A Daily Babble Production
Six years ago today, I had one of the many Celtics-related experiences of the last decade that I remember perhaps a bit too vividly.
In St. Louis for the week to watch my beloved hockey Blues (I've had a hard time getting back into the NHL since the lockout, but that's another story for another time), I sat on a bed across from my father in our Sheraton suite a stone's throw from what was then known as the Savvis Center. On top of two Blues games to attend that week, the trip was to start by watching our Celtics visit the Nets in a nationally televised Christmas Day affair.
They got killed.
Dad has power-napped his way through many a Celtic victory over the years. This was not one of those instances. Not a victory. Not a lot of rest for The Guru.
The latter development was probably the best facet of the evening since the normally mild-mannered Dad provided a lot more entertainment than the Celtics did in a game that started poorly and got worse from there. Before halftime, The Guru had already assaulted our television set with a barrage of verbal barbs, highlighted by his wondering aloud, "What...is Pierce, on drugs?" I can't remember the particular play, but I'd imagine it came after one of Paul Pierce's three turnovers or any of the 13 misses on the 20 shots he took for the day. I can remember grinning at Dad's acerbic tone and little else.
The Celts trailed by 11 after a quarter and 23 at the half. Only co-captains Pierce and Antoine Walker finished in double figures for the game, and they combined to shoot a dead-eye 12-for-38 between them. The Celtics couldn't move the ball offensively and settled for their patented contested threes, and the team did its best sieve impression at the other end. The Celts shot less than 33 percent and allowed more than 50 percent shooting from the field. They were minus-14 on the boards. Jason Kidd had as many assists (11) as the Celtics' active roster. Six Nets scored in double-figures, including Rodney Rogers, who the Celts had sadly let walk in free agency the summer before. Bruno Sundov and Ruben Wolkowyski got some run for the visitors. Yeah, it was that type of no-contest affair. Nets 117, Celtics 81. Boogah. Boogah. Boogah.
The Celtics team that showed up - or, more accurately, didn't show up - that day was making its first visit to New Jersey since being defeated by the Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals that May. The Celts beat the Nets three times out of four in the 2001-02 regular season, and they took two of the first three games of that year's playoff series, but that marked the end of their power over the Nets. New Jersey would take the last three games of that series to begin a run of 10 wins in 11 meetings with the Celtics that would include the Christmas Day massacre as well as a sweep in the second round of the playoffs the following spring. That Christmas Day game also began a 2-8 stretch for the Celtics, who finished the season 26-29 after starting 18-9.
Perhaps we should have known then that whether or not the Nets were in the Celtics heads, they were simply better. What we couldn't have known then was that this was the beginning of the end for the Celtics squad that would make consecutive playoff appearances to bring the franchise out of a dry spell that began when the old Garden closed its doors in 1995. A new director of basketball operations and former green great by name of Danny Ainge (perhaps you've heard of him) would take over in the spring of 2003 with a bit of a different vision from that held by coach Jim O'Brien and GM Chris Wallace. Antoine Walker would be gone before the start of the following season. The losing began, and any doubts that this team didn't belong anywhere near receiving the honor of a Christmas Day game were removed shortly thereafter.
We could chronicle the rest of the time between Christmas contests for the Celtics, but the flashback to one miserable game seems enough of a deviation from the holiday spirit for one column. Really, it's all we need. Because through what seemed like an eternity of losing, lottery disaster, playoff embarrassment and the embarrassment of not being able to make the playoffs in the anyone-with-a-pulse-goes NBA, that Ainge fellow did know what he was doing and managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat after all.
Six years later, the Celtics return to the national stage on this holiday evening, and the situation could hardly be more different. Once more, the Celtics make their first visit to the home of their most recent playoff opponent, but this time, they return as champions. By all accounts, it is the Celtics who are decidedly in the heads of their hosts, and if all goes well, perhaps it will be the Celtics who vanquish those same hosts once more come next spring. The men in green ride a franchise-record 19-game winning streak into Tinseltown. Despite playing in what may be the most hyped pre-New Year's regular season game in years, these Celtics have nothing to prove at this point in the season. A win is of course the expectation, and said win would be a wonderful holiday gift for the green faithful (as if the last 19 somehow weren't enough). But even in the dreaded scenario of a loss to those deplorable Lakers, this will still be a .900 Celtics team tied for the best 30-game start in league history.
This Celtics team doesn't live and die by the three, and this Celtics team knows how to defend the pick and roll as well as just about anything else thrown at it. This Celtics team won't be tanking games anytime soon, and this squad isn't relying on Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair for anything these days.
These Celtics are defending champions, and they are dedicated to working toward another set of rings one game at a time.
Nearly everything has changed in six years about this team, nearly all of it for the better. But Paul Pierce is still around, and Dad and I are still watching together. I couldn't be happier to be here and in that company.
Regardless of what festival (or perhaps lack thereof) you celebrate this holiday season, here's to health, happiness, family and friends for all - and for the green faithful, a few minutes to savor the bliss of what a wonderfully pleasant diversion from the realities of the rest of life our basketball team has become.
It's Christmas Day. Our defending champion Boston Celtics play a rival in front of the whole country five hours from now. Let's have some fun today.