As part of SB Nation’s “Titleless” series, we’re taking a look at a fun, surprising bunch that briefly brought the Boston Celtics back to prominence. The 2001-02 Celtics check in as part of the “Overachiever Region” as the #14 seed. Overachievers is probably the perfect descriptor for this particular Celtics squad.
What made this group overachievers, is that no one saw their playoff run coming. And this run only happened because this Celtics team had the courage to be unconventional. Let’s reground you on this too-often forgotten group of guys in green.
To get to 2002, we need to go back a bit first. 2002 should have been the culmination of Rick Pitino’s grand plan to get the Celtics back into the title contention. In some ways that did happen. Boston made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Pitino wasn’t around to see it.
After 34 games in the 2000-01 season, the Celtics finally had enough and fired Pitino after a 12-22 start. It was clear Boston was on their way to a fourth straight losing season. Pitino’s revolving door of players had led to a confusing roster that didn’t really fit together. The only key building blocks left were Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. Turns out, they were pretty good ones.
Jim O’Brien took over for Pitino and almost led the 2001 Celtics to the playoffs. They went 24-24 under O’Brien and finished in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference. A year later, with O’Brien on the sidelines and Pierce and Walker doing their thing on the court, Boston shocked the league.
The 2002 Celtics played a style of basketball that NBA hadn’t seen before. Throughout the late-90s the three-point shot had become a weapon of increasing importance. Teams were embracing the shot like they never had before. O’Brien’s Celtics took it to a whole new level.
A year after leading the NBA in three-point attempts per game at 19.9 per game in 2000-01, Boston turned it up and took nearly four more attempts per game in 2001-02. This edition of the Celtics led the NBA at 23.7 three-point attempts per game. That figure was over three attempts more per game than the second-place Orlando Magic.
Instead of the three-pointer being a gimmick to keep an overmatched team in a game against a better opponent, it was now a key part of Boston’s attack. And no one embraced the triple more than Antoine Walker.
Walker led the NBA with 1,689 field goal attempts in 2001-02. Of those, just over 38% were three-pointers. For reference, Walker’s 645 threes attempted equated to 8.0 attempts per game. Walker attempted more than 100 more triples than anyone else in the league.
Pierce wasn’t to be outdone, as he took 6.3 three-pointers per game, good for fourth in the NBA. In terms of total three-point attempts, Pierce was third. Overall, the Celtics two stars took a combined 1,165 three-pointers. To get an understanding of how crazy that was at the time: Pierce and Walker alone combined for more three-point attempts than 14 teams took as a whole for the season.
Boy did it ever work.
After a six-year playoff absence (the longest in franchise history), the Celtics were back. They finished 49-33 and third in the Eastern Conference. They played fast (fifth in pace) and defended well (fifth in defense). And they shot a ton of threes. Oddly, without Pitino present, Boston was finally playing the style Pitino promised to bring to the NBA.
Pierce and Walker both made the All-Star team. That duo was supported by veteran point guard Kenny Anderson, young big man Tony Battie and veteran defender Eric Williams. Rookie guard Joe Johnson was showing signs of promise. Johnson had started most of the season before injuries had him in and out of the lineup in late-January.
A month later, in one of the biggest black marks on Chris Wallace’s general manager ledger, Johnson was traded. Wanting to bolster his team for a playoff run, Wallace traded Johnson, Randy Brown, Milt Palacio and a first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns for guard Tony Delk and forward Rodney Rogers.
While the impacts of Wallace trading Johnson (and Pitino previously trading away Chauncey Billups) would be felt for years, it was hard to argue with the move at the time. Johnson was promising, but Delk and Rogers were big parts of getting Boston to the East finals.
Rogers assumed the sixth-man role and fit in perfectly alongside Walker, Battie and Williams up front. His presence allowed Boston to regularly close games with a small-ball lineup, which was relatively unheard of at the time.
Delk alternated between starting and coming off the bench and infused even more frenetic energy to a team that was already playing a helter-skelter style. Once again, it was odd that a Pitino player (Delk played for Pitino at the University of Kentucky) was a big part of things when Pitino was not.
When the playoffs rolled around, skeptics claimed Boston’s volume of three-point shooting would undo them. O’Brien playing only one true big in Battie, was also mentioned as a cause for concern. Many picked the Philadelphia 76ers to upset the Celtics in the first round. The Sixers had Allen Iverson and were big with Dikembe Mutombo and Derrick Coleman in the starting lineup.
