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IN THIS AGE OF HYPERBOLE AND EXAGGERATION surely it was only a matter of time before this year's Celtics team, led by the trio of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, was being compared to the great Boston teams of the past. As the 2007-08 season progressed and the Celtics' win total and Eastern Conference lead kept climbing, so too did the references to Larry Bird, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and all the other green-clad ghosts. But, on closer inspection, are there any similarities between this year's Boston Three-Party and the legendary teams of yore?
The quickest way to lose credibility in this argument is to bring up the teams of the 1950s and '60s. Red Auerbach's dynasty won 11 championships in 13 seasons, in what amounted to total domination by Russell, the greatest big man ever to play the game. He was joined by Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn on what was the most successful NBA team ever.
Slightly more plausible and far more frequent is the comparison between this year's team and those of the original Big Three—Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale—which took home three titles in the 1980s. Besides a Hall of Fame front line, after '81 those Celtics featured Dennis Johnson at the point, Danny Ainge at the two and at different times the likes of Cedric Maxwell, Scott Wedman and Bill Walton fortifying one of the greatest rotations of all time. There's no doubt that Pierce, Garnett and Allen would have made contributions in any era, but it's hard to fathom 2007-08 starters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins cracking the top 10 on a roster full of All-NBA and Hall of Fame-level talent.
So does the current group hold its own with any of the great Celtics teams of the past? Absolutely. In fact it matches up position-by-position with one about as closely as any two teams could—the Celtics squad that won the NBA crown in 1974 and '76. Consider the following.
The heart and soul of the 1970s championship teams was Dave Cowens, a mobile big man who was unselfish on offense, seemingly everywhere on defense and as intense on both ends of the court as anyone who ever played. Clearly the best player on his team, Cowens wasn't the leading scorer or captain on those title squads, yet he was the emotional leader, both on the floor and in the locker room—all traits also displayed by Garnett.
Both athletic big men had their bodyguards on the court as well. Paul Silas and Perkins each served as quiet enforcers, doing the dirty work in the paint, helping to alleviate pressure on their more high-profile teammate, thus enabling him to roam to the perimeter on defense, all while putting up solid rebounding numbers.
The small forward, captain and leading scorer of his squad, Havlicek established the role played by Pierce. Both were good rebounders, contributed more assists than expected from a team's leading scorer and would, on occasion, swing into the backcourt.
The backcourts are strikingly similar too. Like Allen, JoJo White, who played for the Celtics from 1969 through '79, appeared to do everything effortlessly on the floor and was a dead-eye free throw shooter who after being a 20-point-per-game scorer settled into a complementary role on offense for the good of the team. His backcourtmate, starting point guard Don Chaney, was a model for current counterpart Rondo, an excellent defender who deferred offensively but made nearly 50% of the shots he took.
Even off the bench the teams are alike. Looking for a clamp-down veteran defender with extensive playoff experience who can handle both forward spots? Don Nelson, meet James Posey. How about a cagey veteran rebounder called on for his savvy in key situations? Satch Sanders, meet P.J. Brown. An athletic guard with loads of potential? In the 1970s it was Paul Westphal, in 2007-08 it was Tony Allen. You can even go as far as calling benchwarmers Brian Scalabrine and Scot Pollard merely the modern-day versions of Steve Kuberski and Hank Finkel.
Those Celtics teams of the 1970s won two titles and overall had five outstanding years. With one title already, after just a season together, and with so many parallels, Garnett, Pierce, Allen & Co. appear likely to contribute another trophy or two to the mantle of the NBA's proudest franchise.