BOSTON — The Boston Celtics made it to the NBA finals last season without LeBron James. They’re planning to do it again this year.
Instead of purging salary and saving up for the LeBron stakes like so many of their Eastern Conference rivals, the Celtics made two trips to the NBA finals in three years while winning an unprecedented 17th NBA championship. Last year, they fell a painful four points short of winning another.
Now they have six months to rebuild what fell apart in the final six minutes of Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“You can’t forget. I wish we could,” coach Doc Rivers said as he prepared his team for next week’s season opener against James and the Miami Heat. “From a coaching standpoint, our biggest concern is getting the guys to want to get back to that. … It’s tough (knowing), ‘We’ve got to go through all this again just to have a chance to get back there.’ That’s very difficult. That’s the challenge for us.”
James has moved from Cleveland to Miami, and the Heat now appear to be Boston’s main rival for the conference title. But the defending East champions have added his former teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Delonte West to a roster that included Rajon Rondo and the aging Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
“The sky is the limit for this team, and it’s up to us to just go out and try to accomplish every goal that we set,” O’Neal said. “The only thing that can stop players like Kevin and myself is Father Time. No other player is going to stop him, no other player is going to stop me.”
Former Miami forward Jermaine O’Neal also will help Boston get through until Kendrick Perkins recovers from a right knee injury he sustained in last year’s finals. With either O’Neal in the low post, the Celtics just get older, with four thirtysomethings lining up with the 24-year-old Rondo.
“Some people say ‘veteran savvy,’ some people say ‘old age,'” Allen said. “We’ve got a lot of years. That definitely makes us a group of guys who know where we want to go.”
And one that’s already been there.
After winning the NBA championship in 2008 — the first season of the new Big Three — the Celtics lost their chance to repeat when an injury knocked Garnett out of the ’09 playoffs. Last season, Rivers gave his aging starters plenty of rest during the regular season, trading a possible home-court advantage for health.
But that meant the possibility of three decisive games on the road. That might have been costly when they lost 83-79 to the Lakers in Game 7 of the finals. Rivers would rather not have to do that again.
“Not in the East; not this year,” he said. “We can’t think we can do what we did last year. You can’t turn it off and then turn it back on. That won’t work, and it didn’t work last year, by the way. We lost Game 7 on the road. If we had won more games, Game 7 could have been at home.”
The key could be Shaq, a 38-year-old future Hall of Famer who accepted a minimum contract to pursue his fifth title and help Allen, Pierce and Garnett enhance their chances of joining him in the Springfield shrine.
“The only thing they don’t have that other great players have is multiple championships,” O’Neal said. “One is cool, but to solidify their Hall of Fame position, I know they want two.”
Shaq, who has dubbed himself “The Big Shamrock,” has said he would be willing to fill whatever role is needed in Boston, even if it means coming off the bench. The 2000 NBA MVP, who averaged 29.7 points and 13.6 rebounds that season, had career lows in virtually every major category last year.
“I’ve been the CEO or the controller of the team, and my last couple of years I’ve had to be a consultant to the team. I can do that because I have experience,” he said. “You’ve got to think of yourself like a business. … I’ve been a successful CEO, but my time is up.”
Rivers said Shaq is no different from Garnett or Allen, who were the stars of the show before coming to the Celtics, or Pierce, who had the spotlight all to himself before the others arrived.
“I don’t think anyone on our team has had the role that they had before they got here,” Rivers said. “It just wouldn’t work that way. It is a team game and at the end of the day we all have to try to figure out what’s best for each guy and what works best for our team. I think our guys are pretty good at understanding that.”