By Ryan McGowan
The last three years were more than I ever would have hoped for on May 22, 2007, when I sat down at my old Brighton house on Newton Street to watch the NBA draft lottery.
At the time, we Celtics fans were hoping for the mathematical near-certainty of landing at least one of the top two picks, widely expected to be Ohio State center Greg Oden or Texas phenom Kevin Durant. When the ping-pong balls fell in the other direction, landing the Celtics at #5 and the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics at 1 and 2, the collective chests of Celtic Nation breathed a huge sigh of disappointment.
Another crappy year gone. Another hopeless offseason coming up. And certainly another year without a banner, 22 and counting since perhaps the greatest Celtic team ever ramrodded the Association for Banner #16 in 1986.
Peter May even wrote a book about that ’86 season called The Last Banner. It seemed like the title might be true forever.
Thinking of that late spring day, coming home from work to watch the lottery with my then-roommate Pete and my brother/roommate Patrick, made me reflect on how far the Celtics came in such little time, and how much excitement they brought to long-suffering Boston basketball fans in three years. And, sadly, about how it all just might be over.
It’s hard enough to watch your team lose, it’s harder to watch them lose in the playoffs, it’s even harder to watch them lose in the Finals, and it’s definitely the hardest to watch them lose a winnable Game 7 in which they held a 13-point lead in the second half. But it makes it slightly easier to think about the alternative—never having had the chance at all.
Three years and one month ago, the assertion that the Celtics would be appearing in two NBA Finals in the next three seasons would have been met with a cynical sneer of “Riiight… and I’m sure we’re going to have a black President too, right?” You would have been thought to have been about as good a prognosticator of the future as Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future Part II.
But the Celtics, somehow, pulled it off. They pulled it off through a combination of some of the most balls-to-the-wall general managing in history (Danny Ainge’s ruthless acquisition of the Big Three was downright Auerbach-esque), critical coaching (Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau managing superstar egos along with up-and-coming stars like Rondo, Big Baby, and Perkins, not to mention psychotics like Stephon Marbury and Rasheed Wallace), and inspired team-centric playing (first and foremost seen in Kevin Garnett’s selfless leadership, Ray Allen’s uber-professional lethality, and Paul Pierce’s consistent captaincy).
This Celtics team ran though the league in 2008, only having brief hiccups in the playoffs when they discovered they couldn’t win on the road, and were taken to seven games by the upstart Atlanta Hawks and the Lebron-led Cavs, before turning it on to clinch the conference title on the Pistons’ home floor and tornado the Lakers in six games, including an epic Game 6 blowout to win Banner 17 at the new Boston Garden. It was a pinpoint sniping of the whole league, and it was a season that restored the Celtics to their rightful place not only in the hierarchy of Boston’s championship franchises but in the pecking order of the new NBA, which had seemingly left the Green behind since Top Gun was in the theaters.
2009 brought a different set of challenges, with the Garnett-like Celtics emerging victorious in one of the greatest playoff series of all time against the young Chicago Bulls, before falling in seven games to eventual conference champs Orlando. And 2010 was a treat, with the increasingly aging C’s sleepwalking through the second half of the regular season, only to emerge from hibernation in April to dismantle Dwyane Wade and the Heat, Lebron and the Cavs, and Dwight Howard and the Magic before coming oh-so-close to shutting up the rapist Kobe, the insufferable blowhard Phil Jackson, the sociopathic Ron Artest and Lamar Odom, and the whole lot of unbearable Lakers fans, who shockingly were mostly still there at the end of Game 7 despite the certainty of postgame traffic that needed to be beat.
As much as it sucked to watch the Celtics run out of gas in the fourth quarter and die a slow piano-wire-like death at the hands of 37 Lakers free throws (to 17 in the game for Boston), it was preferable to watching the pathetic albatross of a team that slugged its way through an entire generation. The Celtics lost in Game 7, but they didn’t beat themselves; they just got beat.
After seeing so many championships in this city (and quite a few losers too), we get spoiled and always assume that our team screwed up—we never give credit to the other teams. When our Red Sox relievers blow a save, it’s the pitchers who screwed up and choked; it’s never the other team’s hitters who got a clutch hit when their team needed one. When the Patriots lose, it couldn’t have been because the other team’s coach or quarterback was better or made more plays that day; it must be that our coach gagged and our quarterback withered. We’re a very self-centered people—not just in Boston, but in all of America in 2010. It’s all about us, us, us. As much as it hurt in the moment to watch, it was nice, for a change, to think about a game after the fact and not feel like our team jobbed it away.
The Lakers simply made the plays. Pau Gasol and Ron Artest, especially, were clutch in the fourth quarter. The Lakers were tough. Sasha Vujacic comes off the bench and hits the two biggest free throws of his life with 11.7 seconds left. They showed some balls. They were just better. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
So there’s nothing to be ashamed of with this Celtics team. In defeat they showed the championship mettle that had come perhaps too easily in 2008. Despite the seven-game series in ’08, they were never really tested. In hindsight, they had the championship wrapped up before the season even started; the three ring-starved veterans simply would not be denied, and no one, not Lebron, not Joe Johnson, not the Black Mamba, would get in their way.
In 2010, they had to work for everything they got. They had to dig down and win games with defense that they used to win just by outjumping and outscoring their opponents. Now they had to outfight them. In Game 7, they fought with all they had—and it just wasn’t enough. No shame in their effort.
With the most interesting offseason in the recent history of the NBA looming, who knows what will happen to this Celtics core? Paul Pierce has opted out of his contract, but with Doc Rivers announcing on June 30 that he would be returning as coach, it seems more likely that Pierce will return with a reconstructed contract. Ray Allen is a free agent, and it looks increasingly like Ainge may let him walk, despite his irreplaceable leadership and consummate professionalism (not to mention his occasional lights-out shooting nights, such as his single-handed decimation of LA in Game 2). Garnett has been playing in the league since TLC’s “Waterfalls” was a #1 hit. Wallace is going to retire, but the odds were against his return to the team in any significant role next year anyway.
This group may have one more run in them, or they might be blown off by the map by a reconstituted Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavs team next season. Maybe they make it back to the Finals and lose again to the Lakers, and let this run die with a whimper like the ill-fated 1987 Celtics.
Either way, it’s been a great run, and everything else is house money. If Ainge decides to go in a different direction and reload, this Celtics group has etched itself into the franchise’s storied history. They revived basketball in a town which desperately loves its team, and they played in a way that should make not only New Englanders proud, but also sports fans in general, who always say they want selfless, team-first superstars but too often do not recognize a truly great “team” when they see one. These Celtics epitomized that, and no matter what happens, they’ll always have that to be proud of.
It certainly was more than we ever could have hoped for on May 22, 2007. God, I’m glad we didn’t get Greg Oden. I never thought I’d be writing those words, but they couldn’t be more true.