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Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Beginning with the end in mind

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

"I definitely think we have more talent. It's yet to be proven that we're better than the team that won a championship. If we win the championship, then ask me that question." -- Paul Pierce, Oct. 23, 2009

Seven months after the start of the 2009-10 NBA season, Paul Pierce is still fielding the same questions about how the 2010 Celtics rank against their championship counterparts of 2008. That's about as encouraging a sign as any for Boston.

Like in October, Pierce isn't touching those queries until this season's squad raises a Larry O'Brien trophy, which it has the chance to do within the next couple of weeks as the Celtics prepare to face the Lakers.

If you're a Celtics fan, stop and savor for a moment the fact that your team is even on this championship stage. Sure, back in October, many projected a Celtics-Lakers clash, and when the C's went up 2-0 on the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, a trip to the title round seemed like a foregone conclusion.

But then consider all the peaks and valleys encountered since Boston began the regular season in Cleveland on Oct. 27. Think about the confidence level after the Celtics lost at home to the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 27 or got embarrassed by the Wizards on April 9.

As ecstatic as some felt about this team after a Christmas win in Orlando, recall the limited optimism heading into the postseason with the vaunted Cavaliers looming in the second round.

Yes, it's been a wild 2009-10 campaign, but the mere fact that Pierce is still fielding those comparison questions in June is a testament to what this team has accomplished.

Here's a look back at a handful of key moments from the 2009-10 season:

Starting off on the right foot

Oct. 27, 2009: Celtics 95, Cavaliers 89

Garnett
The signature victory in the Celtics' 23-5 start to the season was an opening night win over the Cavaliers.

"It's definitely a measuring stick game. You want to play the best if you want to be the best. It gives you confidence when you can play with anyone in the league and win." -- Pierce

The Celtics didn't just win on opening night in Cleveland; they announced to the entire NBA that the 2008 champions were back. Rallying from an early hole behind a revamped bench, Pierce scored 10 of Boston's final 12 points while holding on for the win.

In a season that often lacked signature triumphs, Boston secured a big one that night. It served as inspiration when the team trekked back to Cleveland and erased the top-seeded Cavaliers in six games during a conference semifinal series.

Re-signing Rajon Rondo

Nov. 2, 2009: Fourth-year guard inks 5-year, $55 million pact

"I'm really happy. He's earned it. He deserves it. It's great to get it in the past. Honestly, I didn't think it would have an impact whether it got done sooner, later or now. I'm glad it's over with so we don't have to talk about it anymore." -- Doc Rivers

Rivers couldn't have been more wrong. Given Rondo's otherworldly play both during the regular season and especially in the playoffs, it's scary to think what he might have commanded for a price tag on the open market this offseason had Boston allowed him to become a free agent. Is it unreasonable to think a team could have offered a max deal to steal a player who made his first All-Star appearance and landed on the NBA All-Defense team?

Rondo cemented himself as the cornerstone of the franchise even with the Big Three still in town, and this modest contract ensured he'll be the face of Boston basketball through at least the 2014-15 season.

A very merry Christmas

Dec. 25, 2009: Celtics 86, Magic 77

"This was definitely a benchmark game for us because we have been talking about this game for a long time. We did what we had to do and took care of the game. We feel good about it and jelled as a team. This propels us going forward." -- Ray Allen

A Christmas visit to Orlando provided the high-water mark of the 2009-10 regular season as the Celtics -- sans Pierce, who stayed home to have an infected right knee drained -- limited the Magic to 27 first-half points, including a mere eight in the second quarter, while playing the brand of ball that wouldn't truly be seen again until the playoffs arrived in mid-April.

While Boston boasted a sparkling 23-5 record after the win, what no one knew was that Pierce's knee was just the start of injury woes that would derail the Celtics Express for the better part of the next four months. Heck, the wheels came off before the end of the calendar year, particularly when Kevin Garnett suffered a hyperextended right knee after being kicked three days later in a game against Golden State.

Lakers strike first in 2010

Jan. 31, 2010: Lakers 90, Celtics 89

"It's nothing to be happy about, I'll tell you that. We haven't been producing wins, but we're a hardworking group." -- Garnett

For the third time in little more than a month, the Celtics endured a three-game losing streak, but this one might have hurt the most. Over a grueling four-day stretch, the Celtics lost in Orlando and Atlanta -- two teams that ultimately would finish ahead of them in the Eastern Conference -- then fell to the rival Lakers in a frustrating game at the Garden.

After all the optimism on Christmas, a month later pundits were openly questioning whether Boston could hang with the brass of the NBA. Garnett had returned from his knee injury but was obviously moving poorly, and twice in that three-game span he endured plays that had some ready to pen his basketball obituary (Rashard Lewis blowing past him for the winning bucket in Orlando, then Ron Artest going at him for a pivotal bucket in the Lakers clash).

The injury bug wasn't departing, either. The next night, Pierce suffered a left midfoot injury that sidelined him for two games and nagged him for much longer.

