The Celtic Threebound

Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were aging, singular NBA stars, sans title. But united at once awful Boston, the trio has led the team back to the top

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John Huet for TIME

Allen, Pierce and Garnett are making their case for a selfless Celtics title run

We've seen this act in sports before. A group of sterling individual talents thrust together on the same team, expectations raised to the rafters. A title? Slam dunk. On paper, they look unbeatable. The '99 Houston Rockets, for example, had Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen. The New York Yankees--every year their lineup looks like a world beater.

Too many times, these quick fixes fail; the inflated egos can't fit into the same arena. Those Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Yankees haven't won a World Series in seven years. So how do you explain the 2008 Boston Celtics? Last season, the Cs, one of the most celebrated sport franchises, winners of 16 titles, were the joke of the NBA. They finished 24-58 and at one point doormatted 18 straight games. During the off-season, Celtics GM Danny Ainge pulled off a pair of heists, bringing Kevin Garnett, the 6-ft. 11-in. (2.1 m) EX-MVP who is one of the most versatile players ever, and sweet-shooting guard Ray Allen to Boston. There they joined Paul Pierce, an automatic scorer and a six-time All-Star himself. Nice. But none of these guys have ever sniffed a championship. And they have only one ball to share.

Yet the Celtics are a stunning 40-9, the best in the NBA. When you sit down with Boston's cerebral Big Three, they'll tell you about ubuntu, the South African unity principle preached by coach Doc Rivers. But dig a little deeper and you'll discover less esoteric explanations behind Boston's success.

Like thank goodness these guys stank last year--or at least their teams did. "First and foremost, it only works when you have guys who have been on teams that have struggled," says Allen, whose Seattle SuperSonics finished in last place in their division. "The three of us have carried teams in the past, and the only thing we need to prove is that we want to win a championship." Garnett missed the playoffs in Minnesota; Pierce admits that basketball became a "drag."

Celtics fans: you're lucky they're not young whippersnappers, dingbats in their 20s seeking the stats for an insane contract. "When you are young, you are trying to secure yourself," says Pierce, 30. (Read: Just give me the damn ball.) "You look at us three--we've made millions of dollars. We've won tons of awards. So we look at each other and say, 'Hey, what's left to do?'" Allen is 32, Garnett 31--old enough to buy their own team yet young enough to still score at will.

We shouldn't totally dismiss that more mysterious component of team success: chemistry. Kicking back in the players' lounge at the team's Waltham, Mass., training facility, Allen, Garnett and Pierce are loose, introspective and quick to pounce. Garnett calls Allen stubborn, and Allen predicts that if Pierce doesn't shave his head, he'll grow George Jefferson hair. The trio's personal history helps. Garnett and Allen were Olympic teammates in 2000 and have known each other since their South Carolina schoolboy days; Garnett and Pierce played as teens for the same Amateur Athletic Union team.

It's easy to get them going about issues. Allen thinks the NBA's interminable 82-game regular season waters down the action. "I would cut the games back," he says. "You're going to see a level of intensity go up." In a sports world consumed with wiping out drugs, Garnett, who was chosen for the Feb. 17 All-Star game but has an abdominal strain, would offer a curious reform. "We're drug-tested too much," he says. "We're very funny about our routines. The policy is set up now where, on game day, they can come get you, take you. If you can't go, you'll sit there--they'll hound you."

I ask them about two recent books, both written by African-American journalists, that argue that today's black athletes have largely abdicated their social responsibility. There's no compelling need for it, says Pierce. "We don't have to deal with a lot of racism. It's not as open and as broad as it was back in the day. And that's why there's not as many of us who step in that position." Each of them has done noble charitable work, but Allen argues that a big paycheck doesn't equate with a platform. "You could have made money picking up roadkill," he says. "Now you have this big company where you've got people all over the world picking up roadkill. You've got $70 million in the bank. That doesn't make you knowledgeable about world hunger." Allen's inquisitive mind often wanders off to unexpected, some would say bizarre, areas.

Yes, their chemistry is refreshing. But will the buddy act last if one of the Big Three itches for more shots? Will Allen, Garnett and Pierce be able to exorcise their postseason demons? Will a no-name supporting cast sustain the Celtics?

"Just because you haven't heard of someone doesn't mean they're not effective," says Garnett of Boston's role players. "That's exactly how you get beat." Garnett surely knows enough about losing. With his two wingmen, he can finally talk tough on how to win big.