The Boston Celtics had fallen on hard times since their last NBA title in 1986. They lost in the Finals in 1987, the conference finals in 1988 and then fell off the face of the earth, with only a 2002 Eastern Conference Finals appearance to show for themselves. The 2008 Boston Celtics put the franchise back on the map, after big offseason moves and then a run to a championship.
General manager Danny Ainge got his star, small forward Paul Pierce some help when he swung deals to bring in Kevin Garnett from Minnesota and Ray Allen from Seattle. The new “Big Three” gave Boston a balanced lineup that could score inside and out, and 21-year-old Rajon Rondo emerged at the point guard spot. The Celtics won 66 games and took homecourt advantage into the NBA playoffs.
The question of playoff-readiness was overshadowing the team though. Garnett and Allen had never reached the NBA Finals, and Pierce had spent his career laboring for mostly bad teams. Those questions grew more pertinent in the first round, when the Celtics were unable to win a road game against the 8-seed Atlanta Hawks. A big-time defensive effort in Game 7, where the Hawks shot just 29 percent, saved the Celts in a 99-65 rout, but they did not resemble a championship team.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had reached the NBA Finals in 2007, and in the second round, they and the Celtics again traded home wins through six games. A Sunday afternoon in the Garden for Game 7 produced an electric battle between LeBron and Pierce. Each cleared 40 points for the game. But Pierce was more efficient from behind the arc—4/6 compared to LeBron’s 3/11—and Garnett’s 13 rebounds keyed a glass advantage for Boston and they again survived.
The Detroit Pistons were in their fifth straight conference finals, and had the 2004 NBA championship under their belt. They brought Boston what seemed like the worst nightmare—the Pistons got a win on the Garden floor in Game 2. For the first time in this postseason, the Celtics would have to win on the road.
May 24, 2008 isn’t a fabled date in Boston sports lore, but perhaps it should be. That’s the night of Game 3 in Detroit and it was here that you can argue that a five-year run of Big Three success truly began.
Six players scored in double figures for the Celtics. Garnett and center Kendrick Perkins combined for 23 rebounds and Boston controlled the boards. They led by 17 at the half and won 94-80. Just when it was needed most, the Celtics looked and acted like a team tough enough to go the distance.
For good measure, Boston then came back to Detroit for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead and locked up the East on the enemy’s turf. Trailing by eight after three quarters, the Celtics won the fourth quarter 29-13, with Pierce knocking down 27 points. A championship team had come together before our very eyes.
The Los Angeles Lakers were still favored to win the 2008 NBA Finals, with Kobe Bryant coming off an MVP year. Boston used its rebounding dominance to win the first two games at home, though they nearly blew a 22-point lead in Game 2. The Lakers took Game 3 and then jumped out to a 24-point lead in Game 4. One more time, Boston showed everyone how far they had come.
A 21-3 run closed the third quarter and got the Celtics back in it. They took the lead with four minutes left and won 97-91. For all practical purposes, the 2008 NBA championship was won on this night.
There was still the clinching formality to go through, and while Los Angeles won Game 5 on their home floor, the Celtics returned home and dominated before a raucous Game 6 crowd. They blew the game open in the second quarter and won coasted to a 131-92 win, with Garnett scoring 26 points and getting 14 rebounds.
Pierce averaged 22 points/5 rebounds/6 assists per game in the Finals and was named series MVP. Allen also averaged 20 ppg, while Garnett averaged an 18/13, and probably deserved the award. No matter to anyone in Boston though—the Celtics were back.