Celtics strike back vs. Lakers

Feb. 18, 2010: Celtics 87, Lakers 86

Celtics/Lakers
The Celtics squeaked by the Kobe-less Lakers in early February, a victory that could serve as all the proof they need that they can win in Los Angeles.

"I like this team when we're in the hole. We haven't played with a great rhythm the last 20 games; I get that. That's fine. Whoever jumped off the bandwagon, stay off. I like this team. I've said it over and over again. I don't think we needed to make a lot of changes -- and we didn't -- so we'll see if that was the right decision." -- Rivers

Desperate for the spark they had lacked since Christmas, the Celtics appropriately were in California when the team underwent a shakeup by trading Eddie House, a core member of the 2008 championship team, to the Knicks in a deal that brought Nate Robinson to Boston.

Read more here about what should be recalled as a defining moment in Boston's 2009-10 season. The trade itself didn't resuscitate this team, but it reminded the Celtics that anything less than contending for a championship would not be accepted.

Boston responded with a milestone win over the Kobe-less Lakers. Can the C's use it as postseason fuel the way they did the opening night win against Cleveland? Time will tell.

Celtics reach rock bottom

Feb. 27, 2010: Nets 104, Celtics 96

"I'm not going to sit up here and give a bunch of excuses; that's not my style. You lose, you lose. They kicked our asses tonight. Period. Point blank. Players have to do more, including myself. We all have to dig deep and see what we're made of as a team. Seriously." -- Garnett

On a day Celtics center Kendrick Perkins detailed how he believed many of his teammates were "bored" with the regular season, Boston confirmed that suggestion by falling to the five-win Nets.

Losers of three of four after the game, the Celtics stood at 36-21 overall. They responded with a four-game win streak that restored confidence, but the Green still stumbled their way through April and May, later chalking up their inconsistencies to the fact that Rivers put a premium on health over winning meaningless games.

Sunday best: C's prep for postseason

April 4, 2010: Celtics 117, Cavaliers 113

"I thought Houston was pretty much the last straw for us. That's why we decided to go out after that game and talk about it. We said, 'If we're going to go anywhere [in the postseason], we gotta be the leaders.' The other guys have to step up also, and we don't want to take anything away from [Rajon] Rondo and [Kendrick Perkins], but we have to go out there and be consistent, on a night-in and night-out basis." -- Pierce

After a three-game losing streak that culminated with a supremely frustrating 119-114 overtime loss to the Rockets, Boston's Big Three convened for a little state of the union two days before a visit from the Cavaliers.

Desperate for a statement victory before the postseason arrived, Boston leaned on its superstar trio and fended off a furious second-half rally by LeBron James and the Cavaliers to emerge with a feel-good triumph on Easter Sunday.

Of course, the team turned around two days later and lost to the Knicks. Just par for the course with Boston late in the season. The Celtics also endured a boo-filled loss to the Wizards at the Garden but rebounded the next night with a crucial win in Milwaukee -- then an expected postseason foe.

Flipping switches, turning out Cavs' lights

May 9, 2010: Celtics 97, Cavaliers 87

Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo's 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist performance in a critical Game 4 victory over the Cavaliers sent the Celtics on a 6-game playoff winning streak.

"I think it starts with Rondo. He's kind of the engine that really gets them going. He does everything for them. His performance was unbelievable." -- James

The playoffs were going pretty much to script: Boston raced through the Heat in five games, then found itself clinging to its playoff life after the Cavaliers handed the Celtics their worst home playoff loss in team history with a 124-95 triumph in Game 3.

Boston could have just called it a season. Down 2-1 against Cleveland coming off that lopsided loss, it would have been easy for the Celtics to start making offseason plans.

Instead, Rondo erupted for 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists that did two things: (1) tied the series at 2 and swung momentum in favor of Boston, even as the series shifted back to Cleveland; and (2) left the crowd chanting, "MVP! MVP!" for Rondo, who quickly emerged as the breakthrough player of the postseason (even if he was likewise amazing in 2009).

The win ignited a six-game postseason winning streak for the Celtics, who polished off the Cavaliers in six games, then won the first three against the Magic before closing out the conference finals in six games.

Here and now: Rivalry renewed

"I envision me holding up the trophy. That's all I can see. I don't know how the games are going to play out; there's pretty much no script on that. But, at the end of the day, I envision and dream of me holding up that trophy." -- Pierce

During the regular season, a picture of the Larry O'Brien trophy with the inspirational phrase, "Begin with the end in mind," appeared in the Celtics' locker room. No explanation was given; none was needed.

Celtics coaches spent the entire 2009-10 season prodding this team to live up to expectations and never giving up hope that it would eventually get there.

Now Boston sits four wins from its second world title in three years. Just getting to this stage is an accomplishment, and considering the path the Celtics took to get here, it's even more remarkable.

It's up to Pierce and his teammates to decide whether this seesaw season will end at the highest of highs or lowest of lows.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.