Trade deadline helped shake up Celtics

With the NBA Finals set to tip off Thursday night in Los Angeles, the Celtics practiced Tuesday on the campus of UCLA, which seemed like an appropriate venue considering that's the very spot Boston began the process of shaking itself from the midseason doldrums that threatened a championship-caliber season some 3½ months ago.

It was on the Westwood campus on Feb. 17 when Eddie House acknowledged trade rumors that suggested he would be dealt to the New York Knicks in exchange for Nate Robinson. Before the Celtics even tipped off against the Lakers the next night, House was gone, departing in the night as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge delivered a much-needed (yet much-scrutinized) shake-up to the foundation of Boston's basketball team.

House was the fall guy on a team that underperformed for the better part of two months after starting the season red-hot at 23-5 overall. Boston limped into the All-Star break having lost eight of its previous 13 games and stood at a far less glossy 33-18 after a 93-85 loss to New Orleans right before the midseason vacation.

To be certain, the House-for-Robinson swap was not what resuscitated Boston's season. In fact, Boston's season dipped even lower in the months that followed, including head-shaking losses to the Nets, Grizzlies and Wizards down the stretch. The Celtics even stumbled to the finish line, losing seven of their final 10 games before flipping the much-ballyhooed switch in the playoffs.

But the shake-up occurred at the trade deadline, when the Celtics acknowledged the status quo simply wasn't good enough for this team. It didn't matter if injuries were the true root of Boston's struggles; something had to give, and shipping out House, a core member of the 2008 championship team, reminded the rest of the Celtics' roster of what they were expected to accomplish this season.

"We're just trying to get better," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said at that practice session at UCLA in February. "Our goal is at the end of the year. We don't want to be the best right now, we want to be the best later. We haven't shown anyone we can do that yet."

The Celtics didn't quite prove that until the postseason. But they did rebound after the House trade and posted a monster win over the Lakers that sort of solidified what was possible when the team played to its abilities.

Now, 105 days later, the Celtics are back in Los Angeles ready to start the process of accomplishing what they knew was possible when House was traded.

"I like this team when we're in the hole," Rivers said before the game against the Lakers on Feb. 18. "We haven't played with a great rhythm the last 20 games, I get that. That's fine. Whoever jumped off the bandwagon, stay off. I like this team. I've said it over and over again. I don't think we needed to make a lot of changes -- and we didn't -- so we'll see if that was the right decision."

We can confirm it now, it was the right decision. And the fact that Robinson dusted himself off and poured in 13 points to fuel Boston to a series-clinching Game 6 triumph over the Orlando Magic on Friday has nothing to do with that confirmation.

In fact, the way Robinson was relegated to the very end of the bench for much of the start of the postseason made some yearn for having House back, even if his 3-point shot was woefully inconsistent this season.

The trade was the right decision because it provided the proverbial wake-up call for a Celtics team that could have just let it all slip away. It forced everyone to re-evaluate.

Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that it was right about that point when Rivers made the decision to rest his players over the final 30 regular-season games rather than burn them out trying to simply win games that, in the end, didn't matter.

That, too, was the right decision.

Now the Celtics find themselves four wins away from Banner 18. The process started before the season tipped off, when Ainge and Co. essentially recruited Rasheed Wallace to come to Boston in order to help win another world title.

Before the first regular-season game, the Celtics hung a blank banner in their practice facility to motivate their team toward the ultimate goal.

It wasn't enough for them. On Feb. 17, Ainge and Boston's front-office staff made a decision to reaffirm what the Celtics' No. 1 priority is this season.

During the 2007-08 season, players pointed to the preseason bonding in Rome, from which the "Ubuntu" philosophy sprang and the championship season was set into motion.

It's not quite as glitzy, but if the Celtics accomplish their primary goal this month and defeat the Lakers, the campus of UCLA should be remembered as fondly by this year's team.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.