When the Celtics and Lakers renewed acquaintances in the 2008 NBA Finals, stars and big names dotted both teams’ rosters.
The Celics featured the new “Big 3’’ of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with accomplished veterans like Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown and James Posey coming off the bench.
The Lakers, coached by then nine-time champion Phil Jackson, countered with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and then three-time champ Derek Fisher.
Despite all this star power, it was Leon Powe, one of the most unheralded players on either team, stepping up with the game of his life in Game 2 seven years ago Monday to lead the Celtics to a 2-0 lead in the series that they’d eventually win for the 17th championship in franchise history.
“I just woke up feeling real good that morning,’’ Powe, who scored 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor and 9-of-13 from the free throw line in just 14:39 of playing time in the Celtics’ 108-102 victory, told Boston.com. “Everything felt like it was gonna go right, my legs felt good, everything.
“I told my family that day, ‘today’s gonna be the day.’ Coming out of the tunnel, I felt great, the game started, [Celtics coach] Doc [Rivers] called my name and I went into a full sprint to the scorer’s table like I was Usain Bolt. Once the buzzer went off, I took everything in, calmed down and started playing.’’
Powe, who now serves as a team ambassador for the Celtics working with several of the team’s community outreach programs, knew from the moment he got his first touch of the game that the night was going to go his way.
“I felt comfortable right away when I first touched the ball, just in terms of our scheme, our phiosophy, how we wanted to attack them,’’ Powe said. “I wanted to get to the line, that’s what I always liked to do. When I felt that first bit of contact, I knew I was meant to be there. When you get in the ring, you don’t ever know how you’re going to react until you get hit. And once I got hit a little bit, I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is it, this is my game.’ And when that first shot goes in, it gives you even more confidence to go to the rack strong, to look for contact, to be more aggressive.’’
The Lakers didn’t know what hit them. After the game, Jackson even mispronounced Powe’s surname while discussing how his 13 free throw attempts were more than the Lakers had as a team in the game. Bryant noted that the Lakers “have to do a better job focusing on personnel.’’
Could you blame them for feeling frustrated? Powe averaged just 7.9 points per game during the 2007-08 season in just 14.4 minutes a night. A one-time AAU phenom who starred at Cal his freshman year, Powe slid all the way to 49th in the 2006 NBA Draft thanks to serious knee injuries. The Denver Nuggets picked him there and later dealt him to the Celtics for a 2007 second-rounder.
“I had put in a lot of hard work to overcome the knee injuries, going from where I was in high school to where I didn’t know if I could do it,’’ Powe said. “To be able to come back from that and be a contributor felt so great. When you win a championship in Boston, they remember you forever.’’
Powe, who also pitched in with a clutch shot in the Celtics’ 26-point comeback win in Game 4 (when Rivers drew up a play for him in the huddle with the Celticss down four and 1:01 left, Powe says his teammates looked at him and exclaimed “what???’’), faced multiple challenges en route to his center stage performance for the Celtics that night seven years ago, from the knee injuries to the death of his mother when he was in high school. All the adversity he faced up to that point allowed for a deeper and richer perspective once he made his way to the NBA mountian top.
“I lost my mother two weeks before the state title game [in high school],’’ Powe said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to play any more or what my purpose was. But when you have a lot of people who look up to you, you want to set a good example. That’s the purpose, to go out and be the best you can be and set that example. That resonated with me. That game showed me what perseverence can do. I’m just a kid from Oakland, and here I am playing for this team and helping them win a championship.’’
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