Sunday, November 30, 2008

Boston Celtics for 2008 SI Sportsmen of the Year

I wrote this on Sunday night and Monday morning, so when I refer to "tomorrow", I mean Tuesday. Maybe they've already made the decision and put it out, but it really won't affect the read at all.

Sports Illustrated. The cornerstone of sportswriting. Where the most advanced sportswriters go. This highly influential publication is read by 23 million adults every week, one of the top magazines in the whole country. And they officially go farther than just America with SI China, and they get many subscribers outside of the USA as well. People read it, send letters to the editor, scrutinize it, criticize it, commend it--SI is insanely popular.

There are reasons for their expansive popularity. First of all, they have many skilled and learned writers in their arsenal, doing stories on their respective specialties and producing the best work in the business (barring SLAM). Features are plentiful, with the annual year-end double issue, the annual "Where Are They Now?" issue, the annual college basketball issue--all special editions of the magazine are highly awaited by readers, myself included in this distinguished group.

But there is one detailed feature issue that is awaited more than any other throughout the year (no, I'm not talking about the swimsuit issue), and it leaves readers and writers alike trying to decide who is worthy of the honor that comes with being featured in this prestigious issue. Annually, there is shock and disbelief from a good deal of people regardless of the result, and there are also many people who feel that the choice was obvious all along.

The Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award has been given annually in December since SI's inauguration in 1954. This honor is given out to, by definition, "The athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship of achievement". Names that have been popping up this year for the cover story in this issue include NASCAR racer Jimmie Johnson, Texas Rangers' outfielder Josh Hamilton, Milwaukee Brewers' C.C. Sabathia and even President elect Barack Obama. We'll find out who wins it tomorrow, and this year there is no clear winner, with the writers' online nominations being diverse and barely similar at all.

I know that Boston sports have been given enough exposure already after numerous incredible teams and players from the area have won many a championship or individual award. I am aware that a Boston sports team or player has won this award twice in the last four years. I am also aware that the Boston Red Sox have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated 44 times, and the Celtics have done the like 39 times. The Red Sox have won two World Series' in the last 4 years. The Patriots had three Super Bowls in four years a couple years ago. The Celtics just won the NBA Finals. I am aware that people are sick of the kind of exposure that Boston sports are getting. But, I think the Boston Celtics should be able to appear on the cover yet again for this award.

Ian Thomsen, an SI Senior Writer, nominated the 2007-08 Boston Celtics as Sportsmen of the Year. And I agree with this bold idea. Is it just my crazy Celtics' fandom and loyalty that is driving me to this decisive conclusion? Or is it that I truly believe that the Beantown Boys in green epitomize the definition of the honor above? There is a good chance that a bit of both is involved in my decision. After an improbable year, the Celtics should get the credit they deserve. Why do I think that the Celtics should be presented with the award that has been given to the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Arthur Ashe?

June 28th, 2007. Draft day. The Boston Celtics had fallen short of their high expectations of scoring in the lottery. Presumably they desired, as the rest of the league's lousy teams did, the 19 year old center compared to Bill Russell, or the 19 year old point forward compared to Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. After the ping pong balls had come out to give Boston the fifth overall pick, the Celtics as a team and organization were crestfallen. Greg Oden or Kevin Durant would not be acquired, even after Boston had a 19.9 percent chance of being blessed with the first overall selection. With this bad luck presented to the Celtics, they were again an afterthought in people's minds, Paul Pierce and the rest of his team won't be good for a while.

While the semi-obvious first two picks were going down, the Celtics' organization was hard at work with the Seattle Super Sonics, trying to get more than "just another young guy" to play with alongside all-star Paul Pierce. They needed a seasoned veteran who could bring star power to the Celtics' rotation, a guy who could lead a young charge with Pierce, the team's long-standing marquee player. Soon before their choice was due, an announcement had been made: Three point specialist Ray Allen and the Sonics' 35th overall choice was to go to the Celtics in exchange for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the Celtics' fifth overall pick.

