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Jim O'Brien, former head coach of the Boston Celtics, knew the team would eventually win a championship when it hired Danny Ainge, and he also knew he wouldn't be able to see it through.
Jim O'Brien didn't once doubt where his former team would end up.
"The Celtics are made, their tradition [and] their mindset under the new owners was, you know, to compete for championships," said O'Brien, the head coach of the Boston Celtics from 2000 through 2004. "You try to put together a tradition and bring people together to give you your best chance of contending."
At the same time, O'Brien knew that he was not the right man to oversee the project, and that's why he willfully stepped down from his post after 46 games in 2004. Eight years later, O'Brien still believes it was the best decision.
"I think it was the right move for everyone involved," said O'Brien, who returned to Boston with his new employer, the Dallas Mavericks, last Wednesday. "What Danny [Ainge] was trying to do was the right thing to do. I had just been through [a] rebuilding project. I was not Danny's guy, I was brought in by somebody else. So it was the right thing to do at the right time."
It's hard to argue with him. Within four years after his departure, the Celtics had finally won a championship. Ainge, the Celtics' general manager, had executed his plan, and it worked exactly how O'Brien thought it would.
In O'Brien's mind, then and now, it was Ainge that changed the course.
"I think it absolutely was," O'Brien said. "He was brought in here to win a championship. He made the assessment -- and it was an accurate assessment -- that the teams that, my last two, four years that went to the [conference] finals and the second round, they were not good to win a championship. They were not good enough. He felt that [what] he had to do was tear everything down and acquire assets and then hope that they could hit gold with getting somebody like, you know, Kevin Garnett to go along with Paul [Pierce]. So it worked out perfectly, but it was not something that I necessarily wanted to be on board with the rebuilding process -- I would not have survived a rebuilding project."
Of course, anyone can say that now. Revisionist history. Need proof?
"In the future, people will look back, I think they will think it's a real step forward and a turning point for our franchise."
Those were the words from O'Brien when Ainge was hired in 2003.
Nonetheless, he must have some hard feelings about the ending, right?
"Never did," O'Brien said. "Even when we were going through that and people thought that was just a bunch of spin that there wasn't any hard feelings. There was absolutely none. This is a professional sport and I moved on, I was able to coach a couple other teams. I appreciate the opportunity that Boston gave me."
No, that opportunity didn't result in a championship, but there were still some fun times along the way. Perhaps the most memorable moment of O'Brien's tenure was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the once-rival New Jersey Nets at the Fleet Center in the 2002 NBA Playoffs.
Facing an insurmountable 21-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, the Celtics -- anchored by budding stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker -- did the unthinkable, erasing the lead and capturing a 94-90 victory. Once the dust settled, the greatest comeback in NBA postseason history was complete.
"That we were on fire, the place was absolutely crazed and the fact that our guys, led by Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, believed that they could come back and get it done," said O'Brien, when asked about what he remembers from the comeback. "When you're talking about the Eastern Conference Finals, it's a pretty big stage to do something extraordinary on."
The Celtics scored 41 points in the fourth quarter, outscoring their opponent by a whopping 25 points. Unsurprisingly, the rally was fueled by Pierce and Walker, who finished the game with 28 and 23 points, respectively. Beyond the box score, however, a lot was made about the speech Walker gave to Pierce before the start of the quarter that was caught on camera. Some believe that 'Toine's talk sparked the comeback, but O'Brien insists that it was a team effort.
"I just think it was a collective," he said. "It just wasn't Antoine, because one guy can't bring you back. We generally, because we were such a team that could rack up points, we knew we could make up ground. To think we could come back from that deficit maybe was a little bit of a stretch, but once we got hot it became something that kind of everybody believed in."
As exciting as it was, O'Brien didn't see that game as the biggest of his tenure, instead choosing to highlight the overall accomplishment of lasting that long.
"It's hard to say because we didn't win any more games after that," said O'Brien. "I think getting into the playoffs and getting to the [conference] finals that year was probably a good feeling considering the season, not being in the playoffs for quite a while. Getting that far overall was a great feeling."
Sadly, O'Brien would never experience that feeling again. Upon leaving Boston, O'Brien was hired by the Philadelphia 76ers to coach the team in 2004-05, but was let go after the season after the team was bounced in the first round of the playoffs. O'Brien would then coach the Indiana Pacers from 2007 through 2011, but the team never reached the postseason. His final record sits at 303-327.
Now, O'Brien serves as an assistant coach for the Mavs, and he feels that they can still compete for a championship, too. But it was still nice to be back in Boston, and O'Brien has nothing but admiration for his former team.
"I love Boston," O'Brien said, candidly. "My wife and I lived in 12 states and moved all around the country, and by far Boston has been our favorite place to live. It's always a pleasure to be back in the northeast. ... Certainly I have the utmost respect for this franchise and what was accomplished and I frankly don't have any regrets with what happened."
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Editor of SB Nation Boston. Twitter: @GethinCoolbaugh.