The 2008 NBA Finals became a way to link the past to the present.
Twenty-one years after meeting in the classic 1987 Finals, the Boston Celtics were able to oust the Los Angeles Lakers in a riveting six-game series. The championship-clinching 39-point win in Game 6 was a stunning blowout for the Celtics, but it didn’t take away from the hard-fought battle throughout the series.
The result was the 17th banner lifted into the crowded rafters for the victorious Celtics.
Paul Pierce, despite playing the entire series with an injured knee, would be named the Most Valuable Player as the Celtics won their first title since 1986 when Hall of Fame players such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish donned the green uniform.
Boston’s blowout victory set a Finals record for the most widespread margin, eclipsing Game 5 in the 1965 series when the Celtics beat the Lakers by 33 points.
The images from the 2008 championship celebration are iconic.
Kevin Garnett sought out Celtics great Bill Russell and hugged him on the court. Garnett could also be seen crying and kissing the leprechaun at center court. It was so obvious what the championship meant to Garnett and the rest of his teammates.
Conversely, the Lakers were left to ponder what could have been despite featuring Kobe Bryant, the MVP of the regular season.
The rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics are one of the most storied in all of sports. The two franchises have wrestled for championships multiple times throughout the ’60s and ’80s, but as rivalries go, it’s been pretty one-sided. In 2008, the Celtics won for the ninth time in 11 tries against the Lakers in the Finals.
Their rout in Game 6 gave the Celtics a 13-1 home record in the playoffs and 48-7 overall through the regular season and postseason.
Here’s an oral history from those who were directly involved and others from the outside looking in:
CELTICS HEAD COACH DOC RIVERS: “The last game was crazy because of how lopsided it was. The series wasn’t like that. I was so happy for our players. I watched them celebrate and they deserved it. You talk about players making so much money and having millions of dollars. This was about so much more. They wanted that championship. They wanted that trophy. They got it. For our team, it was so well deserved and I was just so happy for them.”
CELTICS GUARD-FORWARD PAUL PIERCE (to the Boston Globe): “It means everything. I’m not living under the shadows of the other [Celtic] greats now. I’m able to make my own history with my time here. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics ever to play, I had to put up a banner. And we did that.”
RIVERS: “Paul Pierce turned that series around. We were down by a ton in Game 4 and Paul stepped up. I don’t even think he was 100 percent with a knee injury. He even said, ‘I’ll help guard Kobe.’ Paul just wanted to win that ring so badly. That game specifically, I recall, as a turning point for our group.”
CELTICS GUARD RAJON RONDO: “The Lakers got some confidence with a win in Game 3. We knew we had to take the next one. We didn’t want them to even the series and gain confidence. It was step-on-the-gas time, if you know what I mean. We did that. It wasn’t a pretty game, but we got the job done and took that important 3-1 lead that we needed.”
LAKERS FORWARD TREVOR ARIZA: “We felt really confident that we were going to tie the series at two and then have a great chance at winning the championship. It didn’t work out. The Celtics played better. I can’t say they didn’t. The sixth game is one we’ll all wish to forget because it ended up being a perfect storm for them and I feel like we didn’t give our best. I don’t really know why, either.”
Boston held serve in the series’ first two games at TD Banknorth Garden, winning Game 1, 98-88, and Game 2, 108-102. With the 2-3-2 format, the next three games in Los Angeles would be key for the Lakers as they wanted to avoid needing to capture two games in Boston, a place where the Celtics were 12-1 up until that point in the playoffs. The Lakers stymied the Celtics in Game 3, holding them to just 81 points while Bryant scored 36. The Lakers looked like they were going to knot the series as they took a 35-14 lead after the first quarter and held a commanding 45-21 advantage at one point in the second quarter, but the Celtics outscored the Lakers in the second half, 57-33, to stun the home team and take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
LAKERS HEAD COACH PHIL JACKSON (to the L.A. Times): “Some turnaround in that game. The air went out of the building.”
RIVERS: “Nothing was going right for us and I kept telling the guys, ‘Hang in there, hang in there.’ That’s what we did. Sounds basic and simple. But that’s how it played out. We never panicked. We had such a strong veteran core and they wouldn’t let anyone hang their heads. We started making shots and began getting stops. We started chipping away, and before we knew it, the game was ours for the taking. And we took it.”
RONDO: “Game 4 was the turning point, obviously. I feel like we took all the air out of them with that rally and ultimately, that victory. We knew that we needed one more to close them out, but we all felt like it was ours to be had. There was going to be a celebration at the end.”