Glen "Big Baby" Davis was selected with previously the Sonics' pick, and Jeff Green was taken fifth overall by Seattle. They needed a guy that Pierce could play with, and they finally got one in Ray Allen. But, the Celtics knew that this transaction alone wouldn't be enough to nail their lofty goal of winning a championship in the 2007-08 season. A bit over a month later, Danny Ainge and the whole Celtics organization took a measured risk: in the biggest trade in NBA history for a single player, the Timberwolves' leader Kevin Garnett went to the Celtics in exchange for Boston's Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green and Theo Ratliff. The Celtics traded the future for the present, all of the players sent to Minny were young and talented (barring Ratliff).

The monumental trade brought a combined 22 all star game appearances, three years of being named All-NBA First Team, four years of being named All-NBA Second Team, six years of being named All-NBA Third Team, six years of being named All-NBA Defensive First Team, two years of being named All-NBA Defensive Second Team and an MVP award. That is on another level of formal recognition, and Boston looked great on paper after acquiring backup guard Eddie House, chip-winning swingman James Posey and backup center Scot Pollard along with the two new all stars.

They were equipped with a deadly mixture of veterans and younger players on the bench to complement an all-star leading starting five. Young point guard Rajon Rondo was improving, and defensive stalwart Kendrick Perkins looked more than ready to clog up the middle. On paper, Boston looked great. But could the three superstars who'd been surrounded by no-names for their whole careers work as a team? If the answer is yes, people liked the Celtics' chances. The three stars had zero Finals' appearances between them, and this year looked like they could finally get their chance in Boston.

Opening night was quite a show for the fans in Boston at the TD Banknorth Garden as the Celtics romped the Washington Wizards 103-83, Garnett leading the way, grabbing 20 rebounds. The energy in the arena was electric, and Garnett brought the intensity and excitement to the court and the stands that had been vacant for a while in Boston's home arena. They kept it up after opening night. The Celtics went on a tear, more than living up to the endless hype that had been doled out for the four months preceding the season. They won their first eight games, and Garnett, Pierce and Allen doing what they were fated to do their whole career NBA careers: win basketball games.

The kept with their winning ways, losing a diminutive three games in November and December combined, that being compared to 26 wins. It was one of the best starts in NBA history, and everyone could see that the Boston Celtics were the real deal. They got to double-digit losses only after winning 41 games, and they were the team to beat in the East coming into the playoff hunt. They cruised to a 66-16 record, with a .805 win percentage. Boston easily cliched a first-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and Kevin Garnett was one of the leading candidates for MVP, along with the Cavs' LeBron James, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, and the Hornets' Chris Paul. They were matched up against the young and inexperienced Atlanta Hawks for the first round, and many people predicted a sweep in this lopsided series.

Boston won the first two, and many people's and writers' original predictions looked imminent. But when Boston came to ATL, they were stunned by the ultra-supportive crowd and electric Hawks, losing both away games to the "young and stupid" Atlanta club, and they came back to Boston to show that it wasn't a fluke. The Celtics took that game, but going back to their home court would be a problem for Boston. In a thriller at the Philips Arena, the Hawks came out with the win in the last minute, 103-100, and they were sent back to Boston, unprecedentedly forcing the top-seeders into a game seven.

But, their vast effort was for naught, with the Hawks being no match for the motivated Celtics who won 99-65 in front of an ecstatic home crowd. They were then scheduled to play LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Boston maintaining home court advantage for the series as they would for the whole playoffs.

This Conference Semifinals series started out with two defensive-powered low-scoring games at the TD Banknorth Garden, both finishing with Boston on top, 76-72 and 89-73, respectively. Both teams then traveled to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, where a crowd of 20,563 hungry and eager Cavs fans awaited them. The Cavaliers answered the intense crowd with two decisive wins over the powerhouse that were the Celtics, beating out Boston by more than ten points each time. The Cleveland then went back to the Celtics' arena with confidence flying from the two wins, the series tied at 2 games apiece.

