AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - A World Series, a Super Bowl, and now a trip back to the NBA Finals. These are golden days in our region. If you are a New England sports fans, every day is Thanksgiving.
Rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Boston Celtics beat the Detroit Pistons, 89-81, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last night, earning a spot in the championship for the first time in 21 years.
Time to dust off the old Larry Bird/Magic Johnson posters. Thursday night on Causeway Street, the Celtics will host the same franchise they faced when they last advanced this far in 1987 - the Los Angeles Lakers. It'll be the 11th Finals matchup between the Celtics and Lakers.
Former Celtics captain John Havlicek, who won eight rings with the Green, presented the conference championship trophy to Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck in the visitors' locker room after last night's clincher. Havlicek reminded the new generation, "With your jersey it carries a lot of great tradition. Go Celtics. Beat LA."
Paul Pierce and friends picked up the theme immediately, chanting "Beat LA! Beat LA!"
"It means everything to Boston fans," said Pierce. "That's pretty much what got me started watching basketball, growing up in Los Angeles, watching the Celtics and Lakers . . . I'm going back home to play against the team I grew up watching and it's a dream come true, man, just thinking about it. I think that rivalry pretty much revolutionized the game of basketball and now I'm part of it."
The Celtics' trek back to the Finals has been arduous. After winning banner No. 16 in 1986, the NBA's signature team endured the tragic deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, the broken promises of the M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino regimes, lame luck in the draft lottery, and the passing of patriarch Red Auerbach. Fans wondered if Celtic pride and Celtic mystique dissolved when the old Boston Garden was torn down.
The magic came back at a perfect moment last night. Trailing, 70-60, early in the final quarter, the Celtics rocked the Pistons with a 19-4 run. Invisible for much of the night, Kevin Garnett hit some big jump shots and got help from Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and James Posey. A free throw by Pierce (27 points in 43 minutes) put Boston in the lead with 5:25 left and that's when NBA officials ushered Havlicek toward the visitors' locker room.
"I thought this was the best fourth quarter we've played all playoffs long," said Pierce, a 10-year veteran. "I'm just happy to be a part of it. It's been a long process. I could write a whole book on it. To be in this position with the same team, going to the Finals, it's nothing I can put into words."
"We got a big task ahead of us," added Garnett. "The total goal is not done. Right now we're just emotionally drained. It's a good feeling. It's kind of surreal right now."
"It's going to be fantastic," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "The history takes care of itself. But just on the basketball part, I think the right two teams are playing each other . . . We're not done yet. We have some more playing to do."
The Celtics led, 24-21, after one, a quarter dominated by a couple of former University of Connecticut Huskies. Ray Allen (17 points) looked like his old self, bringing the hot hand he found in Boston Wednesday night. There were five lead changes in the first 12 minutes.
The Celtics led by as many as 7 in the first half, but settled for a 3-point lead at halftime. Detroit's backcourt scored 31 of the team's 37 points in the first half. Rasheed Wallace was scoreless at intermission.
Garnett picked up his fourth foul with 7:16 left in the third. He was on the bench with 8 points and two rebounds when the Pistons regained the lead late in the quarter. Scoring 31 points in the third, closing with a 20-6 run, Detroit led, 68-60, after three.
The fourth quarter was all Boston - 29-13 when it counted. On the road. In a clinch game. Against a team of experienced champions.
The Celtics bottomed out with 24 wins last season, then failed to acquire one of the top picks in the draft lottery. That's when general manager Danny Ainge, in the proud tradition of Auerbach, acquired Allen and Garnett and made the Celtics great again. With the New Three.
"This is my first Finals," said Garnett. "I'm looking forward to it, all the things I used to watch on Sunday, that big plate of food in front of me, watching the Lakers and Celtics play on Sunday. I remember that like it was yesterday. Fire going. I'm going to grab me a seat right in front. Mom telling me, 'Don't get too close. It'll kill your eyes.' "
Now the Green Team is back in the place it called home almost every spring when Bill Russell, then Bird, patrolled the parquet floor.
The Celtics are back in the Finals. Don't get too close. It'll kill your eyes.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.