ARIZA: “With Kobe Bryant, we always felt like we were going to win. When we got that huge lead in Game 4, even though no lead is ever safe, never did we think that the Celtics would come back and win. They did. It was a very quiet locker room on our end that night. We were stunned. Never saw that coming.”
The Lakers would stave off elimination in Game 5, winning 103-98, but would have to do what they wanted to avoid going into the series: win two games—consecutive games—in Boston.
LAKERS GUARD KOBE BRYANT (to the L.A. Times): “In training camp if you told us, ‘We’ll give you two games that you have to win to win a world championship,’ we would have taken it in a heartbeat. This is a great opportunity for us.”
RIVERS: “I felt like in Game 5, Paul Pierce was really struggling with his knee. He was such a competitor. He never wanted to come out. He wanted to be on the court every second, every step of the way. That leadership rubbed off on the entire team. They fed off Paul.”
PIERCE (to the Boston Globe): “It means so much more because these are the guys, the Havliceks, the Bill Russells, the Cousys. These guys started what’s going on with those banners. They don’t hang up any other banners but championship ones.”
RONDO: “No way were we going to let them become the first team to come back from 3-1 down. No way. We raced to a huge lead and never let them in the game. We kept going and going and going. Honestly, it was surprising to all of us. We kept going downhill and the momentum swung our way. We never let up.”
RIVERS: “I remember thinking about Red Auerbach, who passed away abut four years earlier. He had to be up in heaven smiling and lighting that victory cigar. Our guys deserved it with all the effort put forth. It was the type of effort that Red would be able to appreciate.”
BRYANT (to the L.A. Times): “They were definitely the best defense I’ve seen the entire playoffs. I’ve seen some pretty stiff ones and this was right up there with them. The goal was to win a championship, it wasn’t to win MVP or anything like that, it was to win a championship.”
DENNIS RODMAN: “I remember that series very well. I would sum it up like this, ‘The Celtics had more stars than the Lakers.’ With Pierce, [Kevin] Garnett and Ray Allen, they had a lot of firepower. They had veterans who knew what it took. Kobe was great as always. The Lakers got so close, which says a lot about the greatness of Kobe. Pierce, Garnett and Allen was the combo that gave the Celtics that banner. They didn’t care about statistics. Points didn’t matter. They just wanted to win and you could see it. The passion was in their eyes and in their games.”
ARIZA: “In Game 6, I remember vividly how much energy we lacked. I’ll never understand why. We didn’t rebound. I think we had two offensive rebounds the entire game. Just no energy. We didn’t attack the basket. We didn’t move our feet on defense. We sure picked the wrong time to come to the arena without our best game.”
JACKSON (to the L.A. Times): “We suffered injuries and survived a season and rebuilt our team and came back and had a great playoff run until the Celtics were able to extinguish that hope. But we’ll look back on this favorably. We were surprised we were here, and we’re glad that we had an opportunity, but whenever you get this opportunity, you don’t want to let it slip away, and we did.”
RIVERS: “In the first game, Paul Pierce hurt his knee and went to the locker room. He came back out and it was like Willis Reed with the Knicks. Paul played well and gave our guys a big lift. When he left the court, I thought he might be done for the series. Thankfully he wasn’t and it worked out in his favor and our favor with a championship. At first, my heart kind of stopped and I thought the worst.”
CELTICS GUARD SAM CASSELL: “I was a veteran on the team. I usually came off the bench and I recall scoring a few quick buckets in the first game. We were a complete team top to bottom. We had stars and we also had a total team effort every night. It started in training camp and continued all season. Whenever my number was called, I came in and provided that leadership.”
BRYANT, ON HOW LOSING THE SERIES AFFECTED HIM, TO THE L.A. TIMES: “I remember when we were losing, they played that Journey song (Don’t Stop Believin’) and the whole arena started singing. “I hated that song for two years. I listened to the song every single day just to remind me of that feeling. Same thing with the Dropkick Murphys—I listened to the Dropkick Murphys all the time just because I wanted to remember that feeling.”
BRYANT (to the L.A. Times): “Just upset more than anything. But I’m proud of the way that we performed all year. I’m proud of my guys. At the same time, understand that second place just means you’re the first loser.”
LAKERS CENTER PAU GASOL: “We earned our way to the Finals. We had so many injuries and had a fairly young team. We did a lot of great things throughout the course of the season and through the playoffs. You never want it to end with a loss. We came so close. We persevered more than maybe we even thought possible. We had a lot to be proud of. We could have closed it better than the showing in the last game. Kobe was an MVP. Guys played hard all season. People remember endings. Our ending wasn’t a good one. The beginning, middle and pretty much right up to the end was very, very good. It just wasn’t good enough to win a championship.”
