A Franchise Pantheon Opens Long-Closed Doors
After 22 years of gentle sleep, the Boston Celtics became giants again here Tuesday night. They did the single thing the Celtics have done better than any basketball team in the history of the sport: win another championship. And they got this one by doing what they love to do more than anything else: beating the stuffing out of their blood rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, to win their 17th NBA championship.
It had been 22 years worth of losing and tragedy, of lottery appearances and very long faces, of rebuilding plans, of coaches coming and going. Once upon a time the Celtics were the most important basketball franchise in the world, basketball's equivalent of the New York Yankees. But over the last 22 seasons, unable to raise a championship banner, the Celtics had become something of a museum exhibit, some relic from an earlier civilization. They were reduced to black-and-white clips and strains of broadcaster Johnny Most's voice on replays for a generation of fans and players. It was all too old school to be relevant. People under 40 were more likely to think of Boston as a doormat than a dynasty.
But a former Celtic, Danny Ainge, led them back to relevancy with those two appropriately celebrated summertime acquisitions, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. And they, along with Paul Pierce, Coach Doc Rivers and role players who understand their station in life, led the Celtics back to greatness. It became official Tuesday night, here at the new Garden, when the Celtics knocked the Lakers around as if they were a bunch of ragamuffins. No double-digit comeback was needed, there was no explosion from Kobe Bryant, and there was nothing puppet master Phil Jackson could do as the Celtics came close to reaching basketball nirvana during the first half. They took a 23-point halftime lead and coasted to championship ecstasy, 131-92. Red Auerbach might have been looking down on all he created, while lighting his victory cigar.
Midway through the third quarter the Boston lead had reached 31 points and hardly anybody in the building sat, as the Celtics worked on the finishing touches and joined the Red Sox and Patriots in a very proud winners' circle.
Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics' starting center, was back in the lineup despite an injured shoulder. Allen left a sick son at home in California to take his customary position of shooting guard, then once the game began had to fight through a smashed nose and blurry vision. The Celtics had all hands on deck in the push to close down the series in six and avoid having to play a Game 7 against Kobe and the Lakers here Thursday night.
The role players, each of whom seems to identify with a specific task, helped push the lead from three points to 14, at 43-29, with five minutes left in the second quarter. Eddie House, the shooter, came off the bench to hit a couple of jumpers, as did James Posey. Perkins and Leon Powe provided the muscle, as did Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who brought his 300-plus pounds off the pine to wreak havoc. The result at the end of the first half was a 58-35 Boston lead, during which time the Lakers' front-court stars, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, did next to nothing. They backed down as if they were physically afraid of Boston's big men.
The Celtics have always enjoyed a bloody and fierce battle, as if the traits are in their DNA. And Ainge, in putting together this team, was smart to locate players such as Posey, who helped the Heat win a title in Miami, and Tony Allen, who has been injured through parts of this postseason but loves a scrap.
The Lakers' biggest problem is that they, like the Hawks and Cavaliers and Pistons before them, had no solution for Pierce, who by leading this particular franchise to a championship in such a decisive way took a spot alongside Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy as leaders of basketball's royal franchise. Pierce didn't have a prolific Game 6, and he might not be as revered as his predecessors, not yet anyway. But he nevertheless belongs in the franchise's championship team picture because of his poise under pressure throughout the playoffs.
The one thing the Celtics knew when they entered the arena Tuesday afternoon was that by any means necessary they had to avoid a Game 7. As it is, Game 5 amounted to a dropped third strike for the Celtics.
Game 6 was a pitch that shouldn't have been. Even though the Celtics' defense drove Bryant nuts, you still don't want to give him an extra at-bat, even as much as an extra pitch.
The Celtics weren't giving away anything Tuesday night. They weren't about to let Jackson surpass Auerbach in titles won on the ancient parquet floor. The old Celtics knew no mercy; they dropped no third strikes.
However cuddly Russell and Tommy Heinsohn and Havlicek look now in their 60s and 70s, they were a cold, heartless bunch back when they wore the green. They choked off the Lakers' Elgin Baylor, the Kobe Bryant of their generation. These Celtics took a page from that book, sort of, defending Bryant with as consistent an effort as he has seen in his career. First Tracy McGrady, then Dwyane Wade called this Boston defense the best they'd ever faced, and Kobe found that out the hard way over six games. He couldn't see an open space, much less find one through which to drive.
Yes, the Celtics are professional basketball's top dog again, even if they're not New England's No. 1 sporting attraction . . . or No. 2 for that matter. (You can tell by the way the Celtics' game operations folks kept putting the camera on Bill Belichick whenever they wanted real noise.)
The Celtics fell from their perch in the 22 years of dormancy, and they're still going to be a distant third in New England's hearts, behind the Sox and Pats, in that order. But at least folks here now have something to talk about between the Patriots and Red Sox.
Regardless, there's no No. 3 status in basketball circles for these Celtics. From last to first, from worst to winners, they stand alone as champs after, relatively speaking, an unspeakably long absence. After looking on as the Lakers won five championships, as the Bulls won six and as the Spurs won four in their 22-year championship drought, the Celtics stopped being basketball outsiders Tuesday night. They became relevant again, champions again. Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Rivers, they all became champions for the first time, joining an intimidating fraternity that expects to beat the Lakers, that expects to hang banners, that expects to be the last team standing and the very last celebrating.