Early this morning, the Boston Celtics landed at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, ready to kick off a week-long trip that they hope will shape the course of their season.
As you know, this marks the second time in six years that the Celtics have collectively traveled overseas. As you know, the last time they began the season out there, they won a title back here. And as you know, regardless of everything that team went through between the moment they touched back on American soil and the moment the confetti started raining down on the parquet, the 2007-2008 Celtics always considered their international adventure to be an essential part of their success. Europe was where they conceived their championship dream . . . and nine months later, they popped out a shiny, new Larry OBrien.
Was that trip the reason that Boston blew out Atlanta in Game 7? Was it the reason PJ Browns jumper and Paul Pierces foul shot found the bottom of the net against Cleveland? Was it the reason they erased a 24-point deficit in Game 4 against the Lakers?
Who knows? But more importantly, who cares? All that matters is that the players believe it, and theyll head into this years trip believing the same thing. That with this tour through Istanbul and Milan, theyve been afforded a leg up on the competition; a mechanical walkway on their steep climb up Mt. Ubuntu. While last season couldnt have started under more trying circumstances thanks to the insanity of the lockout, the Rondo rumors, Jeff Greens surgery, and Garnett and Pierce showing up in worse shape than Josh Beckett these Celtics have their house in order. Theyre not thinking about the last season. Theyre thinking about 2007, and how to recreate that magic on the way to shocking the world one more time.
At home in Boston, it feels a little crazy to compare this years team to the one that raised Banner 17. First, because the NBAs a very different place. In 2007, the Celtics were major contenders from the get-go. On paper, they were deeper and had arguably more prime talent than any team in the league. These days, its all about the Super Teams, and sadly, the C's dont have one. And while Boston is most definitely still a contender, this season, even at their best, Boston will need a little help and a lot of luck to make it back to top.
And it will also take a hell of an effort from the four guys who are still around from the last time the Celtics were there.
Back in 2007, Doc Rivers was a lovable but unproven coach with a more promising future on TV than on the sidelines. When he inherited the Big 3, hed yet to win a single playoff series as a coach, and was fresh off leading Boston to their second-worst record in franchise history.
Paul Pierce was still a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday. He hadnt won a playoff series in four seasons, and missed the postseason entirely in the previous two. A few months before leaving for Italy, Pierce had made peace with the end of his Celtics career. Not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
Kevin Garnett had just made the biggest decision of his life. A man who thrives on consistency and is obsessed with loyalty, KG picked up and left everything hed known and loved since he was 18 years old. All in the name of avoiding a spot on a list alongside Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Patrick Ewing.
In 2007, 21-year-old Rajon Rondo didnt have a clue. But after two tumultuous years in college, and one uneven season on the worst team in the East, he was handed the keys to a Maserati.
And that brings us back to today. 2012, where a lot has obviously, and naturally, changed in the lives of Celtics four championship hold overs.
Rivers is now one of the two most respected coaches in the league. He could tell his team that a group trip to the dentist is good for chemistry, and everyone would follow. While we once wondered if Rivers had what it takes to coach in this league at all, these days theres no one in the game who relates to players and understands todays NBA better than Rivers.
Then, there's Pierce. Now a few weeks short of his 35th birthday a Hall of Famer and an NBA champion The Truth doesnt have much left to accomplish, and seems to have once again made peace with the end of his Celtics career, as well as his NBA career. Last week, he told reporters that he wants to retire with KG (regardless of when that is), even suggesting that if Garnett had walked away last season, the Captain would have followed.
Pierce saw what happened to Ray Allen last season. He knows how quickly you can be replaced in this league (especially at his age). He knows that the Celtics will look to reduce his minutes this season, and that, for the first time in a while, they actually have a roster to make that happen; a roster with younger, faster, more athletic players that just might be a better fit with Bostons superstar guard one of which is now making 9 million a year.
No doubt that Pierce is still an enormous part the Celtics plans, but despite the fact that hes coming off his first 20-ppg season since 2007, he'll probably have to swallow some pride.
Garnett long ago accomplished what he set out to here in Boston, and five years later finds himself with more pride in the Celtics than he ever imagined in Minnesota. His relationship with Rivers, his friendship with Pierce, his love for Rondo and his connection with the fans have impassioned KG to ungodly levels. And it doesnt hurt that, at 36, hes still one of the leagues best defenders and one its best centers.
This season wont be an easy one for Garnett, though. We all know what he puts his body through over the course of an NBA season. We all know how he feels about playing the five. And its hard to imagine hell feel much better after a full season going head-to-head in the East with Andrew Bynum, Brooke Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Roy Hibbert.
As for Rondo, at this stage, its not enough to call him one of the NBAs best point guards. Hes now one of the NBAs best players, period. And while he's yet to prove it over the course of an entire season, all signs point to Rondo being more ready than ever to make that leap. He's even been given the public blessing of the president, the coach and the two elder statesmen to finally spread his freakish wings and take this team to another level.
And in the media, we've taken these blessings and turned them into a monster.
In the public narrative Rondo's taken the torch. Now, it's all in on him. In 2012, the Celtics are Rondo's team!
And I don't think that makes sense. I don't think it's fair.
First of all, what does that mean?
It's Rondo's team?
Does that mean that Garnett will now be less vocal than he's been at any point over the last 17 years? That Pierce is less likely to call a team meeting if he thinks things are going the wrong way? That either of them would hesitate to put Rondo in his place if they think he's acting out of line?
Do we really think these guys Garnett, Pierce and Rivers are just about to hand the team to Rondo and get out of the way? Of course not. That would be stupid. And anyway, these Celtics have never been about having one guy run the show. It always been a group. A team.
He may have surpassed his teammates in terms of present-day skill level and game-to-game dominance, but Rondo's not the leader. He's a leader. And after all the Celtics have gone through with him these last five years, for now I'd say that's enough. It should be enough.
But like I said, it's not just about Rondo. This "passing of the torch" doesn't fall solely on his shoulders. It's about Boston's new but old Big Four Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Rivers navigating the ups, downs, pressures and realities of their ever-changing lives and careers, while simultaneously finding a way to always put the team first.
As long as those four all four are in the right place, the rest of the team will follow. And you can bet they'll come home next week believing in that 2007 magic.