For eight straight seasons, LeBron James led a team to the NBA Finals. The reign of terror upon the Eastern Conference began in the 2010-11 campaign when LeBron made the controversial decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign with the Miami Heat. After four years and two championships, he left to return home to Cleveland.
A four-year stint in Cleveland, and four consecutive run-ins with the Golden State Warriors, concluded with LeBron heading west to the Los Angeles Lakers.
We tend to forget how dominant and innovative those Heat teams were. Playing Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron at the 4 helped usher in the small-ball, stretch-big transition for the entire league. Erik Spoelstra’s offenses were filled with great actions, and Pat Riley assembled a Big Three team that re-ignited the trend of franchises hoarding trios of superstars.
But what of those teams in the Eastern Conference that fell by the wayside in their wake? Without a LeBron-led dynasty, some of these squads would be in the annals of history with Finals appearances or championship banners. Instead, they serve as footnotes in a conference defined by its inferiority to the supreme talents of King James. Forgotten in particular are those from the earliest parts of the decade, the teams toppled by the excellence of the Miami Heat.
Many of those were close to toppling the Heat, and many impacted the evolution of basketball in ways we have to examine to understand fully. We continue our five-part series diving deep into those teams to find a new appreciation for their impact, (which began examining the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls), with the only team from the East to make two NBA Finals without LeBron James in the last fifteen years.
How far back to trace the roots of the Boston Celtics late-2000s success is a matter of perspective.
On a macro level, the roots go all the way back to the poor decisions of coach/president Rick Pitino nearly a decade prior, which led the organization to bottom out and acquire a robust number of draft picks and young players. On a micro level, the construction of their roster occurred in June 2007.
On the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge made an aggressive move to acquire superstar Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics. The Celtics were coming off an abysmal 24-58 season, worst in the league. They whiffed on acquiring a top-two pick in the lottery, which would have gifted them either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant—two players with franchise-altering potential.
Instead, the Sonics got the rights to Durant with the second pick, and their timeline changed. Perhaps it was their desire to build around KD and another youngster, or perhaps they had true plans of re-signing free agent Rashard Lewis to flank him, but either way they made Allen available and moved on.
The deal was followed a month later with the acquisition of unhappy (“spiritually exhausted”, might be a better term) superstar Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves. KG had requested a trade and sought a fresh start, and the Celtics paid a king’s ransom to give it to him. In the span of a month, the Celtics went from unlucky lottery losers to a legitimate trio of superstars in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Those acquisitions came at a steep cost, however.
Boston shipped three draft picks, including two lottery selections, and gave up Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West—plenty of young talent and role players.
These massive transactions depleted the Celtics’ depth at the time: They entered August with just second-year pros Rajon Rondo and Leon Powe, rookies Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt, young role players Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen, plus veteran Brian Scalabrine on the roster. Ten men: three superstars and a bunch of young, unproven entities.
What followed was a flood of veteran free agents choosing to arrive in Boston. Eddie House, Scot Pollard and James Posey came first, bringing experience and an awareness of their roles to the Celtics. If Rondo and Perkins could be book-end starters around the Big three, the bench would be stabilized.
Then, in February after the buyout market was complete, veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell signed to add even more experience and pedigree. Cassell, in the twilight of his career, was once the starting point guard when Garnett’s Timberwolves went to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. Brown had started nearly one-thousand games and was another heady defensive anchor.
For all the worries about their depth and lack of playoff-ready performers in August, the Celtics and Ainge proved everyone wrong.
Head coach Doc Rivers balanced it all with perfect harmony, and everybody on the team knew their exact role. Ainge was the mastermind, though. He deftly dodged the salary cap rules and skirted conventional wisdom to build a team from zero to hero in less than twelve months.
Boston’s Big Three was a mini-dynasty of their own, winning the 2008 NBA Title and losing in heartbreaking fashion during 2010 Game 7 after Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in Game 6. The year between their Finals appearances was the season Kevin Garnett was shut down due to injury and the unofficial collapse of their dynastic hopes. The back-to-back crippling afflictions changed the way Boston had to play but marooned their peak far before LeBron ever suited up in the number six.
