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Appreciating the 2001-02 Boston Celtics

An unexpected run to the ECF wasn’t sustainable, but it was fun.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Hornets Photo by Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images

On January 8, 2001 Rick Pitino stepped down as head coach of the Boston Celtics. Jim O’Brien was named interim head coach and a new era had begun. There were no championships during this era and it doesn’t even rank in the top 10 eras of Celtics’ history. But it will forever be near and dear to my heart because it was the era that made Celtics basketball fun again.

I was weaned on the 80’s Celtics, so I knew what good basketball was. However, the slow decline of that dynasty, the tragic deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and eventually the tanking ML Carr years stole the joy of Celtics basketball from me. I was very ready for Rick Pitino to “save” the Celtics but by the end of his tenure I just felt betrayed and cheated.

Jim O’Brien was formerly Pitino’s assistant coach, so I was highly skeptical of him early on. The team, however, responded by finishing out the season with a .500 record. O’Brien seemed to unlock something in the guys that was shackled under the previous regime. Or perhaps it was simply the effect of being unshackled from Pitino. Either way, by the time the 2001-02 season started, everyone was on board with the plan. The plan, as it turns out, was “let it fly!”

You have to understand, this was pre-Morey-ball, pre-Steph Curry, and pre-analytics era. Most people didn’t value the 3 point shot very highly. It was a weapon, sure, but not a featured one. It was often a last resort option if you couldn’t get a better look or were down and needed to get back in the game. Perhaps O’Brien was a man before his time because he decided to let his players (specifically his stars) launch away from 3 and the initial results were very positive.

Paul Pierce, who shot 384 triples the year before, put up 520 that year. Antoine Walker took it to another level, hoisting up 645 from deep. For point of reference, the most Klay Thompson has taken was 650 in 2015-15, and he shot it at a 43.9% clip that year. Walker shot just 34.4% that year and averaged 32.5% for his career. Not exactly ideal efficiency.

But it was different and it was fun. And wouldn’t you know it, it kinda worked. Paul Pierce is a legend because of what he did from 2008 forward, but don’t sleep on his accomplishments before that time. He was a legit perennial All Star. That year he averaged 26.1 points per game. Antoine Walker is all too often remembered for taking the 3 point shooting too far and relying on it instead of working for better opportunities. But at his peak he was a versatile and talented star. Early on in his career he was a double double machine and he was an adept passer.

Pierce and Walker had a chemistry on the court as well. There was one play that they ran repeatedly where Antoine would have the ball at the elbow and Pierce was cutting baseline. Instead of popping out for a pass on the wing, Pierce would seal his man away from the hoop as if we was boxing out. Walker would lob in a picture perfect pass and Pierce would catch it and calmly lay it in while shielding off the defender. Often times they’d get an and-one out of it too.

Added to the mix was Kenny Anderson (a hair past his prime but still a dynamic performer) and a cast of solid veteran role players (Tony Battie, Eric Williams, Vitaly Potapenko). At the trade deadline the team decided to make a move to add even more depth by bringing in veterans Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers (at the cost of rookie Joe Johnson). That trade lives on as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of going all-in on a team that is more than a move away from the title.

Still, the move did bolster the team and helped them to 49 wins, the 2nd seed, and eventually a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. All of which led to their signature moment. Game 3, one of the greatest comebacks I can recall.

Down 21 points at the end of 3 quarters, Antoine Walker had had enough. He started yelling in the huddle, urging his teammates to play for pride. Something must have sparked Paul Pierce because he turned a slump (he was just 2 for 14 up to that point) into an onslaught (he scored 28 points in the final 12 minutes). The Celtics finished with 41 points in the 4th quarter and won the game by 4.

I had never seen anything like it. It wasn’t perfect (as the first 3 quarters testify to). It didn’t make a lot of sense. But man, it was exhilarating. I was on my feet, pumping my fist, and doing the Walker Wiggle to the bemusement of my friends. It was chaotic and downright inspiring.

It was also short lived because the Nets would go on to win the series 4 games to 2. But not before giving us a heck of a ride.

The uncelebrated era would have more fits and starts till eventually the keys to the car were handed off to Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers (and they did alright I guess). Jim O’Brien left without any Championships but he did help the Celtics to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 1995. It was a step in the right direction and a building block in Paul Pierce’s career.

More importantly, for me anyway, was the restored sense of Celtics pride. I’m painfully aware of how sideways Antoine Walker’s career went after that, but he did help the Heat to a Championship and he’ll always have a place in my heart for that run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Wiggle on Employee #8. Wiggle on.

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