The best-of-five series went all five games with each team winning games on their homecourt. Game 5 culminated in 120-87 Boston blowout victory. That game featured the Celtics being everything O’Brien believed in. They held the 76ers to under 40% shooting. And the Celtics shot 19-of-29 from behind the arc, led by Pierce going 8-of-10 from three on his way to 46 points.
The big, physical Pistons loomed in the second round. Detroit and Boston were two of the better defensive teams in the league and the series showed it. Each game was a rock fight. None messier than the Celtics 66-64 Game 3 win in Boston. That win gave the Celtics control of the series and they won 4-1, after dropping Game 1 in Detroit.
The New Jersey Nets (remember when they still played in New Jersey?) awaited Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was the deepest Boston had been in the postseason, since the 1988 Celtics fell to the Detroit Pistons in six games that effectively ended the Bird-era Celtics dominance.
The Jason Kidd-led Nets were no joke. Kidd finished second to Tim Duncan in MVP voting that season. New Jersey had the best defense in the NBA and played fairly fast. Kidd was a one-man fastbreak on a regular basis. Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn were perfect running-mates on the wing. And Kenyon Martin held things down in the paint.
Much like the Pistons series, this matchup took on a defensive tenor as well. The Nets cracked 100 points victories in Games 1 and 5, and those were the only times either side went over the century-mark.
Kidd made it clear why he was an MVP candidate, as he averaged a triple-double for the series at 17.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists. Kittles was also a handful, as he averaged 14.8 points while shooting 45.7% for the series. Martin and Van Horn chipped in some scoring and rebounding as well.
Boston did what they did all season. Pierce and Walker handled the scoring-load, as they combined to average 46.2 points per game. Anderson had his last meaningful NBA impacts, as he averaged 12.7 points and 5.3 assists per game. Rogers scored 10.7 points per game off the bench, and Battie and Williams did their things defensively and on the glass.
After dropping Game 1 in New Jersey, the Celtics rallied to win Games 2 and 3. Game 3 featured a classic Boston moment. The Nets had a 21-point lead entering the fourth quarter and looked like the Celtics season was on the ropes. But Paul Pierce had other plans.
Pierce outscored the Nets 19-16 by himself in the fourth. The Celtics rallied back and took a shocking 2-1 series lead.
With a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead, Boston fell at home in heartbreaking loss in Game 4.
In a back-and-forth game, Battie fouled Nets reserve guard Lucious Harris with 6.6 second to play. Harris knocked them both down. One more time, Pierce looked poised to play the hero. He drew a foul from Van Horn and went to the line with a chance to tie the game with 1.1 seconds to play. Sadly, Pierce missed the first. After Pierce missed the second shot intentionally, Battie grabbed the rebound but his attempt missed.
The Nets would win Game 5 in New Jersey by 11 points. Boston took an 11-point lead into halftime of Game 6, but ran out of gas in the second half. The Celtics scored just 34 points after the break, including hitting just 7-of-30 three-pointers in the final two quarters.
It was a close miss and the Celtics wouldn’t really be in NBA Finals contention again until the 2008 title team. But this overachieving 2002 Boston squad should be remembered for helping to usher in some new trends in the NBA.
You know how the Houston Rockets are simultaneously lauded for playing a style that embraces three-pointers and free throws and nothing in between? The 2002 Celtics beat them to it. That team not only led the league in threes attempted, but finished in the middle of the pack in free throw attempts. Mid-range shots were rarely seen. Threes, layups or getting themselves to the line. Pierce was kind of James Harden before Harden was a thing. Pierce took 27% of his shots at the rim, 33% of his shots from behind the arc and attempted 7.8 free throws per game.
You know how the Golden State Warriors became champions because they went small? The 2002 Celtics beat them to that too. Tony Battie was the only center who played regular minutes. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Boston closed games with Pierce, Walker, Anderson, Williams and Rogers. Small-ball was their secret weapon.
They weren’t the best team in Celtics history. They didn’t even make it to the NBA Finals. A few years later, Walker and O’Brien’s time had run its course in Boston. It looked like Pierce was next. But when the 2008 team raised Banner 17, Pierce was still there. And that team embraced shooting jumpers and often went small when it mattered most. They can thank the overachievers from 2002 for showing them the way.