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Tomase: How most famous play of Danny Ainge's career applies to risk of trading No. 1 pick

John Tomase
June 18, 2017 - 12:03 pm

If we consider Danny Ainge's coast-to-coast layup that beat Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament as a metaphor for his rebuild of the Celtics, then trading the No. 1 pick to the Sixers is the moment he went behind-the-back to split John Paxson and Kelly Tripucka at midcourt.

The move was gutsy, aggressive and more than a little risky. With the clock ticking below five seconds on Brigham Young's season, Ainge recognized that his only path to victory would require a feat of daring.

In that moment, hesitation meant defeat, so he hit the accelerator.

But other perils awaited. As Ainge entered the lane, he needed to skirt one future NBA draftee (Tim Andree) and finish over an eventual first-rounder (Orlando Woolridge). His finger roll with barely two seconds remaining unleashed bedlam and remains one of the signature moments of his career.

More than 35 years later, Ainge is going for it again, but his path to the basket by no means looks clear.

On Saturday, the Celtics reportedly agreed to send the No. 1 overall pick in this week's draft to the 76ers for the third pick and a protected first-rounder in next year's draft from the Lakers that the Celtics will receive if it lands in the second through fifth spots.

The risks are enormous. By passing on the franchise's first crack at the top pick since 1980 -- when it also traded down to three in the deal that netted Robert Parish and Kevin McHale -- the Celtics relinquish their chance to select a potential franchise player in guard Markelle Fultz.

While kneejerk reactions to such moves are understandable -- mine involved the taste of my own bile -- there's no point in judging this one until all of the pieces fall into place.

There's already speculation that Ainge plans to move the No. 3 pick. Perhaps it will be used along with players from the current roster to add Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler as part of a monster offseason that includes free agent swingman Gordon Hayward of the Jazz.

Perhaps Ainge is so in love with Kansas forward Josh Jackson, a defensive force whose wayward jumper basically makes him the 6-foot-8 version of Marcus Smart, that he'll get the player he wanted all along.

Maybe he's gearing up for a run at Pelicans center Anthony Davis, who fits Ainge's desire to acquire transcendent talent, though there's no indication he is now or ever will be available.

Or maybe Ainge believes that true franchise players reside in next year's draft, in which case he might land the top two picks courtesy the Nets and Lakers.

In reality, it's probably a combination of the above, perhaps with this year's pick, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley being used to acquire Butler and next year's picks being hoarded for a shot at Missouri recruit Michael Porter, a 6-10 force who's widely expected to be the top pick in 2018.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that so much can go wrong. The only certainty in the entire deal is the 2017 No. 1 pick, which now belongs to Philadelphia. If Fultz ends up following in the footsteps of Allen Iverson, Kyrie Irving, or John Wall, we'll be reminded of this colossal blunder by a division rival for the next decade.

Now we're back to hoping for the Nets and Lakers to stink -- the former being more likely than the latter -- and then for the infernal ping-pong balls to once again bounce Boston's way. The NBA isn't the NFL. Trading the first pick for what turns out to be 3, 4, and 5 has the potential to be a crushing misfire.

And so it is that Ainge reaches a crossroads in his epic gambit to raise banner 18. Give him points for audacity, because no one ever would've criticized him for playing it safe. However, he clearly didn't envision a road to a title via Fultz, so when he saw a crease at midcourt, he put the ball behind his back and exploded for daylight.

Did he maintain his dribble? Can he traverse that final perilous path to the basket? The clock is ticking, Ainge is sprinting, and we'll see if he finishes at the rim this time.

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