Celtics gear up to meet Lakers
BOSTON -- With each step they take, it hits Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a little bit more, their emotions now at full tilt.
In Detroit after clinching a conference championship with an even bigger prize in their sights, Pierce started a chant among his teammates. “Beat L.A.,” the Inglewood native said almost giddily, encouraging his teammates to join in, over and over, “Beat L.A.”
They are in the NBA Finals -- where destiny and determination paired together in restoring the long-dormant green mystique and materialized a glamour matchup against the Lakers.
“We are up against, right now, the best team in the NBA, playing the best basketball,” Pierce matter-of-factly said of the Lakers on Monday.
The Celtics took a meandering path to reach the Finals, playing 20 games over three series.
“That’s probably why we’re considered the underdogs, but we’re relishing that role,” Pierce said.
But when the dream NBA Finals pairing had just manifested from reverie to reality, Pierce openly drifted back to a year ago, wondering how he and his team have come so far so fast.
The Celtics and Lakers faced similar problems after last season, one that nearly preceded another year of discontent. Pierce headlined in the Boston role of downtrodden superstar, only a nudge away from requesting a trade. Danny Ainge costarred as beleaguered general manager, taking heat from fans and media alike.
Then, with the unlucky bounce of a pingpong ball, luck found them.
After the Celtics received the fifth draft pick, despite having the league’s second-to-worst record, co-owner Wyc Grousbeck lingered in the lottery’s ball room for 50 minutes, feeling crestfallen for his staff, his fans and himself. There would be no Greg Oden, no Kevin Durant as a savior.
Instead, with Ainge doing some quick maneuvering, they traded the pick to Seattle to land Ray Allen. That paved the way for another piece, Garnett, introduced in his role as the trading chip that changed it all.
At Garnett’s news conference, Grousbeck noticed him soaking in each Celtics championship banner, as though he were “trying to draw power from it. I knew [then] this had a chance to be a special team, a real contender, for the next four or five years,” Grousbeck said.
“Why not the Lakers?”
The question is posed to Garnett in London, where the Celtics gathered last fall for some exhibition games. The Lakers had tried to pry Garnett free last summer, offering a package headlined by Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
Garnett pointed to the turmoil in the Lakers’ front office with Kobe Bryant dismissing those in charge.
“I knew I didn’t want to deal with that,” Garnett said.
In Italy and then England, there is little for the team to do outside of team functions. They bonded on the seven-hour flight. They united over bread breaking. The familiarity breeds comfort.
Coach Doc Rivers told the team to forget what they’d accomplished individually. Defense became their rallying cry.
“We all said we’ll do what we need to do to make this team better, and we won’t come in with our past ideas of how we play basketball,” Allen said.
They start the season like a buzz saw, winning 20 of their first 22 games.
The Celtics do that and more in late December against the Lakers, harassing Bryant into a poor shooting night and padding their record to 26-3.
In the process, they hardly bother defending Odom and bottle up Bynum. Boston wins convincingly at Staples Center, completing a regular-season sweep over the Lakers pre-Pau Gasol.
A video before the game reels off highlight after highlight of the rivalry between the two franchises.
It concludes with the message: “The Lakers . . . The Celtics . . . Can you imagine it any other way?”
If everything is big in Texas, nothing is bigger than the Big Three in March.
Boston delivers consecutive defeats to the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, becoming the first road team to do so in eight years.
The sandwich game features a nationally televised effort where the Celtics beat the Rockets to end their 22-game winning streak.
“People said that could either make or break our season,” said reserve guard Sam Cassell, a new acquisition at the time. “It made it.”
The Celtics finish the regular season 66-16, ending with more wins than their two previous seasons combined.
The cynics and critics are back. There were always some who steadfastly believed this Celtics team was cobbled together too quickly, would age too fast, a band-aid solution to a long-term problem.
After the Celtics lost Game 6 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it set up a Game 7 against LeBron James.
There were questions -- loud questions -- of whether Boston could win on the road in the playoffs. After winning an NBA-best 31 games on the road during the regular season, they were 0-6 in the postseason.
The team flies to Boston, where Pierce takes it upon himself to steer the Celtics into the conference finals. In a game where the other eight players may as well have cleared the court, James ends with a dazzling 45 points. Pierce finishes with an equally sparkling 41 points. And, more important, the victory.
Four wins later -- two of them coming in Detroit against the Pistons to silence naysayers -- Pierce and Rivers hug in a season on the verge of fulfillment. They embrace one another, as well as destiny.
Now another mano-a-mano matchup looms for Pierce in the form of Bryant.
“I think he’s finally going to play against one of the better defenses in all of the NBA to where I think we can be a little bit more physical with him, limit his easy opportunities on the break and just make him work a little bit more,” Pierce said Monday.
It seems as if a whole country is waiting to find the answer to which franchise will restore its luster first.
“You’ve got people who weren’t fans of basketball who are now interested in this series,” Cassell said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”