Pierce: Celtics will 'have their time, but they shouldn't be compared to us'

BOSTON -- Brian Scalabrine would have none of the suggestion.

After key members of Boston Celtics' 2007-08 title squad reconvened Sunday in Boston for Paul Pierce's jersey number retirement ceremony at TD Garden, Scalabrine was sought out to answer whether the 2017-18 Celtics had any similarities to the championship team of a decade ago.

"First of all, let me preface this: No team was like the 2008 championship team," Scalabrine said. "I'm telling you, I've been a part of this league for a long time now and that was so unique. That team was like no other team I've ever been around."

Scalabrine is expertly qualified to opine on the matter, given his reserve role on the 2007-08 team and his position as a television broadcaster for the 2017-18 squad. But on a weekend that put a spotlight back on Boston's accomplishments during that 2007-08 season, Scalabrine wouldn't be the only one to scoff at the mere inquiry into whether the two teams have any similarities.

"I really don't see any comparisons," Pierce said. "We were all old, wily veterans who had been All-Stars for years. [This year's team is] a bunch of young, up-and-coming players. They'll have their time, but they shouldn't be compared to us. ...

"They've got a ways to go. They've got to figure out who they're gonna be."

What becomes obvious in asking the comparison question is just how special that 2008 title team is viewed by those who had a front-row seat for a dominant championship run after the Celtics brought together Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

"The very second we had the [introductory] press conference [for Garnett and Allen], it was a team that was just destined to be great," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. "[Coach] Doc [Rivers] always says, 'Boy, going to Rome [for training camp] was huge. And we developed all this chemistry.' And I've said, and I still maintain, there was so much enthusiasm and energy in that team that we could have training camp in a Waltham [Massachusetts] parking lot and still won. Because it was just such an unusual excitement."

"There was so much enthusiasm and energy in that team that we could have training camp in a Waltham parking lot and still won."
Celtics president Danny Ainge, on the 2008 NBA champs

Ainge noted that there was a palpable buzz when Boston brought together a new star trio this summer by landing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to put alongside Al Horford. But Hayward's injury on opening night certainly dampened expectations. And the overall youth of Boston's roster has allowed this year's team to patiently navigate the journey to title contention.

For the 2007-08 Celtics, there was a hair-on-fire urgency.

"By like the third day in Rome, I knew that I'd never been a part of anything like this," Scalabrine said of Boston's 2007 trip overseas. "I'd never been part of a training camp with this much intensity and just so many competitive people. It was insane."

Scalabrine said Boston's competitive nature often spilled off the court and onto the team plane. He playfully compared team flights to the 1997 action flick "Con Air."

"There was no sleeping going on," Scalabrine said. "There was loud music. I'm telling you, it was nuts. There's no team I've ever been a part of that was like this."

On a cavernous movie studio lot in suburban Boston, the 2017-18 Celtics herded their new-look team together in late September for Media Day. Irving, who seemingly hadn't stopped smiling since being traded to Boston less than a month earlier, looked at new teammates Hayward and Horford in their pristine white uniforms and playfully suggested that the trio should walk toward the cameras as if they were "Charlie's Angels."

Before the ensuing laughter subsided, social media had been deluged with various snapshots, all bearing a similar caption: "Boston's new Big Three."

It's a threadbare nickname that has been recycled for three decades in these parts, but it carries the unremitting burden of expectations considering how it was previously bestowed upon those at the helm of Boston's most recent championship squads: first, the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish trio, then Pierce-Allen-Garnett.

Did the Irving-Hayward-Horford deserve that billing? They sure looked the part when the Celtics opened training camp the next day on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. Even the players themselves marveled at the cohesion and continuity that Boston's stars displayed in their first full-squad workouts.

"Looking back on training camp, I was like, 'Man, if we get this clicking, we're going to be a problem,'" Horford recalled this week, his excitement palpable as he thought back to Boston's first practices of the season.

That buzz was tempered soon after, when Hayward fractured his ankle during Boston's season opener in Cleveland. The Celtics maybe exceeded expectations early in the season, including a 16-game winning streak in which Boston's young roster displayed impossible resiliency for a team that was starting two players age 20 or younger in rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown.

"They've got a ways to go. They've got to figure out who they're gonna be."
Celtics legend Paul Pierce, on the 2017-18 squad

That early-season success first got Celtics fans thinking about similarities to the 2008 champions. Could a healthy Hayward have made Boston a 2008-like contender?

Scalabrine doesn't think the Celtics' win total would be all that different with Hayward. Yes, Boston might be a bit more consistent than what the team has displayed recently, but there's no guarantee they would have put together that early winning streak if not forced to rally around each other in the aftermath of Hayward's injury.

The stats suggest the 2017-18 Celtics should feel fortunate to be where they are, especially given an offense that has been among the league's least efficient in the new calendar year (though Boston often plays elite defense that rivals that of the 2007-08 squad).

The 2017-18 Celtics already have faced double-digit deficits in 25 games this season. By comparison, the 2007-08 squad faced just 17 double-digit deficits all season. This season's Celtics have led by double-digits 37 times this season, while the 2007-08 squad made blowouts the norm, topping the league with 65 double-digits leads that year.

ESPN Stats & Information research indicates that the 2015-16 Warriors -- they of a league-record 73 wins -- owned 68 double-digit leads that season, which gives you a sense of just how dominant Boston's 2008 squad was by even being in the same neighborhood.

Horford came out to the court on Sunday to watch Pierce's number go to the rafters and was genuinely awestruck to see that the arena remained full despite the fact that Boston's current squad got steamrolled by the rival Cavaliers earlier in the day. It reminded Horford of why this franchise was so alluring when he left the comforts of Atlanta and the Hawks to join Boston's quest for its next championship team.

Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck even playfully chided Horford about how he was on the wrong side as a rookie when Boston defeated the Hawks in seven games in the opening round of the 2008 playoffs. With that firsthand experience, Horford confirmed it's unfair to compare this year's team to that title squad.

Horford does hope that the two teams eventually share a title bond.

"Winning that championship has cemented [the 2007-08 team] in Celtics history," Horford said. "[This season's team is] at a point right now where we're really trying to become a more consistent group and grow as we go. We feel like there's a lot of potential."

Ainge believes the playing time that Brown and Tatum are getting in Hayward's absence is invaluable and will help the team be even that much further along when Hayward is able to return.

"The 2008 team immediately they felt like they were the favorites to win the championship," Ainge said. "Whereas I felt like this [year's] team was really excited, and we still are very excited. But we're still not there yet. We got a lot of work to do."

Last week before a game in Washington, D.C., Irving admitted he sometimes daydreams about a future when Hayward is available again. He pictures the different lineups the Celtics could run and thinks about the team's potential.

Those early practices are enough for Horford to understand why Irving might be intrigued.

"Just looking at what Coach [Brad Stevens] had orchestrated with how we were going to run offense, how things were going to be, it's just scary, because you have five guys on the floor that can shoot the ball, that can drive, defend," Horford said. "It's just something that I don't think it's been seen in this league very often."

That uniqueness is key to Boston's future success. These Celtics can't try to be like the 2007-08 team; as members of that squad made clear, there might never be another team like it.