But Boston wasn't about to let Cleveland get comfortable with the series, and they answered the two recent losses by beating them twice in a row at home again, sending the series back to Cleveland so that the Cavs could try and stay alive. Boston held Cleveland to under 75 points in this one, but Cleveland's newfound D held the C's to under 70; a 69-75 finish. Boston, unbeaten at home in the playoffs, closed the door two days later in game 7, winning 97-92, advancing the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals against the versatile Pistons. The game was highlighted by 40-plus point performances from Pierce and LeBron James in the entertaining game seven thriller.

Coming into the series undefeated at home and winless away in the playoffs, the Celtics were slightly fatigued from the two consecutive series' pushed to the brink. Still having home court advantage, the persistent Celtics found themselves face to face with the ultra-experienced Detroit Pistons, who had been where they were at the moment many times before, contrary to the Celtics. They won the first game 88-79 in a great team effort led by the unsung starters (Rondo, Perkins) and the bench, but the next game would not be quite as easy, as the Celtics knew.

Despite a 26 point effort from P Double, Boston barely fell to the Pistons at home, 97-103. This arose the question: Could the Boston Celtics win at home in pressure situations? If they wanted to win the series, that's exactly what they would have to do. The answer came two days later with Boston winning by a decisive 14 point margin victory at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 94-80. The Pistons weren't about to let the Celtics get them twice in a row at home, and they dominated the next game, beating Boston 94-75.

Coming back to the Garden off of a loss, Garnett and the C's wanted it infinitely more than Detroit did. Garnett had 33 points and Rondo dropped 13 dimes in a 106-102 home victory, putting the Celtics a game away from the NBA Finals against longtime rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons aren't a team to go down without a fight, but despite having the homecourt advantage for game six, a thorough team effort from Boston sank Detroit 89-81 to close out the ECF. The Celtics' next matchup: The NBA Finals against their longtime foe, the Lakers.

In their intense pursuit of banner number 17, Boston took on Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol right from from the start. With their confidence sky-high at the opposition's arena after winning away from home twice against Detroit, their confidence was fully intact at home as well. In the first game of the 2008 NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett took it away and did his business, scoring 24 and taking down 13 rebounds in the Celtics' 98-88 victory at the Garden. It was highlighted by the return of a seemingly injured Paul Pierce late in the game, hitting back-to-back three pointers in the fourth and finishing with 22 points; Willis Reed comes to mind when watching this tape.

In game two the Lakers came to play, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. But Boston's scoring built throughout the game, having a comfortable 24 point advantage with just over eight minutes to play in the fourth. But the Lakers are not known to go down without a fight, and they came back within two--only to be stopped short by clutch free throws from Posey and Pierce late in the game to bring them down, 108-102. The star of the game was second year energy bench man Leon Powe, scoring 21 points in 15 minutes of play, all the while shooting more free throws than the entire Lakers' squad for the whole game.

In game three the Celtics looked kind of flat, with the hometown crowd at the Staples Center willing a win from their Lakers. League MVP Kobe Bryant paced the win for the sharp Lakers, scoring a stellar 36 points. Paul Pierce went 2-14 from the field in a great defensive effort from LA. The Lakers continued their streak of being undefeated at home in the postseason after dominating the Western Conference Playoffs, but that streak wouldn't last as long as they hoped.

With a new hunger in the clubhouse and their hearts, the Celtics came energized for game four at the Staples Center, leading the series 2-1. Boston came ready to win. Not if the Lakers had anything to say about it. LA scored a superhuman 35 points in the first quarter, an NBA Finals record, and they led by as much as 24 points all the way through the third quarter. Led by bench men, the Celtics went on an improbable 21-3 run, and with 4:07 remaining in the game, Eddie House took the lead with an eighteen footer that stuck for the rest of the game. The Boston Celtics took game four in the largest comeback in the NBA Finals since 1971, and they were put on the brink of a championship, with a 3-1 edge over the head-hanging Lakers.

