Could it Be? The "F" Word and the Celtics in the Same Sentence?

July 31, 2007

Eastern Conference FAVORITES? Is that really what they are now? Three months ago, the Boston Celtics won their 24th and final game of the 2006-07 season. They finished 29 games behind the conference leaders and 16 games out of playoff contention.

They were beyond bad. They were embarrassing. If they were dogs, Michael Vick would have drown them. And then things got worse.

Ten weeks ago, the lottery balls bounced the wrong way again and the Celtics lost out on the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft sweepstakes. Five weeks ago, in an apparent attempt to placate their best player, they traded the No. 5 pick in the draft for Ray Allen, a 31-year-old shooting guard who is coming off double ankle surgery.

And then?

And then word leaked that they were on the brink of acquiring Kevin Garnett, and ESPN.com declared the Celtics an instant Eastern Conference favorite. At the same time, SI.com said the Celtics could be headed to their first NBA Finals since the Larry Bird era. Somewhere Tim Donaghy is loading up on Doc Rivers' team. Just like that, your Boston Celtics go from 24-58 to a spot in the NBA Finals, which makes you wonder: Is it too late to retire Danny Ainge's number? And why Rose Kennedy anyway? What did she ever do? Here's a better idea: The Danny Ainge Greenway.

Red Auerbach made many brilliant moves, but as far as we recall, none of them led to as dramatic a leap in the standings as the Garnett deal apparently will. Even Bird joined a team that had won 29 the year before he arrived.

Dominique Wilkins joined a Celtics team that had won 32 games and instantly transformed them into a 35-win team. There was a time, not long ago, when many of us heard the Garnett rumors and thought, ``Here we go again. Another desperate GM trying to save his skin.'' The dreaded ``R'' word filled the airwaves, and it appeared that Ainge, like M.L. Carr 13 years earlier, was on a misguided mission to make his team relevant again.

But there is a difference between being relevant because you add a famous player who gives fans something to watch before ``American Idol'' on Wednesday night, and being relevant because you are the favorites to win the East. Wilkins led the Celts in scoring in his only season. Dino Radja was second. Dee Brown was third. Eric Montross was the big man in the middle. Not even Tommy Heinsohn called Dominique's Celtics the Eastern Conference favorites.

Garnett, on the other hand, will be sharing the floor with Allen, a seven-time All-Star, and five-time All-Star Paul Pierce. With this deal, the Celtics may or may not be the best team in the conference, but this much is certain: They are a hell of a lot tougher to defend than the reigning conference champs, the Cleveland LeBrons.

Rajon Rondo will have plenty of choices as he leads the break, but when in doubt, he'd be wise to feed the new guy with the bald head and big mouth. Garnett treats young guards who don't get him the ball only slightly better than Vick treats peace-loving pitbulls.

Garnett plays hard, plays hurt and plays loud. It's probably a good thing that Gerald Green goes to Minnesota in the deal. They'd find the poor kid in the fetal position under a massage table after a month with Garnett. By the way, it's worth noting that this time, the Celts made a splash by TRADING AWAY the slam dunk champion.

A couple of things changed since last we debated the merits of the Garnett deal. For one, Ainge swapped a draft pick for Allen, signaling the end of days when the Celtics were content to take their lumps and bide their time. This clearly was a change in organizational philosophy that REQUIRED another shoe to drop, and that shoe turned out to be Garnett's size-15 Adidas.

In the past month, someone convinced Garnett that teaming up with Pierce and Allen would be his best chance to make his first trip to the NBA Finals. In June, Garnett's agent said it wasn't going to happen and Michael Wilbon of ESPN's PTI said it was because of the racial climate in this city.

Who says we're not making great strides in that department? A little more than a month later and Garnett is ready to sing along with the Standells and call Boston his home. Maybe Wilbon can fall on the fact that the Celts traded away everyone but Brian Scalabrine.

In the end, of course, there is great risk in this trade. Al Jefferson will be a star and Green probably will turn out OK, too. But you can't accuse Ainge of just trying to fend off the wolves at his door. Not when serious NBA analysts are calling his team the favorite to win the East. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are different players with different strengths who have a chance to come together and win.

Suddenly, Ainge has made his team relevant AND good. Not in 2011, to be sure, but let's face it: Most Celtics fans were tired of waiting for 2011. Now they can hardly wait until October.

Just think: Kevin Garnett on Friday and Saturday nights; Randy Moss on Sundays. It's too bad our racial climate is so lousy. We might have been able to attract some athletes to this town.

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