to play with the most confidence we’ve ever seen from the young point guard…and the result has been a truly inspiring, exciting, record-setting season. And while I don’t regret stating I’d have shipped him at the beginning of the year for Chris Paul, it’s hard to imagine a better player running this system.
Of course, head coach Doc Rivers also deserves a boatload of credit. Strapped with aging stars, an enigmatic point guard, a pathetic bench, and lofty expectations, Rivers has shown why he signed a 5-year contract extension last year. He has proven himself, once again, to be one of the top coaches in the league. I still remember sitting in the Bookworms Café at UConn reading a Bill Simmons article about Doc being fired. The thing was…Doc hadn’t been fired. Simmons – my favorite sports writer and a highly-respected basketball mind – had written a Friday column about the Doc Rivers firing because of how certain he was the Doc’s employment with Boston would be terminated over the weekend. Those who knew Rivers all said the same thing, “get him an All-Star or two and see what he does”. They, too, were right. After last season though, with Rivers’ contract up and the very real possibility of Miami, Chicago, New York, and other Eastern Conference teams passing the Celtics in terms of talent and athleticism, it seemed as though his time was finally done. Throw in the fact that the Western Conference was once again very strong, and that his son Austin was poised to be the starting point guard in his freshman campaign at Duke, and many expected the Doc Era to be over. I did. Again, I was wrong. Not only did Doc return, but he re-upped for five seasons…FIVE SEASONS!
The “experts” thought that this was a clear indication of Ainge’s urge to get Dwight Howard, or Deron Williams, or another star free agent who’d soon be ready to make a move. Yet, none of those moves came, and Doc was stuck with a team this year which (he admits) is worse than last season’s in terms of talent.
But that’s where the difference lies. Yes, this team is older than those of the past. Yes, this team is altogether less talented – there’s no James Posey, Eddie House, or Glen Davis to come off the bench for quality minutes – but lucky for them, and all basketball fans, that it’s not about talent right now. It’s about drive. It’s about determination. It’s about moxie and experience and passion and togetherness.
There are a multitude of other things that have allowed these Celtics to make this run – Ray Allen being nothing short of a warrior on horrible ankles after being left for dead, Avery Bradley’s incredible rise, Rajon Rondo “getting it” and putting his immense talent and smarts into action, Mickael Pietrus looking like the defender he was years ago in holding the league’s best player to sub-par shooting. At the end of the day, it has been the collective “team” approach, “UBUNTU” as the Celtics call it, which has triggered an undeniably surprising playoff run. Oh, and luck too. In no way can you discount the injuries that have allowed that seemingly closed door to open slightly – Derrick Rose, Jeremy Lin, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard – and the Cs have thrown that door wide open. Luck, though, is a part of each season every year…every championship run needs some luck.
This Celtics run is all about the things that make sports great. Working together, rooting for something greater than one’s self/the individual, overcoming the odds when all the weights are stacked against you, and sticking with your team. This is KG’s team. This is Doc’s team. This is Paul’s, and Rajon’s, and Ray’s, and Brandon’s, and Mickael Pietrus’ team. This is Boston’s team…
…and as wrong as I was a few months ago about it…this is my team. Win or lose this series or the next one, Celtic Pride is all-in, and this team wouldn’t have it any other way.