Only two games away from an NBA Finals berth, the 2001-02 Boston Celtics were a plucky group on the cusp of excellence and way ahead of their time.
When you think of the NBA at the turn of the millennium, you think of the Boston Celtics. Just kidding, it was the Los Angeles Lakers. But once upon a time, it could have been different.
You see, while the Lakers were on the cusp of dominance, the Celtics were shaking off the dreaded Rick Pitino-era.
Highlighted by the trade of Chauncey Billups in his rookie year, along with a myriad of questionable trades and free-agent signings, Pitino’s stint in Boston was a mess. However, the future looked bright as the Celtics had all-star forward Antoine Walker and sophomore stud Paul Pierce. By the time Pitino quit in the winter of 2001, new head coach Jim O’Brien was in charge of guiding the most successful franchise in league history.
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Approaching the 2001-02 season was a daunting task, as there were little expectations for the Celtics to achieve anything. However, they defied the odds with a 49-33 record, which placed them as the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The team was top-heavy with Walker and Pierce both receiving all-star recognition. Walker was ahead of his time, shooting 3-point shots like it was the only option. The stretch wing posted a 22-8-5 stat line while leading the NBA with a ridiculous 645 3-point attempts. For reference, this would have put him in the top six in this category in the 2018-19 season.
Pierce co-piloted the young C’s as well by being third in the league in scoring with 26.1 points per game, which put him only behind Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. ‘Toine and the Truth were ready to be the faces of the franchise.
The rest of the team was, well, not as great. While Pierce and Walker were averaging 20-plus points per game, third on the list was Kenny Anderson with 9.6. Tony Battie, Eric Williams, and Vitaly Potapenko were mainstays in the lineups throughout the year, though none of them did much. A trade deadline deal sent a young Joe Johnson off to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for point guard Tony Delk and Rodney Rodgers, which provided short term depth on a weak second unit.
Even though the Celtics had a sub-par offense, their defensive rating was top 5 in the NBA that allowed them to thrive. As long as Pierce and Walker scored, the rest of the team had to play just enough defense in order to win games.
The 2002 playoffs were no easy task, but they were able to fend off the Iverson-led Sixers and the Jerry Stackhouse-led Pistons in five games each and punched their unexpected ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals to face Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets.
Boston was able to split the first two games and all of a sudden there was an actual chance for an NBA Finals appearance. Things did not look so good in game three, as the Nets built an insurmountable 21-point lead headed into the fourth quarter. However, on the back of Paul Pierce, the plucky Celtics clawed back and were able to win and take a 2-1 series lead. This was all the Celtics could hope for, because the Nets laid out a balanced scoring attack with Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles, and Lucious Harris to grind out a 4-2 series win to go on and face the Lakers.
The Celtics only had to wait six more years to bring a championship back to Boston, but it would have been an incredible chapter in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry to watch the battle of the ascending Pierce and Walker take on the juggernaut Lakers.
Just think how good a Billups-Johnson-Pierce-Walker-(insert any NBA center here) would be if the front office had a modicum of patience? We will never know. But at least we can reminisce on a rag-tag group who were moments away from being part of Boston Celtics lore.