ORLANDO MAGIC SENIOR VP PAT WILLIAMS: “Through the years, there have been teams that earned a title. I would say that about that Celtics team. The veterans they had were motivated and they played their hearts out. I just wish we could have had that same feeling here in Orlando. We came close with Shaq and Penny. That group of Celtics got the job done and earned that ring. No question about it.”
ARIZA: “I remember thinking when we defeated the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, we had a real chance. We beat the Spurs in five games and that was a very good team. We pretty much dominated that series and could have swept them. The Celtics caught us at the right time for them.”
SPURS FORWARD ROBERT HORRY: “I was upset because I felt like we had a very good team in San Antonio and the Lakers took it to us pretty much. They were the better team in that series and deserved to go to the Finals. We didn’t play well enough. Kobe was really tough for us to handle the whole series. I thought he had a real chance to win the title, but it didn’t happen. It would happen a couple of years later. That season belonged to Boston.”
CELTICS FORWARD KEVIN GARNETT, (to the Boston Globe): “Other than my kid being born, this has got to be the happiest day of my life right now. I’m going to be hoarse. I don’t plan on sleeping for a week, months.”
PIERCE (to The Boston Globe): “It means everything. You know, I’m not living under the shadows of the other greats now. I’m able to make my own history with my time here, and like I said, this is something that I wanted to do. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics to ever play, I had to put up a banner, and today we did that.”
HALL OF FAME COACH PLAYER AND COACH BILLY CUNNINGHAM: “I went through my share of battles against both the Celtics and Lakers. We finally broke through against the Lakers in ’83. I remember the exhilarating feeling of winning that elusive title. I’m sure the Celtics–even though they had 16 titles before the one in 2008–felt that same exhilarating feeling. When you play an arch-rival, it’s even sweeter. Trust me, the feeling is sweeter. You feel like you’ve put in the work, the blood, sweat and tears and it resulted in a championship. There’s nothing like it.”
BRYANT (to the Orange County Register): “What we’ve got to take from this series is we can’t expect to win a championship focusing on the offensive end. We have to be able to hold people down.”
RONDO: “Defense won the series. Defense won us the championship. Scoring was never an issue. We had so much offense, so many talented players who score points in bunches like Pierce, Garnett and Allen. We talked about defense all season and what it meant. It sounded corny, but defense carried us all season. When we didn’t have our best shooting night, we were never out of a game. Our defense in the Finals was excellent.”
LEGENDARY NBA BROADCASTER HUBIE BROWN: “I thought the teams were fairly even. Once the Celtics took Game 4 to go up, 3-1, it was theirs for the taking. How could they not be emotionally moved and driven by Paul Pierce’s courage basically playing on one knee? Garnett and Allen were great and so was Rondo, among others. You could see that Paul Pierce desperately wanted to kiss that championship trophy. If it was the regular season, I doubt that he would have even been playing. You could see, and I had a great view, he just wanted it so badly. He would have done anything. He gave up his body and played with heart and soul.”
RIVERS: “When we won the championship, it was after midnight and it was my dad’s birthday. He was no longer with us. I was holding the trophy, the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and I thought about dad. I know someone asked me about it. I remember thinking that my dad would have said something like this, ‘What took you so long? Why couldn’t you do this in five games?’ That was dad. I had the emotions of wanting to laugh and cry all at the same time.”
GARNETT (to the Boston Herald): “This is the reason we came here. This is the reason we got together, and Danny [Ainge] made it go down. This is it right now.”
BROWN: “When you take a chance and build a team with veterans, you’re going for it all. It doesn’t always work out. For the Celtics, it sure did. The veterans bonded and meshed as one. They stuck together through everything and were playing true team basketball in the Finals. The moves to bring in the veterans paid off. The 17th banner being lifted was worth it all.”
RODMAN: “In sports, there’s no greater feeling than winning the championship, knowing you’re the best team in the world. It’s a rush, really. It can’t be recreated. Once you win, no one can ever take it away from you.”
CASSELL: “I didn’t even play in Game 6. I was a bit banged up and the game was all in our hands by halftime. Yet I was never so happy to celebrate after not playing one minute. The guys earned the trophy. It was all about team from the All-Stars to the guys at the end of the bench. We had our title. What an incredible feeling.”