THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The championship link

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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The Celtics' outlook seems auspicious with gifted youngsters Greg Oden and Al Jefferson in the paint. But standout Paul Pierce has grown weary of rebuilding while the prime of his career is passing by.

There are 16 dusty NBA championship banners hanging in the TD Banknorth Garden rafters, and the Lakers winning the last title makes the 22-year championship drought seem even longer.

On a side note, the adjustment from Seattle to Oklahoma City has been bizarre for Ray Allen, while Kevin Garnett still looks strange in a Golden State uniform.

That scenario could have been the case if the Celtics landed the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA draft and selected Oden from Ohio State. Luck, however, or fate intervened, and the Celtics ended up with the No. 5 pick, which was parlayed into a trade for Allen, which in turn helped bring Garnett to Boston.

With a now healthy Oden playing his first pro game in Boston tonight for the Portland Trail Blazers, he and Celtics fans might wonder what could have been.

"There is always going to be that pressure," Oden said. "What if Greg went to Boston? There's going to be that controversy right there. You know it's going to happen. But I'm going to go out there and I'm going to play the game I've been playing. Play team ball and do what I'm supposed to do, and that's rebound and block shots.

"I didn't [go there], but a lot of people were always talking about me going to Boston. 'That could have been you.' If I would have gone there, that [Garnett] trade wouldn't have happened."

Veteran's day

The Celtics finished the 2006-07 season with just 24 victories and in desperate need of veteran help to complement Pierce. Boston had a plethora of young talent in Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Gerald Green, Tony Allen, Delonte West, and Sebastian Telfair.

Pierce, however, yearned to be on a contender and voiced a need for veteran help in a meeting with owners Wyc Grousbeck and Stephen Pagliuca and general manager Danny Ainge during the team's 18-game losing streak.

"We said, 'You come back; Danny will get some help and we will pay for it,' " Grousbeck said. "That's the deal. It's a simple deal. Everybody was in. But we needed veteran help. I wasn't saying we would get rookie help. We needed veteran help and we got it."

Despite the handshake agreement, the Celtics couldn't help but be intrigued by the possibility of landing Oden, a star freshman center, or University of Texas forward Kevin Durant. So were the Celtics' fans as they chanted, "We Want Oden," during the 2006-07 home finale.

Considering Oden made the Associated Press All-America team, led the Buckeyes to the NCAA title game, and averaged 15.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks, the dreams of adding him alongside Jefferson in the post were understandable. It was also possible because Boston had the second-best odds in the lottery at 19.9 percent, behind Memphis (25 percent).

Wearing his "lucky green suit," a nervous Grousbeck was sequestered in a private room when the lottery took place. But once the ping-pong balls stopped bouncing, the Celtics dropped to the fifth pick, while Portland earned the rights to the grand prize despite odds of just 5.3 percent. Asked to stay quiet until the results were announced, Grousbeck agonized over what seemed to be horrible news.

"It killed me," Grousbeck said. "I got over it in a few minutes, then I knew I had to wait 50 more minutes for everyone else to be crushed. It was like knowing an asteroid was going to hit my friends on the Earth and there was nothing I could do about it. It was going to hit in 50 minutes and it was a terrible feeling."

"I never thought we were going to get Oden," said coach Doc Rivers. "The fans here did. They convinced themselves somehow that we were going to get the No. 1 pick."

Fortuitous pick

Boston dreamed of acquiring Garnett on draft night, but couldn't convince him it was the right fit. Ainge then went to Plan B, acquiring Allen and the draft rights to second-round pick Glen Davis from Seattle (now Oklahoma City) for West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the draft rights to fifth overall pick Jeff Green of Georgetown on draft night. With two perennial All-Stars on the roster, Garnett suddenly became attracted to Boston and was acquired in a blockbuster deal July 31, 2007, for Jefferson, Green, Telfair, Gomes, Theo Ratliff, and two first-round picks.

And with "The Big Three," the Celtics completed a dazzling season and won the NBA title in their first season together.

"If we got the No. 1 or 2 pick, it would have been hard to trade it," Grousbeck said. "The pick turned out to work out great for us. The other guys are great players. I'm not taking anything away from them. It was a tradable pick and Danny turned it into Ray and KG."

"[Garnett] was available," said Rivers. "We all knew that."

Meanwhile, the arrival of Oden in Portland marked the official end of the "Jail Blazer" era for a franchise riddled with off-court issues and mounting losses. No. 52 Oden jerseys were hot sellers and ticket sales were up dramatically. And with the 7-foot, 285-pounder and budding young stars Brandon Roy (an All-Star last season) and LaMarcus Aldridge, championship dreams arrived in Oregon.

But before the red curtain could even rise last season, Oden drew comparisons to injury-riddled former Blazers centers Bill Walton and Sam Bowie. Oden had right knee microfracture surgery and missed the season. He also missed the first seven games of his freshman season at Ohio State after right wrist surgery.

Pain, but no gain

Oden finally made his NBA debut on a grand stage in front of a national television audience on the road against the Western Conference champion Lakers Oct. 28. But a right foot sprain in the first quarter ended Oden's debut early, then he missed the next six games.

"When you have two major injuries and you get injured a third time, people are going to start wondering," said Oden, who said he's healthy now. "If it was just little injuries, it would be no problem. No one can control being injured."

Since Oden's return, coach Nate McMillan has asked him to concentrate on everything but offense. Oden is sixth on the team in scoring, averaging 8 points on 5.1 shots. He's also averaging 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 21.9 minutes through 14 games. One NBA scout said the Blazers rarely run offensive plays for Oden and added that, at best, he is the fourth option.

"I told him basically when he came back, 'I don't want you to worry about scoring. I want you to focus on the basics, the fundamentals of the game,' " McMillan said. " 'We want you to concentrate on being the hardest worker on the floor at your position. This is your résumé. Be the hardest worker, learn to get screens, learn to get deep post position, run the floor, rebound the ball.

" 'If you look at a big man's résumé, you look for those things. Don't worry about scoring. If you set screens and you learn how to set screens and the angles, you're going to learn deep post position. You're going to learn how to score.' "

"I definitely don't mind it," Oden said. "A lot of other people come in and they get drafted high and they worry about scoring on a team. It's all on them. But I don't. I have an All-Star [Roy] and a possible All-Star [Aldridge] that can score. I just go out there and do my role and rebound."

Room to grow

Even with Oden adjusting, the deep and talented young Blazers have the West's second-best record (14-6).

With the Knicks suspending guard Stephon Marbury and Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress in trouble, the New York media overlooked Oden when the Blazers practiced in Manhattan Monday for Tuesday's game against the Knicks.

The spotlight has also shifted to Chicago guard Derrick Rose, the Eastern Conference's Rookie of the Month for November, who was the top pick in 2008.

While the outside pressure seems to be lessening on last year's first pick, Oden's inner pressure has heightened in his quest to live up to the hype. At just 20, he still has a lot of time to make that happen. And when his career is all said and done, the projected can't-miss center wants Celtics fans to wonder, "What if?"

"It's been kind of crazy," Oden said. "But now, finally, I'm actually playing and performing. I'm actually earning everything that was given to me being drafted No. 1. I like this now that I'm playing. It feels good.

"I always wanted to work for it. That was my thing. I wanted to be out there to earn everything I got."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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