There was little fanfare a year ago today as 10,042 fans showed up to see the Celtics defeat the New Jersey Nets, 94-90, in their preseason home opener at TD Banknorth Garden. There wasn't much optimism, either. And the Celtics didn't do much to change those low expectations as they went on to post the second-worst record in the NBA, leaving five-time All-Star Paul Pierce wondering about the direction of the franchise.
What a difference a year makes.
With newcomers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, today's Celtics feel like they have a shot at bringing a long-awaited 17th NBA title to Boston. And their fans showed their excitement as well, as 17,506 showed up to see the Celtics hammer the New York Knicks, 101-61, at the Garden last night. The Celtics improved to 3-0 on the exhibition season as Pierce (22), Allen (14), and Garnett (13) combined for 49 points before sitting out the fourth quarter.
"As optimistic as you can be, you knew that you probably weren't going to be that good [last season]," Pierce said before the game. "Now, I have a chance to do something great."
Garnett and Allen, who both live near the Celtics' Waltham training facility, said they had a hard time finding their way to the Garden.
"I could see it right there, but how could I get to it?" Garnett said.
Said Allen: "I asked them in the fourth quarter, 'How do we get home now?' "
Allen received a warm welcome when he was introduced along with the rest of the starting lineup. But Garnett's reached ear-piercing level.
Garnett missed his first shot and traveled shortly thereafter. But the 2004 league MVP wowed the crowd when his behind-the-back pass to Rajon Rondo led to a dunk to give the Celtics a 7-5 lead. Garnett's first points came on a 20-foot jumper with 6:37 remaining in the first quarter for a 15-8 advantage. Allen's first points came on a shifty lay-in to give the Celtics a 17-11 lead.
"I came out and bricked my first shot. Better than an air ball, you know?" Garnett said. "I was just feeling my energy in the building. After that I gave Rondo a little pass and I was good.
"I'm excited to be here. I want this thing to work so much that I don't want to try too hard. But I wanted everyone to know my effort is going to be there night in and night out."
The Celtics cruised to a 50-35 halftime lead by shooting a blistering 61.3 percent from the field. With 3:33 left in the third quarter, Garnett tipped a pass to Allen for a short jumper to give the Celtics a 70-43 lead. As Garnett and Allen ran back down the court, Pierce tapped them on the head. Soon after, the Celtics called time out and Pierce simply said, "It's over," as he and his two star teammates walked to the bench for good.
"This building, I could see what it will feel like during the regular season because these fans came out to see this team," Allen said.
Said Knicks guard Stephon Marbury: "With KG and [Allen], it takes a lot of pressure off Paul and allows him to play free now. Ray Allen is another shooter. KG is a great passer. It's going to be tough to stop them."
Guard Tony Allen didn't play after suffering a scratched cornea in his right eye in practice Monday. He hopes to practice today.
"It's a little blurry now, but I'm going to fight through it," Allen said. "It just gave me a little time off for my [surgically repaired left] knee. It's nothing major."
Center Scot Pollard has yet to play or practice since returning early from the trip to Europe with a left ankle injury and it's uncertain when he will be back on the court. The 6-foot-11-inch, 278-pounder, however, began walking slowly on a treadmill yesterday.
Director of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Pollard would be "playing right now if we were playing real games," but is not because they want him completely healthy.
"It was a walk, not even a brisk walk," said Pollard, about his time on the treadmill. "I'm taking it slow because I guess a bone bruise can linger and we don't want it to linger."
Knicks guard Allan Houston, who made his preseason debut last night, said he was surprised he didn't hear from the Celtics in the offseason, and he would have given serious consideration to signing with them if he had. Houston is a two-time All-Star who had been sidelined since 2005 with knee injuries.
"If you look at their roster, they have some really young guys, [James] Posey, and [Tony] Allen is really good," said Houston. "I'm sure that they were probably thinking, in fairness to me, where were the minutes going to come?"
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org