The Boston Celtics began last season with the optimism that a revamped roster would raise them back to respectability after the once-proud franchise had fallen upon hard times.
They’ll start 2008-09 with tangible proof of their improvement.
The Celtics will raise their 17th NBA championship banner before their season opener on Tuesday night against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who gave Boston its toughest test in the postseason before bowing out in a thrilling Game 7 at the TD Banknorth Garden.
Following the 2006-07 season, with the Celtics more than 20 years removed from their last title and reeling after going 24-58, general manager Danny Ainge resorted to drastic measures, pulling off a pair of bold trades and dealing away the majority of Boston’s roster to unite Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with Celtics mainstay Paul Pierce.
The newly anointed Big Three responded, leading the Celtics to an NBA-best 66-16 record, then through a tough postseason to earn the franchise’s first championship since 1986.
But Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he began thinking about repeating as champions just hours after Boston’s 131-92 clinching victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the finals. He’s hardly the only member of the organization thinking about the franchise’s first back-to-back titles since the Bill Russell era in 1968-69.
“To be a real special Celtics team,” owner Wyc Grousbeck said, “you have to win more than one.”
Rivers has almost exactly the same cast of characters at his disposal to defend the championship, including Garnett, Allen and Pierce, who was the MVP of the finals. Garnett averaged a double-double in the postseason, and Allen caught fire from 3-point range late in the playoffs, going 30-of-56 (53.6 percent) from long range over the final eight games, six of which were won by Boston.
Pierce said Garnett hasn’t lost any of his energy, which helped transform the Celtics into the best defensive team in the league last season, as they allowed opponents to shoot an NBA-low 41.9 percent. Garnett was named defensive player of the year for the first time.
“If anything, Kevin’s more intense this year. It makes all of the difference to the team,” Pierce said. “After you win, you’re motivated even more to win it again.”
Fellow starters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins also return for the Celtics, who will only be missing only one major contributor. James Posey, a clutch defender and 3-point shooter off the bench, signed with New Orleans in the offseason.
“We pick us. We picked us last year, too,” Rivers said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to be a better team.”
Boston nearly wasn’t good enough to advance past Cleveland in last year’s playoffs. After the Celtics needed seven games to beat eighth-seeded Atlanta in the opening round, the Cavaliers also pushed them to the brink in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Boston beat Atlanta 99-65 in the decisive game of that series, but Game 7 against the Cavs was a classic. James scored 45 points but Pierce took the reins of Boston’s offense and matched Cleveland’s star down the stretch and finished with 41 in the Celtics’ 97-92 victory.
Though they were underdogs in the series, the loss was disappointing for the Cavs, who won the Eastern Conference the previous season before losing to San Antonio in the finals.
“We came close and I got a little taste of it,” James said. “The fans got a little taste of it with us winning the Eastern Conference championship. I need more and the fans need more. We deserve it.”
With that in mind, Cleveland tried to improve itself in the offseason, acquiring point guard Mo Williams from Milwaukee in a three-team trade. Williams averaged 17.2 points and 6.3 assists for the Bucks last season.
He’ll help bolster the supporting staff behind James, the league’s leading scorer with 30 points per game last season. The 23-year-old superstar also averaged 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists, setting career highs with 31 double-doubles and seven triple-doubles.
“This is the best team that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” James said. “I see the talent from 1 to 14, everybody can contribute. I know I’ve improved five times than I was in Game 7 of the Boston series.”
The Cavs will need to improve in order to win in Boston. Including the playoffs, they went 0-6 there last season, averaging just 80.5 points and shooting 37.5 percent from the field in that game.
The home team won all 11 contests between the teams in 2007-08. The Celtics defended the parquet all season, going 35-6 at home during the regular season and 13-1 during the playoffs.