By the time the Heat formed their own Big Three, Ray Allen was 35, Kevin Garnett 34 and Paul Pierce 33. They were naturally being passed by younger, more athletic cores. That much was evident when Miami smacked the Celtics during the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, winning in five games with all four victories by eight or more.
It shouldn’t have been that way.
Game 5 saw the Celtics, on the road in the AmericanAirlines Center, leading 87-82 with 3:44 to play. Miami went on a 15-0 run to close out the series, in what now feels like the coronation of the Heat as the new Eastern Conference ruler:
Some teams would fold and regroup. But Ainge knew his plan would work when given time.
Months before this series against Miami, the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder and took back 25-year-old Jeff Green. Green, a former top-five pick, was expected to be the young heir apparent to this Celtics core while complementing their current stars. His presence would allow Kevin Garnett to move to the 5 full-time, a necessity given his hampering knee issues. Gone would be Shaquille O’Neal and the notion the Celtics would overwhelm teams with two huge posts.
They needed to match up with the Heat, and Green was crucial in that pursuit.
Unfortunately, Green wouldn’t contribute right away. After signing his contract before the lockout-shortened season, an aortic aneurysm was discovered in his heart, requiring immediate surgery and preventing him from playing at all in 2011-12. This was a scary and life-changing path to walk, much less for a promising young player blossoming into his own. Green’s first four seasons saw him average 13.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
Expectations were high that he’d come in and be an impactful piece as the Celtics sought to overthrow the Heat.
The up-and-down tale now seemed headed for a sharp downturn. Boston won only 39 games, and Ray Allen missed the final month of the season with a severe ankle injury. The C’s battled to gain the four-seed and met and old-foe Atlanta Hawks in the first round, defeating them in a tight six games. Allen sat the first two, then returned and helped the Celtics to a 90-84 overtime win in Game 3.
After taking a commanding 3-1 lead during Game 4, Games 5 and 6 were both decided by three points or fewer. Aided by an unfortunate injury to Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, Boston’s next opponent was the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. The road was paved for the Celtics to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, with lady luck finally falling on their side.
Everyone overlooked the Sixers, however.
This was a really good team, with Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday leading the way. Role players like Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Lou Williams and Spencer Hawes made them a versatile group and far more talented than most eight-seeds. In a lockout-shortened season, the standings were less a true reflection of talent and more a hodgepodge of four months’ chaos. The Sixers performed like a 43-win team, higher than that of the Celtics, and featured the league’s third stingiest defense.
When seeing that the Celtics somehow survived to win in seven games, it’s easy to look at the seeding and believe the result proved their inferiority to the Heat before the matchup, but that would be a disrespect to the Sixers.
Allen was still hobbled, coming off the bench behind Avery Bradley at the start of the series, before Bradley suffered several small tears in his shoulder and required season-ending surgery. Thus, Boston entered a series with the reigning Eastern Conference Champions without one of their best, youngest defenders.
What carried the Celtics? The emergence of apparent new superstar Rajon Rondo. For the first time in his career, he was carrying part of the scoring load and turned into a triple-double machine. Through the first two series of the playoffs, Rondo averaged 15.3 points, 12.3 assists and 6.7 rebounds with three triple-doubles, including a heroic effort to close out the Sixers in Game 7.
Game 1 went to the Heat, who looked like they would dispatch the Celtics despite the absence of Chris Bosh. It was Game 2 when Rondo put his mark on the series and announced his arrival as the man Miami needed to prepare for:
Miami came away victors during that 115-111 overtime thriller, but the Celtics were re-energized.
44 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds from Rondo in a whopping 53 minutes brought the Celtics alive as the series shifted back to Boston. On a stage like this, it felt like his coming-out party. He punished the Heat for not guarding him outside of 12 feet, and it looked like he was only a consistent jumper away from being among the league’s true elite.
The Celtics proceeded to win Games 3 and 4 at home, with Game 4 being another overtime thriller. Rondo’s performance in Miami against a heavily-sagged defense changed the way they played them, and that opened up the offense for the rest of the Celtics.
Game 5 served as the true peak of Celtics resistance during the Heatles era. Rondo struggled, but emotional leaders Garnett and Pierce refused to lose, carrying the C’s to a 94-90 road victory:
Boston was up 3-2 on the Heat and heading back to Boston for the chance to clinch. Reports of Boston’s demise as a contender suddenly appeared premature. Despite their numerous injuries and challenges, this was still a well-constructed roster with multiple future Hall-of-Famers.
