Wednesday June 18th, 2008

BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo was sitting in the laps of the baseline photographers with his feet up like he was in a swimming pool, having careened there amid the long, bottomless run of Celtics drives to the basket. The happiness of his surroundings was deafening. It had been such a long time coming for everybody, and yet the five Celtics on the floor looked oblivious of the work they were finishing and what it would mean.

Read the scoreboard overhead: Celtics 70, Lakers 44.

The ghostly family of 16 banners was certain to grow by one. The audience of legends -- Bill Russell and John Havlicek and Tom Heinsohn and Jo Jo White -- was expanding with each sequence of achievement. This was the seminal, culminating moment of one of the most amazing teams the NBA has ever seen.

But there was no celebrating on the court to mirror the party raging around them. No hugging. No smiling. The Celtics continued to play. There were 20 minutes, 48 seconds remaining in this long, outrageous season, and the Celtics were going to play them out.

"This is what we talked about,'' Finals MVP Paul Pierce would say after the Celtics' 131-92 victory in Game 6 on Tuesday, the largest blowout in a championship clincher. "It's one thing to talk about it, another thing to go out and do it, and we did it. You look at Kevin [Garnett], myself and Ray [Allen], we sacrificed so much of what we did throughout our careers to get to this point, because we've done everything we've been able to do individually, won all types of awards, but never made it to the mountaintop. And today it's like a breath of fresh air.''

No NBA champion had ever done what they were doing. The 66-win Celtics had earned the right to play Game 6 on their home court after completing the biggest improvement -- 42 games better than last year -- in league history. They were becoming the first overhauled team to win the NBA championship in its initial year together; no team since the 1948-49 expansion Minneapolis Lakers had ever won a title with two newcomers among its top three scorers.

They also became the first champion with three leading scorers over the age of 30. If they weren't going to win because they were too old, then they were going to lose because they were too new. What was happening now was undoing all of the common sense that should have been their ruin. It simply wasn't possible for them to manage what they were managing now.

"In the beginning, I thought Doc [Rivers] really thought that we had a lot more ego than we really do,'' Garnett said after his clinching performance of 26 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three steals. "But when it came to basketball, it's pretty high and dry to what's right and what's wrong and what's best for the team. I thought we did a real good job of dialoguing and talking amongst the three of us, figuring it out.''

It was one of those deliriously happy nights that rings in your ears through the night and into the morning. On the court, Rondo was being lifted out of the pool of photographers. After limping through an ankle injury and being benched during the previous two games for playing passively, the second-year point guard would be called "the star of the game'' by Lakers coach Phil Jackson for his 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six momentous steals.

With 20 minutes, 48 seconds remaining, a writer in the press section was handing his folded MVP ballot with great ceremony to an NBA official. Everybody was laughing at the audacity of it, the truth of it.

Everybody but the Celtics. The countdown had reached 17:09 when Pau Gasol tried to go up with a layup, his Lakers trailing by 79-48. Except Garnett had his hand on the other side of the ball. He was not allowing it to leave Gasol's hand. He was forcing a jump ball, then stomping around the court with his biceps exposed as if this had been a saving play late in the fourth quarter.

"When somebody dove on the ground for a loose ball, when somebody got a blocked shot, somebody boxed out and we got a rebound and we ran -- those were the things that made this team better,'' Allen said after setting a Finals record with 22 three-pointers overall against the Lakers. "We held each other accountable to get on the floor every time there was a loose ball, to help in rotation when somebody was beat. I mean, we just held each other accountable.''

The third quarter was ending with Garnett yelling from the bench at sixth man James Posey to keep Kobe Bryant in front of him. After Bryant had been forced wide to end the quarter by missing his extended jumper, Garnett was off the bench to high-five his defensive teammate. The lead was 29 going into the fourth, and nobody in uniform was celebrating yet.

This had been a franchise of young, losing players who had believed naively in trying to outscore its opponents, and one year ago Celtics VP Danny Ainge had begun packaging that talent into windfall trades for Allen and Garnett. Now they were showing Ainge on the enormous video screens in the relatively new Boston Garden; he shoved his hands in his pockets and bit his lip, the better to not betray his emotions. He was about to join Red Auerbach as the only executives to ever win a championship for the Boston Celtics, but there was no telling as much from the dour look he wore ...

Doc Rivers was a coach with a career losing record before this season, and he had never won a playoff series two months ago. And yet, in September, he had hired a Duck Boat for a private tour of the championship parade route through downtown Boston he envisioned nine months down the road. On board the tour, he preached to Garnett, Pierce and Allen -- his only fellow passengers -- the importance of playing in an entirely new way, of defending first of all and sharing the ball as much as possible. No coach in the history of basketball has ever accomplished more in so short a period of time. The real parade is scheduled for Thursday ...

Assistant coach Tom Thibodeau had accepted a job last summer to become a defensive coordinator for the Wizards. He had begun to have second thoughts. He called Rivers, who offered him the same job in Boston with virtual control over the defensive end of the floor. His schemes transformed the Celtics into the NBA's dominant defense, limiting Bryant to 40.5 percent shooting in the Finals and 11 points over the final three quarters of the clinching game ...

The Lakers' Ronny Turiaf was hitting a short jumper to cut Boston's lead to 98-70, and Garnett was cursing his defensive failure.

Allen and his fellow Celtics were smoking the net on 6-of-9 threes while shooting 62.5-percent overall in the fourth quarter, but Rivers stood tight-lipped, arms folded across his chest.

The Lakers' Lamar Odom was complaining about a defensive play by Pierce with 4:30 remaining when the referees broke up the skirmish. That seemed to snap everybody on the Celtics' side out of their year-long mission and into this timeless moment.

"We talked about adversity all year, and we kept saying that it had to come our way and we had to accept it and embrace it,'' Rivers would say after joining the most exclusive club in pro sports by becoming the fourth active coach to win an NBA championship. "As a group we said it together: 'No excuses, don't use them. We don't need them.' I just thought we had a very tough team mentally in that way.''

In the days after Allen learned that his young son had diabetes, after the injuries to Rondo's ankle and Kendrick Perkins' shoulder and Pierce's knee; in the weeks after the nearly disastrous failure to win on the road in playoff series against the Cavaliers and Hawks; in the months since Garnett's midseason abdominal injury that the Celtics had survived with surprising ease; in the year since managing partner Wyc Grousbeck and his fellow owners had agreed at enormous luxury-tax expense to marry these three peaked stars who had never reached a Finals with a coach who had never won anything; and in the 22 years since the Boston Celtics had won their 16th title, the owners, coaches and players suddenly found themselves on a stage upon the famed parquet celebrating a championship season unlike any other.

I have never seen a happier bunch of guys.

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