BOSTON | At last. Twenty-two years of suffering have ended, and the Boston Celtics - the most storied franchise in NBA history - have regained the throne.
Led by their Big Three - Kevin Garnett (26 points, 14 rebounds), Ray Allen (26 points and a record 22 3-pointers in the finals) and the long suffering Paul Pierce (17 points, 10 assists), who was named finals MVP - the Celtics completed the most dramatic turnaround in league history in the span of a year.
“You know, this is really sweet, obviously, for a lot of reasons,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Just the players, just hanging in there with all of us this year. We really pushed them to play together as a team and a group, and they did it. Really all the praise goes to them.”
Owners of a 24-58 record in 2007, the Celtics hoped to garner the top spot in the NBA lottery. But the pingpong balls landed unfavorably, and Boston wound up with the fifth pick in last summer’s draft.
But general manager Danny Ainge pulled off blockbuster trades that translated into a bigger payoff than Greg Oden or Kevin Durant could have provided. First, he shipped the draft rights to Georgetown’s Jeff Green to Seattle for Allen - a prolific scorer with no hardware. Later that summer he exchanged three-fourths of the team to Minnesota for Garnett - a perennial All-Star overshadowed by perennial playoff failures and long knocked for deferring in pressure situations.
After 10 years in a Celtics uniform and little to show for it other than impressive individual statistics and All-Star appearances, Pierce finally had running mates capable of helping him to a title.
And so began the redemption tour.
The Celtics led the NBA wire-to-wire, finishing with a regular-season record of 66-16 and the top seed throughout the playoffs. After enduring consecutive seven-game series against Atlanta and Cleveland, Boston knocked off Detroit in six games to set up a reunion with the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise the Celtics battled in the finals 10 previous times.
The Celtics opened the finals winning both home games despite injuries to Pierce (knee) and center Kendrick Perkins (ankle and shoulder). The Lakers won the first game in Los Angeles but lost the second. Then, facing elimination Sunday, the Lakers held off two late Celtics charges to win Game 5, setting up a return to Boston.
With Allen sleep-deprived after tending to an ill son the last two days, Garnett carried the Celtics early in Game 6, scoring 10 points in the first quarter. Boston led 24-20 heading into the second.
Next came a 19-9 barrage that was fueled by five Celtics 3-pointers and led to a 43-29 Boston advantage, forcing a Lakers timeout with 5:37 left in the half. Boston closed the half on a 15-6 burst and left the court boasting a 58-35 lead. Much of this came without Allen, who missed much of the second quarter after he was poked in the eye, though he returned to finish with seven 3-pointers on the night.
The stifling defense that carried the Celtics during the regular season was in full effect as Boston forced Los Angeles into 11 first-half turnovers and scored 18 points off the mistakes. The Celtics also dominated the boards, outrebounding the Lakers 28-14 in the first half. Also aiding the Boston cause was the Lakers’ ghastly 29.6 percent shooting in the first half.
The Lakers never recovered, trailing by as many as 36 points in the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant (22 points) failed in his first finals appearance without Shaquille O’Neal, and Phil Jackson failed to break his tie with Red Auerbach at nine rings.
“We’re disappointed. Our fans are disappointed,” Jackson said. “I think everybody is disappointed that we didn’t get a game out of this, give ourselves a chance.”
Rather, the Celtics didn’t give them one.
“You guys look at Kevin, myself and Ray,” Pierce said. “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, and today it’s like a breath of fresh air.”