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In Appreciation of '02

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Those of us who bleed green deserve a diversion in the midst of such trying times. Much like George W. Bush sitting down at night and reading a Dr. Seuss story after a day of war-mongering, we can only take so much of Doc Rivers and his whacked out rotations before we need to distract ourselves with something else. Therefore, I’ve chosen to resist the urge to pick apart the 2006-07 Boston Celtics (despite the fact that there are a million different ways to do just that). Much of what could be said has already been said, and I think we’ve all finally achieved a consensusâ€"this team stinks. Whatever your preference, whether it be bring on the ping-pong balls or bring on the playoffs, one thing’s for sureâ€"we need a change. I think Jeff had it right in his article, “I Don't Want To Make The Playoffs,” in which he laid out a plan to let things play out this season, then fire Doc, pull some trades, and wisely use what will hopefully be a mid-to-high lottery pick. (But as we all know, such as in the case of the Telfair deal, this team needs more than just a trade for the sake of a tradeâ€"they need a difference-maker.)

That said, as I sit back and drag myself over to the television set to watch this team rack up loss after loss, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for recent times past. As bad as the last 20 years has gotten at some points for us, at least it’s been interesting along the way. And yet, for all the foibles and failures, many of us still refuse to recognize how close this team came five years ago to having a chance to add banner #17. Now, before you chew me out or hit the back button, bear in mind that at the end of this article, I have a piece of cold, hard evidence to supplement my statements, and I’d like to ask you kindly to wait until you’ve seen it to pass your final judgement.

LenAs fans of a franchise that has seemed to be starcrossed moreso than mystical over the past few years, we often speculate upon how we could go back and change the recent history of the Celtics. “If only Len Bias hadn’t overdosed.” “If only Reggie Lewis hadn’t died.” “If only we had gotten the first pick in ’97 and snagged Duncan.” And yet, these ponderings echo only as the fantasies that they areâ€"sure, it would be nice had such events turned out differently, but they didn’t, and we’ll never know what may have been. There are other incidents that have occurred, such as the near-death of Paul Pierce, that should resonate with us more clearly, but don’t. This can be easily explained because, simply put, it’s a natural human tendency to dwell on the tragic rather than the almost tragic. We stop and ask, on a regular basis, “What if Len Bias and Reggie Lewis hadn’t died?” but rarely ponder, “What if Paul Pierce had died?” Not to say that a near-death experience should exclude him from all criticism, but it certainly should enter into our thoughts when weighing his achievements, as well as his loyalty to a team and a city where one couldn’t blame him if he held bitter memories of it. Furthermore, we tend to hold positive thoughts when it comes to imagining what someone like Len Bias would have done for the team. And yet, we all but rule out the possibility that, hey, maybe he could have been a bust, and for the Celtics, things may not have turned out all that differently than they have.

obrienWhat I’m getting at is that, as fans, we sometimes focus on and harp upon all the wrong things. One of those unfortunate oversights is that we tend to brush aside the Celtics’ 2002 playoff run as nothing more than an anomaly, more akin to a brief exercise in futility than an achievement to strive for once again. In a way, it certainly was a blip on the radar (especially considering the history of the franchise)â€"though Jim O’Brien led the Celtics to playoff appearances in both of his seasons as head coach, they didn’t make much of it in the end. Think about, however, how bleak prospects were in the midst of the shameful reign of Slick Rick Pitino, also known as the greatest fraud the world has ever known. Most of us thought it would take years to come out from under that mess. Much to our collective surprise, from the very moment O’Brien was instituted as head coach, things took a turn for the better. As terrible as Pitino was, the sudden turnaround of the team couldn’t simply be credited with getting rid of a cancerâ€"O’Brien was a good coach, and a true player’s coach (unlike his egomaniacal predecessor).

And, arguably, much like this team, the Celtics at the time were filled with talented role players who, as a result of their inept coach, had no role to speak of. Pitino proved that the revolving door strategy does not and will not ever work. Jim O’Brien fixed that, and though they weren’t the prettiest team to watch at times, they knew who they were. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker were the leaders and scorers. Eric Williams was the scrappy stopper. Tony Battie was the intimidating, shot-blocking big man. Kenny Anderson was the steady distributor. Erick Strickland, Tony Delk, Rodney Rogers, and Walter McCarty were the sparkplugs off the bench.

