Monday, June 11, 2012

Boston Celtics: The End of the Pierce, Garnett, Allen Era

I was born in Massachusetts towards the end of the Larry Bird era. Never saw him play live. Only stepped inside of the old Boston Garden one time and it was to see Disney on Ice. There wasn't much of a reason for me to be a Boston Celtics fan. My dad was, so I was. The team didn't give me much of reason.

The deterioration of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish, the untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis and some woeful drafting and management led to two decades of rooting for the losers for me. I remember my childhood, watching the other kids gush over Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal while I was busy forcing myself to look up to names like Dino Radja, Xavier McDaniel, Pervis Ellison and Eric Williams. Finding excitement watching a decaying Dominique Wilkins wear green trying to rekindle his Hawks success. 

I remember transitioning into adulthood by painting the "C" in "RICKY" on my chest to support Ricky Davis in his efforts to help the Paul Pierce / Antoine Walker Celtics advance a couple rounds into the Eastern Conference playoffs only to be bounced again by a bevy of different contenders. The most excitement I had ever had as a Celtic fan was the one win those Celtics attained in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets, coming back from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

That is, until the 2007-2008 season, when Celtics GM Danny Ainge flipped a group of youngsters that had just finished the worst season in Celtics history for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With two moves that sent away Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff's expiring contract and multiple draft picks, I finally wasn't looked upon strangely when I told people I had Celtic Pride. 

Suddenly the casual sports fans of the state felt comfortable wearing green and stepping outside the Fenway and Foxboro box they trapped themselves in. No longer could one buy a $10 balcony seat to the TD Garden on the night of the game and move down to the fifth row as early as the second timeout, which my friends and I had come accustomed to doing. It was cool to be a Celtics fan again.

Boston came out of the gates white hot that season and held the best record in the league for just about the entire season, finishing 66-16, which ended up being the greatest turnaround in NBA history from the season before. Behind Pierce, Garnett, Allen, a young, exciting point guard named Rajon Rondo who played behind West and Telfair in his rookie season, and crafty veterans like James Posey and P.J. Brown, the new Celtics group beat the rival L.A. Lakers in six games and won the franchise's first NBA championship since 1986.

But there was disappointment to follow that season for this group of three future Hall-of-Famers. In 2009 a Garnett injury would thwart the Celtics efforts to repeat. In 2010 the Lakers got their revenge beating the Celtics in seven games in the Finals. 2011 ended in Eastern Conference Finals defeat to the Miami Heat, just like we saw in the 2012 ECF Saturday night, and now the fate and future of those three players as a group in up in the air. That banner in 2008 would be the only title this group would capture, but their impact on the city and it's fan base was immense.

It all started with Doc Rivers. Ainge loved the guy as the team's head coach. Radio voices and other public pundits wanted Rivers gone after the team's struggles pre-'07-'08, but Ainge knew that coaches can't win without talent, and there was something special about the way Doc handled the players. He was right. Rivers  introduced the term "ubuntu," an African philosophy that stresses togetherness and collective success of the whole. This resulted in three guys who had been the number one option on their respective teams for many year coming together and sacrificing shots and minutes for the greater good, and changing their lives, careers and legacies forever.

All three of the players had proved their greatness in the past. But without each other, none of them would be as respected as they all are now.

Ray Allen would have still broken Reggie Miller's career total three-point field goal record and been considered one of the best pure shooters of all time. That's pretty much a given. But would be have ever had the opportunity to be a part of an all-time great defense? I doubt it. Ray became much more of a complete players after joining forces with Pierce and Garnett. He became a more efficient player too, chucking up way less prayers than he had to in Seattle. Allen learned to find his shots within the offense and was a perfect teammate, displaying to the youngsters what work ethic is supposed to look like. Would he have won a title if he stayed in Oklahoma City? Maybe. This year would have been interesting. But it would have been Kevin Durant's title, not Ray Allen's. 2008 belongs to him, Pierce and Garnett. And with the emergence of Durant and all of the OKC youngsters, who's to say there would even be a place for him?

Kevin Garnett in Minnesota was considered one of the best, if not the best player in the league for several years before being traded to Boston. The Timberwolves never really put great talent around him though, and with Tim Duncan's Spurs and Shaq and Kobe Bryant's Lakers clogging up the Western Conference, Garnett was never able to bring an NBA Finals to Minny. The Celtics provided the talent Garnett needed around him to succeed, changing Garnett's ill-fate into great success. It's amazing how much difference a championship makes. Instead of being on the list of those great players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone or John Stockton that never won the big one, Garnett will forever be seen as a winner. He said it best himself after screaming about anything being possible. He's "certified".

Paul Pierce stood to gain the most of any of the three when they united. Accepted as a selfish player akin to the Vince Carters, Allen Iversons and Tracy McGradys of his time, Pierce was a polarizing figure in Boston and around the NBA. He would end up high on the ranks of all-time Celtic scorers (which is huge; it's not like being among the Grizzlies all-time scorers), but was he a team player? Did he have character issues off the court? All these doubts were extinguished after 2008. The Celtics franchise has always been about winning. Without a championship, you can't be regarded as one of the greats in team history. Thanks to Garnett and Allen, he has one. Would he have even been a Hall of Famer without them? He'd probably be borderline. Now Pierce is an NBA Finals MVP, a champion, and one of the all-time greatest Celtics. Maybe in the top five.

These three players have been a unit for five years now. Doc Rivers refuses to even look at them as individuals. Before that fateful off-season that brought them all together, these guys were as individual as they come, especially Garnett and Pierce who had problems co-existing with teammates through most of their careers. Who would have guessed that the three of them would later forever be linked together in the record books and history of the game of basketball? Together, they made Boston a basketball town again and helped the city raise a record 17th banner. They helped each other become more unselfish and better defenders. 

The loss to the Heat Saturday night may have been the last game Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will ever play together, but their names will forever be said in the same sentence whenever two sports fans talk about Boston Celtics champions.


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