Two games ahead, and only one victory was needed for their third NBA Finals appearance in five years.
National media coverage tends to sensationalize the importance of one game or moment in a player’s long-term legacy. The narrative fits their need to fuel a 24-hour sports cycle, promote their own games and drive the conversation in a direction they can profit from. In this era, LeBron James was the top story on SportsCenter every night, the platter on which his legacy was served.
Yet, this time the narrative and attention proved warranted.
LeBron escaped Cleveland so that he wouldn’t be alone in these back-to-the-wall situations, joining his friends in South Beach in a star-studded attack. But by the end of the next two games, it was indeed LeBron standing alone as he made significant strides etching his own legacy as arguably the best to ever play.
Game 6 was perhaps LeBron’s greatest ever.
Miami routed the Celtics by nineteen on the road. James scored 45 and added 15 rebounds while holding Pierce to 4-of-18 shooting. The Celtics went an ice-cold 1-14 from deep, but Rondo’s seven turnovers were the most devastating part of the night.
James was a killer and brought the series back to Miami for Game 7:
Game 7 went much of the same way for the Celtics. LeBron poured in 31 and 12. Miami won by thirteen after being even at the conclusion of the third quarter in more LeBron-led heroics. The Celtics scored only two points during the final five minutes. It felt like Game 5 from the Eastern Conference Semifinals a season prior, where the Heat entered a gear that Boston simply didn’t have.
It was over.
From the moment the Celtics won the 2008 NBA Finals, they were what the Bad Boy Pistons served to Michael Jordan: A stingy foil that, once-toppled, would be the official ascension of a star. LeBron’s rise to megastardom came long before the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, but this notch in his belt, on this stage, was historic. The final nail in the coffin was finally delivered and by James himself.
Miami was back to the NBA Finals, and Boston was sent home with an incredibly old core.
In what still is seen as a controversial move by many diehard Bostonians, free agent Ray Allen left the Celtics that July for South Beach and joined the evil empire the Celtics sought to topple. Their Big Three era was officially over, though one more season clung on with the rest of the stars. Doc Rivers left after a 41-40 campaign to take over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were part of a blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets that has gone down in infamy and would set up the Celtics for their next run to the top of the East.
We remember the Celtics as legendary champions and a dominant team that helped usher in the superstar era of basketball. The success of Pierce, Garnett and Allen joining forces led to many attempts in the twelve years since to replicate such a model.
But the defining legacy should lie with Ainge, the chief architect and mastermind behind the roster moves that allowed a champion to take place. He had the guts to pull the trigger on two massive trades in a time when building a roster around a capped-out core was uncommon. He filled in the gaps with veteran signings in August and February, trusted many of his young players and let his coach gel the pieces together.
Ainge continually reloaded with this approach. What started as Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown morphed into a strategy to attract big names at the end of their careers, willing to take a less-prominent role to chase rings for one final run. Of course, this has always happened throughout modern NBA history (and certainly prior these Celtics), but Boston held on for a long time as a destination for this.
Some major names suited up for the Celtics during this time. Stephon Marbury had a run in green. Shaquille O’Neal and Rasheed Wallace, two Hall-of-Fame caliber guys, anchored the middle, as did Jermaine O’Neal. Michael Finley was on the 2010 runner-up team. Even Jason Terry joined in for a run of his own before all was said and done.
Nothing the Celtics did on-court was irreplicable or incredibly innovative. They were a stingy defensive team and utilized many of Tom Thibodeau’s concepts when he was their assistant coach. They ran tons of sets for Allen coming off screens and leveraged their stars well on offense. They never toppled Miami’s Big Three and came through the Eastern Conference in an era where many opponents were less than deserving of championship gold.
But the lasting mark this franchise placed on the game was the ability to show a path for teams to jump at stars and build an immediately impactful roster around them. For better or for worse, that is the blueprint left behind by Ainge, Rivers and the original Big Three. Miami took that approach and was able to pull it off even better.
Because they had prime LeBron James and everyone else didn’t.
Read Part 3 here:
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.