Staying at the Staples Center for one last game, the Lakers put on their survival gear for game five, looking to be the only team in NBA history to come back from a 3-2 deficit in the Finals. Led by Pau Gasol's balanced leadership on the court, finishing with 19 points, 13 boards and 6 dimes, the Lakers maintained their composure throughout the contest, finishing the game with a close 103-98 final score.

Game six was back at the Garden. The Celtics were looking to close it out in front of a sold out home crowd, capping off a great season with a Larry O'Brien Trophy. And, quite plainly with this game, Boston wanted it more. After an unsteady first quarter, the Celtics took it away. For the rest of the game Boston maintained a lead of over 25 points in front of an ecstatic and gleeful hometown crowd. Ray Allen, coming off of a small slump, came back in full, breaking the NBA Finals record for three pointers in one game with seven, finishing with 26. Garnett chipped in with his own 26 points, and he also grabbed 14 boards. Pierce had 10 assists and Rondo had 6 steals as the Celtics dominated the TD Banknorth Garden.

They set a Finals record with 18 steals in one game, and the 17th banner was set to be raised for the Boston Celtics. The final score was 131-92, finishing with a 39 point deficit over the seemingly dead Lakers, and they broke the record for largest margin in a championship game. Confetti streamed through the Garden, Kevin Garnett acted like the maniac that he is . . . it was pure bliss for a Celtics fan. And they were talking about a repeat for next year.

This season was undoubtedly one of remembrance for Celtics fans and non-Celtics fans alike. In this incredible record-breaking season, Boston had the biggest win-loss turnaround in NBA history, turning from a 24 win team into a 66 win team without more than an offseason in between. It was a courageous and daring move of Danny Ainge and the Celtics organization to make the transactions, but the real shine comes from the players in these instances.

These guys were not used to playing much like a team, with a competitive team. They were making a combined $368 million, that's money that potentially gives the player the mindset of "I'm making the money, I'm scoring the points. Gimme the damn ball and get the hell outta the way." These players didn't do that. In a league of selfishness and one-on-one non-team basketball, a squad full of stars were an exception, and they won it all.

They were true team players, very selfless, and, at times, maybe a bit too selfless, as coaches and writers have pointed out. Their main goal was to win a championship. And that is just what they did. They were the first team in 59 years to win a championship with an overhauled roster and have two new players in their top three scoring leaders. Allen and Pierce committed to defense for the first time in their career, giving the Celtics the fire to play on both sides of the court.

They took backseat roles when they needed to, they let up for each other. But the reason why the Boston Celtics deserve to be the Sports Illustrated Sportsmen of the Year does not just lie in the Big Three. James Posey, Eddie House, Leon Powe, Glen Davis--the bench played a big role in this year of team offense, defense and winning.

The purest team play came from the Boston Celtics this year. Is it just my team loyalty? Or is it what I really think? Again, probably a little bit of both. We'll see if SI agrees tomorrow.



Roy said...

Yo Moose! Great write up on the Celtics. You've made some good points on how the Celtics gone through such a road to becoming where they are now, being the defending NBA Champs. I hope they win the award. :D

Roy said...

I've already sent you an email reply by the way... :D

Hursty said...

When say nerd I mean it in the nicest possible way. Moose you are a nerd.

Moose said...

What kind of nerd might that be, Hursty?

Moose said...

And Hursty, I like to think of it as "geek" about cool stuff. I just love hoops, man.

Roy said...

Hey Moose, I re-sent you my email rep. Hope you got it already... thanks. :D

Hursty said...

Ever seen revenge of the nerds? Or are you to young for that?
Hmmm Maybe American Pie? You can be like the dude who does Stifler's mom....
Or you can be the skinny little white dude in 'Mission to Mars'- that would be cooool.

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