Who is Tony Allen? The guy who starts in the absence of Pierce, racks up gaudy stats, and then reverts to playing 10 minutes a game when the captain comes back? Who is Brian Scalabrine? The 3-point threat off the bench whose 3-point shot (and playing time) comes and goes every few games? Who is Gerald Green? The future, or a temporary fixture? Regardless of talent level, if players don’t have consistent and set roles, they won’t reach their potential and won’t work well within a team-oriented system. The current Celtics may be more talented than the 2002 team, but as Doc Rivers is proving today and Jim O’Brien proved then, individual roles and team identity are everything.

battieUnfortunately, shortly after Danny Ainge came aboard, O’Brien was out. The question is, was the briefness of this run a result of the team being filled with aging veterans (i.e. Kenny Anderson, Rodney Rogers) and players with a ceiling on their talent (i.e. Antoine Walker) who couldn’t do much more than make one deep run in a weak conference? Or was it because bad trades (i.e. the Vin Baker deal) and O’Brien’s disagreement with personnel decisions (i.e. the Ricky Davis trade), as well as general differences in philosophy between coaching and management at the end of his run, prematurely stunted what could have been a legendary coaching tenure? After all, Ainge still could have come in and rebuilt with O’Brien staying on as coach. He could also have chosen to keep guys like Eric Williams and Tony Battie, who would have been invaluable veteran presences on this current team, and are true Jim O’Brien guys. Instead, he blew things up, pushed O’Brien out of town, and hired “his guy,” Doc Rivers. Wouldn’t you rather have Obie teaching our young players than Glenn Rivers leading them in circles? And wouldn’t Eric Williams and Tony Battie be more valuable as locker room guys and hard working vets than, say, Michael Olowokandi and Brian Scalabrine? But remember, O’Brien wasn’t an Ainge guyâ€"Doc Rivers is. (That says a lot about Danny Ainge moreso than anyone else.)

Consider this for a moment, and think about it long and hardâ€"in 2002, the Boston Celtics were two wins away from facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and the Lakers. The NBA Finals. Not in 1984, 1985, or 1987. In 2002. Take this moment, ‘02 detractors, to harp upon how the luck of the Irish would have been obliterated in such a matchup. “Hey,” you say, “if the Nets got swept by the Lakers, imagine what would have happened to the Celtics.” Say what you will, but try to also picture the excitement that such a pairing would have generated, not only for the NBA and its television ratings, but for the Celtics in a town where they’ve been overshadowed for so long (and for much of it, deservedly so) by championship-caliber teams in other sports. And don’t underestimate the power of an underdog team to both sneak up on their superior opponent, and rise to the occasion to disprove all of those who don’t give them an ice cube’s chance in hell to make something of themselves. Give the Nets credit for overcoming a 2-1 deficit to beat the Celtics in the East finals, but understand that Boston would have had a lot more to prove and live up to against the Lakers. And the whole world would have been watching, rather than just the states of California and New Jersey.

In our seemingly roundabout and endless harping on how fantastic the youth of the current team is, we somehow find the audacity to laugh off the 2002 team as a failed, flawed bizarro experiment. And yet, in the midst of a losing season that, day-by-day, toes along the precipice of oblivion in the absence of captain Pierce (not coincidentally, the heart and soul of that ’02 team), there are still many who steadfastly hold out hope, while speaking of a 20 year drought and the tragedies that have accompanied it. Forgive me for the fact that the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NBA Playoff history still sends chills down my spine, no matter how many times I watch it, and no matter how futile the ultimate outcome was. I see the potential that all of you see in players like Al Jefferson and Gerald Green to rise to the occasion and contribute to a championship-caliber team for years to come. I don’t know that I trust management to make the right moves to get this team back to that level, and I certainly don’t trust the coach. But like most of us, I hold out hope that it can happen sooner or later. But unlike most of us, I think the successes of 2002 are something to strive for.

In the interest of fairness, since I have no doubt that most of you haven’t seen Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals in its entirety since it was originally aired, I present you below with the opportunity to rewatch the highest point in Boston Celtics history since banner #16 was raised. I’ve taken my old VHS tape of the game out of the closet, dusted it off, and transferred the entire 4th quarter onto YouTube for your viewing pleasure. (It's split into 5 parts--below, I've embedded the 5th and final part into this article. Underneath that you'll find the links to the other parts. Start at Part 1 if you want to watch the whole 4th quarter.) Before you make your final judgements pertaining to any notion that I’ve spelled out above, take a look at what it feels like to feel something that, as a fan of the 2006-07 Boston Celtics, we’re light years away from. If you don’t have the time or the patience to watch the whole thing, at least take in the final moments. Say what you want about Antoine Walker, aging veterans, poor shot selection, and a weak Eastern Conference. But watch the end of that game, and then try to tell me that you’d rather be a Celtics fan in 2007 than in 2002, or that you’d still take Doc Rivers over Jim O’Brien, or that it’s better to have a lottery-bound, unproven, youthful team than a ragtag bunch of upstarts who are two wins away from the promised land. I know my answers.