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THIS CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM IS PARTLY THE GLORIOUS RESULT OF RANDOMLY COLLIDING PING-PONG BALLS. MAYBE THAT'S WHY THERE WERE ALWAYS SO MANY DOUBTS ABOUT THESE BOSTON CELTICS. � MAY 22, 2007, WAS A SAD DAY FOR THE FRANCHISE WHEN IT CAME UP EMPTY IN THE GAME OF CHANCE THAT IS THE NBA LOTTERY, FAILING TO land one of the top two positions that would have enabled it to draft Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Even longtime loyalists must've been thinking, When is the color green going to be lucky again? When will the leprechauns return?
Indeed, the '07 lottery had continued a run of bad luck that started back in the 1980s. There were the career-shortening injuries to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, the deaths of draft pick Len Bias in '86 and veteran Reggie Lewis in '93, and a previous Ping-Pong misfortune in '97, one that enabled the San Antonio Spurs to draft Tim Duncan. The fatal heart attack suffered in February 2007 by Dennis Johnson, Bird and McHale's teammate on two championship teams in the 1980s, cast a pall over a franchise that had dominated the NBA during its first three decades.
Still, general manager Danny Ainge, a member of the '84 and '86 title teams, has always been a glass-half-full kind of guy. Where others saw continued disappointment, Ainge saw opportunity, never mind that the dizzying number of personnel moves he had made since taking over as G.M. in 2003 had failed to build a championship team. "As long as you keep plugging away," said Ainge, who over the years received as much public criticism as any executive in the game, "you give yourself a chance."
No Oden? No Durant? No problem. Ainge made a draft-day deal to get shooter Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics and on July 31 landed the Big Prize, completing a trade with Minnesota Timberwolves V.P. of basketball operations McHale that brought 10-time All-Star Kevin Garnett to Beantown.
"The first thing I did after I knew KG was coming was sit down and go through the playbook," said coach Doc Rivers after Garnett and Allen were officially teamed with Paul Pierce, who had been waiting nine long years for a genuine posse to arrive. "And after about two minutes I thought, Man, every option suddenly looks pretty good."
From the beginning, though, there were a series of caution lights associated with the Celtics, their immense potential notwithstanding. Could the Big Three (the predictable moniker with which Allen, Garnett and Pierce were christened immediately) make needed sacrifices to their own games and play together? The biggest Big Three in Celtics history—Bird, McHale and center Robert Parish—had helped produce three titles, but other troikas around the league had failed, including two that resonated in Beantown: the Allen- Sam Cassell- Glenn Robinson Milwaukee Bucks of 1998-2002 and the Garnett-Cassell- Latrell Sprewell Timberwolves of '03-05.
Did second-year point guard Rajon Rondo have the leadership skills and the point guard chops to serve three masters? Was Rivers—long castigated (mostly unfairly) for not knowing his X's and O's and for being too unpredictable with his rotations—the right man to coach this team?
"None of these guys has won a thing," said one Eastern Conference coach who desired anonymity. "So, who will point the finger at whom if things start going south?"
But though the construction of the Celtics was sudden—they were like a sparkling new high-rise that appeared seemingly out of the blue and had passersby whistling in wonder—the team never played the role of arriviste. For one thing Pierce, a member of the NBA's landed gentry in a free-agent age, conveyed a sense of permanence. Yes, he had grown impatient for help over the years, but he was a loyal Celtic already considered one of the franchise's alltime greats. Then, too, Garnett conveyed instant legitimacy, even if he was new to the Boston party; his rep as a highly energetic, highly motivated worker far outweighed the whispers that in 12 seasons in Minnesota he couldn't win the big one.
Most of all, from Day One these guys played like Celtics. Perhaps it was the Garnett influence, the Pierce desperation, the Rivers motivation or a combination of all of three, but they were unselfish, they played hard, and most of all they played defense. "If we're going to get this done here, we can't be a good defensive team," Rivers had warned them. "We have to be a great defensive team."