BOSTON (AP) - This is not how the Boston Celtics planned to get back to the NBA finals.
The league's luckiest franchise saw its luck run out - again - in the draft lottery last year, coming up with the worst possible pick and no shot at the megastars slotted 1-2. What the Celtics couldn't know at the time was that it was the best thing that could have happened.
``We hit rock bottom with the lottery - as bad as we could do - and then Danny (Ainge) went to work,'' co-owner Bob Epstein said Sunday. ``Not everything is a master plan. A lot of skill in any endeavor is being able to be opportunistic as well.''
The Celtics took advantage of their opportunities just fine after the lottery setback, landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in trades that helped them reach the NBA finals for the first time since Ainge and the original Big Three made it there in 1987.
Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers is Thursday night.
In a series of interviews over the weekend, the owners who bought the team in 2002 explained the turnaround from 24-58 lottery loser to Eastern Conference champion. It didn't happen that night at the draft lottery, and it didn't even happen during the monthlong trading spree in which Ainge brought in Garnett and Allen to join with All-Star holdover Paul Pierce.
``Everybody wants to talk about the overnight success, but I think that this was five years in the making,'' co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. ``The plan was: draft well, build up chips and build this into a championship team. We had the pieces, and we thought something good was going to happen - this year, next year. It came together very nicely.''
The NBA's most decorated franchise, the Celtics were once synonymous with success - winning 16 championships from 1957 to '86. But twice since their last title they've dropped to the bottom of the standings in hopes of landing a big lottery prize, only to see the chances go against them.
With two potential franchise players at the top of last year's draft, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the Celtics seemed in good position to pick up a key part of their turnaround. But three teams jumped over them in the lottery, and they wound up with the No. 5 selection.
``It was the worst possible pick we could have gotten, and it felt like the worst possible thing,'' said managing partner Wyc Grousbeck, who was in the sealed-off room where the lots were drawn and found out about an hour before the TV audience that the Celtics had dropped to the fifth spot.
``I spent 50-55 minutes going, 'This is really terrible. I feel really badly for all the Boston fans who were about to find out.' I just felt really unlucky,'' he said. ``There was no joy in Mudville.''
Then came Plan B. And C.
Ainge tried to trade the No. 5 pick and developing big man Al Jefferson for Garnett, but Garnett didn't want to come to a losing team and the Celtics didn't want him unless he'd agree to an extension. So Ainge sent the first-round pick - which, other than Paul Pierce, was his most valuable commodity - to Seattle in a package for Allen.
Suddenly, Garnett was interested. Ainge picked him up from the Timberwolves in an unprecedented 7-for-1 deal and the Celtics were on their way to 66 wins - the biggest turnaround in NBA history - and a return to the finals against their archrival.
Pagliuca was at the team's training facility in Waltham, Mass., watching the lottery on TV when the camera panned around the room and showed Grousbeck, who wore a green pinstriped suit he had made for the occasion as well as a frown he tailored himself.
``Wyc looked like he had been shot, so we knew we didn't have the first pick,'' Pagliuca said. ``We spent a lot of time hoping for the first draft pick, but we knew there would be plenty of players available. Garnett was the No. 1 possibility.''
The owners are effusive in their praise for Ainge - not just for making big trades, but also for drafting the ``chips'' that he cashed in for the All-Stars.
Without picks such as Al Jefferson (15th overall), Gerald Green (18th), Delonte West (24th) and Ryan Gomes (20th in the second round), they wouldn't have been able to acquire Garnett.
``Look at the players he's drafted, down the line, who are going to be fixtures in the league,'' said Irv Grousbeck, Wyc's father and another member of the ownership group.
Ainge also drafted Rajon Rondo (21st) and Kendrick Perkins (27th), non-lottery players who fill out the starting five of the Eastern Conference champions. Leon Powe and Glen ``Big Baby'' Davis were second-rounders who've contributed off the bench this season.
``Our strategy was to try to hit the longball, to win a championship, not to sign some midlevel players and get into the playoffs. We had to have the patience to build those chips up,'' Pagliuca said. ``We recognized that time was an asset for us.
``We were younger. It would have taken a little longer, but I think we would have been a contender,'' Pagliuca said. ``The second we got Garnett, we felt there was a legitimate possibility we could contend.''
And so did other players in the league.
Once Allen and Garnett signed on, free agents came out of the woodwork hoping to join the team. Eddie House, James Posey, Scot Pollard, Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown all said they were eager to join a winner.
``I don't want to make it seem like this was our master plan. But our strategy was to build assets and remain opportunistic - be looking for what you can do and build, build, build,'' Irv Grousbeck said. ``If you do nothing else over time, you'll build a good team.
``We got lucky in a sense, but we planned to be able to put together a good team,'' he said. ``If we had kept building, it would have taken longer.''

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