Fans were excited to embark on the first season with coach Jim O’Brien from start to finish.
But they were equally as nervous because of the last ten years. Anything Celtics fans were told was going to be the safety rope, pulling the once-prestigious Celtics out of a dark age, turned to just add to the misery.
Early retirements, tragic deaths, and poor front-office decisions had plagued the Celtics for what seemed like an eternity, which added to the already immense pressure for coach Jim O’Brien to turn the ship around. But by the end of November the Celtics were only seven and six. And by the end of December they found their groove and were 18-11.
The team’s success was in Paul Pierce’s hands, one of many must-watch under-25 players in the league at the time, and hence was sometimes not given the recognition he deserved. But for Boston fans he was more than enough, and the fans made sure Pierce always felt the love.
In his first full season as the undisputed face of the team, Pierce became the first Celtic ever to lead the league in scoring. Take a second to think about how many Celtics greats there are that never accomplished that feat and Paul Pierce was the first in a league containing many good players.
And Antoine Walker was still, well, Antoine Walker. He was a player with all the talent in the world and no fear. So little fear of what people thought about him that he would shoot eight threes a game as a six-foot-eight power forward. That might not sound too bad today when we have James Harden attempting ten in his sleep, but in the early 2000s this was mind-boggling.
The league’s average was 14, not like how it is in 2019-20 with 34. Pierce wasn’t shy either to showboat his range, throwing up six attempts a contest. Both Walker and Pierce were first and third in league attempts from deep. The only difference was Pierce would hit them at a good percentage.
Some might say this one-two punch front line was ahead of its time, and some say they were just given too much leeway. Regardless, everyone knew this team lacked supporting pieces. So in a late-February trade, the Celtics snatched up the legendary Rodney Rogers and the versatile guard Tony Delk from the Suns for the summer’s top draft pick and Iso Joe Johnson (before he was any good).
And in case you’ve never heard of Rodney Ray Rodgers Jr, he once hit nine points in eight seconds against the Utah Jazz. Although a costly trade, it immediately paid off as the pair ended the year as the team’s third and fifth leading scorers.
Finishing 49-33, the Celtics finally made it to the playoffs for the first time in seven long years, with the third best record in the east. The Celtics cruised through the first round taking out Philly in five games with Paul Pierce dropping 46 in the elimination game.
Onto the conference semi-finals against the second-seeded Detroit Pistons, with Clifford Robinson, Jerry Stackhouse and Ben Wallace. Detroit won the first game, but the team would pull themselves together and win the next four consecutive games to go to the conference finals. A gentleman’s sweep.
And with the collapse of the 76ers, the Celtics alongside the Nets were in a two-horse race to reach the finals against the juggernaut Lakers. The Nets were an even more surprising team than the Celtics, doubling their win column from last year. And with Kenyon Martin, Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles all balling out, Celtics had found their match.
This was it: a Lakers-Celtics Finals, the first in 15 years. The series went an epic six games that included all-star Paul Pierce leading the greatest fourth quarter comeback off all time in Game 3, where they dropped 41 points in the fourth quarter to win. This was a statement game to not only the Nets but the league.
The Celtics had heart, but that would only take you so far as the Celtics lost to the Nets in six games.