Celtics look to defend title for first time in 20 years

There was a time when the Boston Celtics were so dominant it seemed they won the National Basketball Association Championship every season. With Red Auerbach at the helm, and Bill Russell leading the charge along with countless other all-time-greats, this hallowed city knew nothing of losing. Between 1950 and 1970, the Celtics won 11 rings, and cemented themselves as the most successful organization in all of professional sports.celtics1.jpgHowever, after Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish started a dynasty of their own in the early 80s by winning three championships, the Celtics instantly disappeared into oblivion.

Most of the new generation of fans felt disconnected with this new wave of players, who, ultimately, paled in comparison to the their predecessors. After Bird’s retirement, things looked rather bleak for this once heralded franchise.

After failed draft picks and unsuccessful coaching stints, the team was unable to build and sustain a consistent, cohesive organizational approach. From 2001-2007, the team fluctuated between real good and bad, but was never able to approach that championship level. Once in 2003, they reached the Eastern Conference finals, but were defeated by a much better New Jersey Nets team. A certain complacency set in with the fans, who figured they would never again see the winning ways of yesteryear.

Everything changed in the summer of 2007 when the team traded their fifth overall pick in the annual draft for superstar guard Ray Allen of the Seattle Supersonics. In turn, this prompted another superstar, Kevin Garnett, arguably the best overall player in the game, to consider accepting a trade here. Many people knew if Garnett, Allen, and Paul Pierce were put together, the perception around here would change dramatically. And so with the arrival of Garnett and Allen, coupled with the continued presence of the aforementioned all-star and hometown favorite Pierce, the 2007-2008 Boston Celtics looked like a genuine title contender.

Although many critics believed it would take a season or two for this unit to morph into a great team, they began the season on fire, winning 26 of their first 30 games en route to a 66-16 record and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. While they did hit a bit of turbulence in a tough fought first round series win against the young and exciting Atlanta Hawks, this team seemed destined to win from the get-go.

After dispatching Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in another tough seven game series in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the hometown team faced the Detroit Pistons, who were perennial title contenders, having won it all in 2004 against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics disposed of the Pistons in six games, setting up a classic finals matchup with their well-documented rivals from Los Angeles.

What seemed so far-reaching and unattainable only a few months earlier, was now firmly in the grasp of the entire city. The Celtics won the 2007-2008 NBA championship, and at the same time officially made basketball relevant in a predominantly baseball city.

As the 2008-2009 season approaches, many questions will be asked and the dream will only be that much harder. With the return of almost the entire team, excluding the ultra-proficient, do-it-all man in James Posey, the Celtics seem poised to make another run at it. Many believe reserve guard Tony Allen, now in his fifth season with the team, will absorb many of Posey’s minutes and be that late-game defensive presence this team desperately needs. He will also infuse some much needed youth into an extremely old team.

In addition, another long, grueling season has made Kevin Garnett one of the most worn-down players in the league. No player exudes as much enthusiasm and energy as he does every night. Garnett has logged an incredible amount of minutes in his 12-year career, and one can only assume it is beginning to take a toll on him. After winning the defensive player of the year award last year, and playing the most playoff games in the history of the game, it would be understandable for him to be tired at the beginning of the year.

The Eastern Conference has also improved dramatically this past off season– with the Philadelphia 76ers attaining all-star forward Elton Brand, the Toronto Raptors adding forward/center Jermaine O’Neal, and the Cavaliers finally giving Lebron some help with Mo Williams.

The Celtics have the added benefit of having a great coach in Doc Rivers, who understands that each of the Big Three (Garnett, Allen, and Pierce), need to rest a certain amount of time each game. He was very good last year at conservatively sitting his top players while giving the bench players the time they needed to be efficient each night.

After watching this team steamroll their way through the regular season, struggle in the postseason, but ultimately win the most important games when it mattered, they have what it takes to win it again. To borrow a universal sports cliché, defense wins championships. Last year this team was ranked at the top of every defensive category. As the late, great Red Auerbach once said, “Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up.” With this team, it seems to be the other way around. Each and every member, with the aid of defensive coach Tom Tibadeau, put their defensive responsibilities ahead of everything. Scoring is only an added bonus, and that is what drove this team to achieve greatness.

With a tough schedule and a bulls-eye square on their back, this year’s team will face some early adversity, and will have to withstand an onslaught from some of the top teams in the conference.

Similar to the early Celtics dynasties, this team has charisma that separates them from the pack. In a heartfelt segment that aired during the finals, former great Bill Russell spoke with Garnett in a one-on-one interview for ESPN, and broached a variety of topics. One thing that stood out was when Russell opined, “I think that you’re going to win at least two or three championships. And if you don’t, but I see you playing the way you should play, I’ll share one of mine with you.” In hindsight, he is beginning to sound a bit prophetic. Like he said so succinctly, the championships “will come,” and with this team, there is no reason to believe they won’t.

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