Celtics' turn from sad to super: How'd they do it?

When the basketball rattled out of the rim Monday night and fell to the floor, the crowd seemed genuinely surprised.

They let out a collective gasp, as if to say: That doesn't happen here.

Not after Saturday's game, when the Boston Celtics came back from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the New Jersey Nets. Not with 16 championship banners hanging from the rafters of the Fleet Center.

But it did happen. Paul Pierce missed a free throw with 1.1 seconds remaining, and the Celtics lost 94-92 to leave Boston with a 2-2 tie in the best-of-7 series that will determine the NBA's Eastern Conference champions. Game 5 is tonight in New Jersey.

Win or lose, however, the Celtics have already made a remarkable climb – from the depths of basketball despair to challenging for the NBA crown. They seem to be riding a wave of success that has swept up the other pro sports teams in Boston – football's Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Red Sox, who have the best record in Major League Baseball.

Great coaching and maturing talent are two possible reasons for the instant success. But in this city steeped in bas- ketball history, players and fans are also convinced that destiny wears Celtic green.

"We are a confident team," says Antoine Walker, the sharp-shooting forward who has become the Celtics' inspirational leader. "We always feel like we can come back and win a game, even if we are way behind."

In Saturday's game, it was Walker who screamed encouragement at Pierce, the team's other star, just before the fourth quarter began. Pierce responded by scoring 19 more points and delivering one of the greatest victories in the Celtics franchise's history – a 94-90 win that was the NBA playoffs' biggest fourth-quarter comeback ever.

It wasn't long ago, however, that the Celtics were mired in a rare stretch of mediocrity. After dominating professional basketball from 1956 to 1986 – with players like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, and Larry Bird – they fell to the bottom of the league by the mid-'90s.

The player who was supposed to have prevented that from happening, Len Bias, died from cocaine-related complications shortly after the Celtics picked him No. 2 in the 1986 draft.

In 1997, Rick Pitino, the flashy former coach of the New York Knicks, who won a national championship as coach of the University of Kentucky team, was hired to rebuild the organization. He drafted Walker and Pierce, both of whom turned out to be steals as the 6th and 10th selections respectively. But Pitino also tried to run a college-style, up-tempo game that featured an occasional full-court press. The players did not respond, and his teams never had a winning record.

When Pitino left Boston in January of 2001 and handed the team to his little-known assistant, Jim O'Brien, something almost magical happened. With barely any personnel changes, the team started winning.

"This was a team of basketball junkies – guys who play 12 months a year – and they were tired of losing," says Chris Wallace, the Celtics general manager.

O'Brien, with his unassuming personality, was a perfect fit.

The turnaround started with defense. Over the summer the Celtics brought in assistant coach Dick Harter, a defensive specialist. He helped the Celtics adapt to a new NBA rule permitting zone defenses – which would allow the Celtics to protect two undersized players, point guard Kenny Anderson and center Tony Battie.

The players did their part.

"The team made a commitment to defense," Wallace says. "They realized it was imperative."

Meanwhile, Pierce and Walker were entering their most productive years, and they began to gel as an unselfish tandem. In a development that is unusual in the NBA, Walker, a star in his own right, allowed Pierce to be the team's headliner. Pierce returned the favor by becoming a more generous player.

"I don't have to shoot the ball every time down the court," Pierce says. "If Antoine's hot, we'll go to him. That's the way we play."

With all the key players staying healthy, the final piece to the puzzle was a trade orchestrated by Wallace in February. Without giving up much to the Phoenix Suns, Wallace brought in forward Rodney Rogers and guard Tony Delk.

Instantly, the Celtics had a strong bench. They were contenders. This year, they improved their regular-season record to 49-33, from 36-46 a year ago. Then they defeated Philadelphia and Detroit in playoff series to move into the conference finals.

Now, if the Celtics can get past the Nets, they will face either the Sacramento Kings or their old archrivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, for the NBA crown.

Even the Boston crowds have begun to make noise as in the glory days, causing the 7-year-old Fleet Center to sound at least a little bit like the raucous Boston Garden of yesteryear.

"This place was almost empty five years ago when I bought my season tickets," says Steven Bencivenga, an accountant from Plainville, Mass. "I'm a big Celtics fan, but I didn't think they could turn it around this fast."

"I remember Cousy and Russell," says Bob Badeau, a businessman from Ashland, N.H., who was also at the game. "This year has that same excitement. To see the players together as a team – that's what Boston is all about."

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