By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008
NEWPORT, R.I. -- In bold, green letters, two words jumped off the dry-erase board propped up along the baseline at Salve Regina University's gymnasium, where the Boston Celtics began training to defend their NBA championship: "Anythings Possible!!!!"
The apostrophe may have been missing, but the extra exclamation points harkened back to Kevin Garnett's weeping howl toward the roof of the TD Banknorth Garden, after the Celtics proved that anything -- or at least a worst-to-first run to an NBA championship -- is possible with a lopsided victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
It really was possible for three ringless superstars to be thrown together one summer, sacrifice individual statistics for the greater good and win a championship in less than 10 months. It was possible for the Celtics to re-assume their position "on top of the world" and win banner No. 17 following a 22-year, misery-filled hiatus. And as Garnett explained while later describing his emotions on the podium, it was possible for a kid to finally knock out the bully who had been picking on him.
This week, he was asked about the prospect of repeating and what the kid who dropped the bully does the next day at school. "Well, some people don't actually believe when you knock the bully out," said Garnett, who waited 13 seasons for his first championship. "So you know you got testers. Bullies do have brothers and relatives, and sometimes they all go to the same school. I've never known a bully to back down or not to come back to prove a point. It's motivation everywhere. You just got to find it."
The Celtics don't have to look any farther for motivation than their own practice gym in Waltham or in the Garden, where there are constant reminders of the championships won by the league's most storied franchise. When Celtics Coach Doc Rivers wanted to motivate his three all-stars -- Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- before last season, he took them on the duck boat journey that Boston's sports team take during championship parades. This season, Rivers gave Garnett, Pierce and Allen a simple message.
"We are with the Boston Celtics," Rivers said he told them. "If you want to be part of the conversation, you've got to win more than one. Some other franchises, you could probably live off this one for 20 years, but this is Boston and it is different."
Rivers said he sought the advice of "a load" of coaches and a former NBA championship player this summer about the challenges of repeating. After speaking with NBA coaches such as Hall of Famers Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens and other coaches in the NFL and college basketball, Rivers heard a common message. "They all said the role players are the guys you got to get back to being role players," Rivers said. "They've been on trophy tours all summer. They are having free dinners, making appearances for $10,000. Now you're going to ask them to go set a pick or get that rebound?"
No team has repeated as NBA champions since the Los Angeles Lakers won three in a row from 2000 to 2002, and no Eastern Conference team has won back-to-back to championships since the Chicago Bulls won three straight from 1996 to 98.
The Pistons followed up their 2004 title by losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat had a disastrous defense of its 2006 title, barely making the playoffs and getting swept out of the first round. The Heat, like the Celtics, had a roster with several aging players desperate to win their first championship.
Pierce said he wasn't satisfied with winning just one. "Once you get a taste of it, you want to do it again," he said. "The guys that have come back are very much hungry."
The Celtics have nine players returning from the championship team, but they are without two key reserves from the title run. James Posey, a solid defender, clutch three-point shooter and the provider of pregame hugs and inspirational whispers, left in the offseason to sign a four-year, $25 million deal with New Orleans. P.J. Brown also left for Louisiana, only he returned home to Slidell to retire.
Danny Ainge, the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations, added youth and athleticism to the team with the signings of center Patrick O'Bryant, a former Golden State first-round pick, and Darius Miles, a 26-year-old forward and former No. 3 overall pick attempting to come back after missing the past two seasons with what was deemed a career-ending knee injury. Tony Allen, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Leon Powe will also have to take on enhanced reserve roles, which will likely put more pressure on veterans Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who will be 32, 31 and 33, respectively, when the season begins.
"We are just going to have to show a lot more maturity," Garnett said. "The one thing we learned from P.J. and Pose is that the experience part can't be talked. We went through a lot last year and that can be applied to this year."
Repeating certainly is possible, Pierce said. "A lot of people said we needed a year together before we won the championship," he said. "I feel like we're ahead of the curve now. I think our chemistry is going to be a lot better. We know what we want to do from Day One. I feel like we're ahead of the game now."