Tricks of the trade put Boston Celtics on cusp of NBA glory again

To build a team featuring stars such as Jrue Holiday and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics had to use all the savviness for which they are renowned

Jayson Tatum (left) and Jrue Holiday (right) of the Boston Celtics during their win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the 2024 NBA finals last Sunday. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum’s team-mates had not long left the floor when he sat down with the broadcasting crew at a roll-out table on the very court where he had been playing 15 minutes earlier, still wearing his Boston Celtics top and trading fives with the guests as he was fitted with a pair of gargantuan headphones.

The Dallas Mavericks’ arena was deserted, with the local crowd exiting quickly after watching their team fall into a 3-0 Finals deficit. Early on in the conversation, Tatum was asked about the importance of Jrue Holiday, the do-anything-and-everything guard whom the Celtics obtained last October in one of the audacious sleight-of-hand trades for which the club is infamous.

“I don’t know how they let us get him, but I’m so happy we got Jrue on our team,” Tatum beamed.

It was a brief observation that spoke volumes. Few players went into this year’s NBA season under as much scrutiny as Tatum, a 6ft 8in guard possessed with a languid brilliance and a temperament that is borderline diffident. Along with Jaylen Brown, the 6ft 6in guard with explosive athleticism and a streaky reputation, he formed one of the most gifted partnerships in the NBA.


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Both eschewed the dictum that a championship-winning team had to have an alpha: someone who led the way in what Michael Jordan defined as “woofing”. Infinite articles and podcasts have been filled about the tricky chemistry of Brown and Tatum and doubts about their ability to coalesce, which intensified after high-profile team collapses against the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 finals and the Miami Heat in last year’s conference finals.

Going into the finals in the early hours of Saturday morning, Irish time, they are in the sweet position of being hailed as champions designate. Their 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven-game series is all but unassailable and even without Kristaps Porzingis, their other major preseason acquisition, they are overwhelmingly favoured to either win the championship in Dallas in game four or in front of what would be a feverish home crowd for game five in Boston on Monday night.

“Banner 18 is an inevitability for the Celtics” crowed a front-page headline of the Globe on Thursday. It was an appropriate headline in that it caught the hauteur that makes the Boston Celtics one of the most famous and loved and loathed sports teams in America. Their fans are loud, knowledgeable and abrasive and, when the camera pans across the sections for games in the Garden, it can look as though the entire place is filled with extras – as well as the actual lead cast – from Good Will Hunting.

Larry Bird (right) led the Boston Celtics during a glorious era in the 1980s. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Celtics have had a profound effect on their city in that they’ve become emblematic of entire eras: Bill Russell’s Celtics are part of the life-memory of 1960s Bostonians, and no 1980s teenager has fully recovered from the Larry Bird years in the Garden.

The shorthand on the Celtics is that they stole a march on every other NBA team and all but psychologically tortured the Los Angles Lakers as they claimed every championship of the entire 1960s apart from 1967, which the Philadelphia 76ers won. But since the Bird era wound down following the 1986 title, the Celtics have won just one championship, in 2008. The Lakers have won eight titles in the same period, to tie their cross-coast rivals on 17 NBA championships.

The NBA draft system is the key reason why the league remains so competitive (It may ultimately become the only way of saving the English Premier League from outright farce). A fanatical fan base and endless money is not enough. Teams have a salary cap and they’ve got to arrive at a combination of players that works. Mega teams such as the New York Knicks can languish in title-obscurity for decades if they fail to get the balance right. The Chicago Bulls won six titles during Jordan’s prime. Since then, nothing.

For this year’s Celtics, Holiday has been the player whose subtle gifts – a cut here, a pass there – have helped the Tatum/Brown partnership to flourish. And Tatum’s line – “I don’t know how they let us get him” – is telling. Holiday was a vital part of the Milwaukee Bucks team that won a bravura NBA title in 2022. When the Bucks traded him to Portland, they did so to obtain Damian Lillard, a scoring sensation who could, the theory went, help the Bucks eclipse Boston’s outrageous attacking talent. Nobody imagined a scenario in which Holiday would end up facing the Bucks in a Celtics singlet – except the Boston executive. They gave away two starters and two future first-round draft picks to get Holiday and they haven’t looked back.

And it was the latest in a tradition of the Celtics engineering trades that border on Machiavellian. In 1956, Red Auerbach, who is to the Celtics what Bill Shankly is to Liverpool, reputedly promised to give the long-disappeared Rochester Royals one week of the Ice Capades, a theatrical ice-show of the era, if they did not choose Bill Russell for their number one pick. The ‘Capades proved irresistible. Russell went to Boston via his selection as the third pick of the St Louis Hawks, through a complex pre-arranged trade by Auerbach.

Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtic talks with the media before an NBA game in 1985. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

And around Russell, Auerbach built a team that was unbeatable for a decade – and then made history by appointing Russell as the first African-American head coach in American sport.

In 1980, he was at it again. In the previous year, the Celtics had won just 29 games. Publicly, Auerbach buttered up that year’s anticipated number one pick Joe Barry Carroll to disguise his true intent: to make sure that Liam McHale, a carefree Minnesotan with ridiculous shoulders, was still available when the Celtics’ turn to pick came around. In addition, he traded for an underachieving centre, Robert Parish, who with McHale and Bird formed one of the most celebrated backcourt trios in the history of the game.

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Flash forward to the 2000s: McHale was general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves when he agreed to trade Kevin Garnett to the Celtics after striking terms with Danny Ainge, his pugnacious team-mate from those 1980s teams, leading to the 2008 title for Boston.

Garnett, in turn, was part of another blockbuster trade that gave the Celtics the draft picks to acquire Tatum (2016) and Brown (2017). But: they only got Tatum because the 76ers, who had the number one pick that year, went with Markelle Fultz, whose career was injury-plagued. It’s fine lines but when it comes to the smoke and deception of assembling championship teams, the Boston Celtics are savvier than most. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said, observing the white and green banners hanging loftily from the roof of the decrepit old Boston Garden: “They don’t buy all those banners at Woolworths.”