BOSTON | When they think back to this time last year, Boston’s modern-day “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen confess that hope wasn’t something that reigned supreme considering the state of their respective careers.
Pierce’s Boston Celtics, who hadn’t made the playoffs in two seasons, posted an NBA-worst 24-58 record.
Allen’s Seattle SuperSonics went 31-51 and landed the second pick in the draft. And Garnett had just concluded another season of disappointment as his Minnesota Timberwolves finished the year with a 32-50 record.
“A year ago this time, I was on vacation thinking about what I needed to do to better my basketball career,” Garnett recalled yesterday on the eve of the showdown between the Celtics and Lakers in the NBA Finals. “Wasn’t thinking about the playoffs. Wasn’t thinking about the finals. Just thinking about bettering my basketball career. ‘What do I got to do for myself?’ That’s pretty much it.”
Pierce didn’t think he still would be a member of the Celtics, unsure whether he could waste another year in his prime waiting for young prospects to mature around him.
But he didn’t have to.
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge pulled off a draft-day trade for Allen and then later in the summer shipped off eight players for Garnett.
There were those who wondered whether Celtics coach Doc Rivers could get three players accustomed to being guy to put aside their egos and join forces for the greater good.
But the Celtics bought into Rivers’ philosophy of sacrifice, and the results speak for themselves. Boston rolled to the best record in the league during the regular season, won two seven-game series to open the playoffs and then advanced to the finals after eliminating Detroit in six games.
“It’s all about what you’re able to sacrifice,” Garnett said. “I think the reason the three of us work is because we actually don’t just talk about it to you guys about sacrifice. But it’s something that we do. It’s what we’ve been doing. Not to say we don’t debate, because we do; we debate real strongly. But for the most part, we put the team above everything and the wins above everything, and at the end of the day that’s what matters.”
Said Pierce: “I can’t even describe the feeling just being here. I don’t even know. I probably don’t even understand the magnitude of it right now. I’m just like a kid playing basketball, doing something I love and enjoying the moment.”
Kobe Bryant said the five-year championship drought the Lakers went through helps him sympathize with the years of struggles the Celtics’ “Big Three” endured.
“Yeah, no question about it,” said Bryant, who helped the Lakers to three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. “It’s taken them a great deal of pain and suffering to get to this point to be able to have a collection of guys around them that work. This is my second time around now, and you just have to be lucky a little bit.”
Bryant and fellow team leader Derek Fisher can share advice from their finals experiences with their teammates. But Pierce, Garnett and Allen find themselves lacking in that department as leaders of the Celtics since neither of the three had advanced past the conference finals before.
And so they turn to backups Sam Cassell and James Posey - the only players on the team with championship experience. Cassell won back-to-back titles with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995, and Posey helped the Miami Heat to the title in 2006. And one of the most important pieces of advice Cassell and Posey have passed on is to seize the opportunity at hand. Because as the “Big Three” are well aware, for most players, just the finals is no common occurrence.
“I’ve been doing a lot of talking to Sam and Posey just [about] a sense of urgency and enjoying the moment and all that,” Pierce said. “These opportunities don’t come along. I got that from them guys. You talk about Sam won it over 10 years ago, a guy who definitely appreciates the moment. So I’m going to appreciate this time, enjoy it and understand, ‘Hey, this is it. This is the last series, so you have to leave it all on the court.’”