By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
BOSTON, June 17 -- In the 22 years since the Boston Celtics last won the NBA championship, they've had to deal with the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, Larry Bird's creaky back, Kevin McHale's ankle, losing the Tim Duncan draft lottery, the failed Rick Pitino regime, and so on. It was a torrent of hardships that turned the NBA's most storied franchise into an afterthought nationally and a backseat dweller locally, behind the Red Sox and New England Patriots.
But the Celtics' newly established "Big Three" of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen fulfilled the promise of bringing the first NBA championship to this town since the days of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish. The new trio entered this season with decorated individual careers but were a collective ring-less failure until Tuesday night. And, with 4 minutes 1 second left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Celtics Coach Doc Rivers removed his three all-stars, with his team well on its way to a 131-92 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Garnett, who scored 26 points and had 14 rebounds, pointed toward the rafters, signaling that the 17th championship banner soon would hang at TD Banknorth Garden. Then Garnett embraced Allen, who also scored 26 points and set an NBA Finals record with seven three-pointers.
Pierce, the series MVP, had 17 points and hugged Garnett and Rivers. Then, with 30 seconds left, Pierce sneaked behind Rivers and poured red Gatorade over his dark pinstriped suit.
"It feels great man," Pierce said. "You guys look at Kevin, myself and Ray, we sacrificed so much of what we did throughout our careers to get to this point, because we've done everything we've been able to do individually, won all type of awards, but never made it to the mountaintop. Today, it's like a breath of fresh air."
This revived rivalry of the most successful franchises in NBA history was mostly a lopsided affair this time, with the Celtics improving to 9-2 against the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Lakers suffered one of the greatest losses in NBA Finals history. Boston led by 43 points in the biggest Finals-clinching victory in NBA history.
"Yes, surprising," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said after looking at the final score. "We're disappointed, our fans are disappointed. I think everybody is disappointed that we didn't get a game out of this, give ourselves a chance."
The Celtics franchise appeared to have reached another low last season, when it won just 24 games and failed to land Greg Oden in the NBA draft lottery. But General Manager Danny Ainge took a different approach to team-building and assembled a championship team over the course of one ambitious summer. Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett, signed Eddie House and James Posey, and the franchise quickly made the most dramatic turnaround in NBA history. They won 66 regular season games, then appeared somewhat vulnerable in playoff struggles against Atlanta and Cleveland. But after defeating Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals, they dusted off in six games the Lakers, representing the supposedly superior Western Conference.
Boston needed an NBA-record 26 games to get the title, but it doesn't matter. The Duck Tour parade is just days away.
Entering this season, Pierce had spent nine mostly painful seasons with the Celtics and expected to get dealt last summer, but he stuck it out and was rewarded with some help. He moved from very good to great in just two weeks, emerging as the most dominant offensive player in a series opposite the league's most valuable player, Kobe Bryant. Pierce benefited from not having to face the Celtics' defense, which again managed to bottle up Bryant, holding him to just 22 points.
Pierce, a native of Inglewood, Calif., hated the Celtics growing up but considered beating his hometown Lakers a dream come true. Garnett had his own struggles as a lone wolf in Minnesota, carrying the weight of the franchise for 12 seasons before deciding that he never would win a title unless he moved elsewhere. He brought his boundless energy to Boston and became a fan favorite, but he entered Game 6 needing to have a brilliant performance to put aside a reputation for being unable to deliver in the clutch. He came through in a major way.
Allen arrived early Tuesday morning after spending time with his young son, who has diabetes. Allen was poked in the eye in the first quarter but returned to be a deadeye shooter.
This series had been defined by comebacks, from Pierce emerging from a wheelchair to lead his team to victory in Game 1, the Lakers cutting a 24-point fourth-quarter deficit to two points in Game 2, the Celtics overcoming a 24-point deficit to win Game 4 and another 19-point deficit before losing in Game 5. The Celtics didn't leave any room for a comeback on Tuesday, as they dominated from midway in the second quarter until the game ended. After the Lakers got within 32-29 on Pau Gasol's jump-hook in the second quarter, the Celtics outscored them 99-63.
Rajon Rondo helped the three stars with an impressive 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 6 steals.
Somewhere, Red Auerbach probably pulled out a cigar and celebrated. Not only did the franchise he led to prominence win its 17th NBA Championship, but the Celtics also kept Jackson from passing him for coaching titles.
After the game, Garnett slapped the leprechaun at center court and later said: "I'm so hyped right now. Anything is possible."
Then he began to weep.