It was a draft-night trade, and I wasn’t too excited. Ray Allen??? I was still just pissed off the C’s hadn’t won the rights to draft either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. Who needed a 32-year old shooting guard coming off double ankle surgery, anyway? The Celtics had just won a whopping 24 games, and there was no way Walter Ray Allen would make them a contender.
Then Kevin McHale gift-wrapped Kevin Garnett for his pal Danny Ainge, and The Big Three was born. Bing, bang, boom. Suddenly, Allen was no longer an aging, overpaid second banana on a still-bad team: He was the perfect compliment to a trio that meshed just like you’d expect from a seemingly heaven-sent group of veterans chasing after a common goal — to win a championship.Paul Pierce did the slashing and end-of-game playmaking, Garnett provided the interior play and brash enthusiasm, and Allen was the calm, cold-blooded assassin from outside. All worked defensively like they never had before.
Even Garnett, always known as a defensive stalwart, revamped his dedication and doubled his efforts. Allen and Pierce, meanwhile, transformed their defensive reputations. They’d always been known primarily and almost solely as offensive performers, but had never played on true contenders before. They finally dedicated themselves to being stoppers.
Aging and striving for a championship that had eluded all their grasps, the Big Three knew it was Now or Never. Most NBA teams take years of playoff failures to harden into a champion. Just look at Jordan’s Bulls, or Isiah’s Pistons, or Shaq’s Lakers. Malone and Stockton’s Jazz never got there, nor have King James’ Cavs. But Boston didn’t have time to wait. They knew their run, as nice as it would be, wouldn’t be long.
With the closing of their careers on the horizon, the Big Three put personal agendas aside. Statistical averages? Pshhh. Stats and awards be damned, the Celtics concentrated on nothing but winning. It was rare for a team to be so selfless, especially with three stars. But for a team composed almost entirely on the fly, over one summer, to come together so quickly, so seamlessly? That was unheard of.
The Celts flew through the regular season, steamrollers of 66 opponents that got in their way. It wasn’t just that they won so many games, it was how they won them. Strangling defense. Making the extra pass. Diving on every loose ball. Taking charges. Even in crunch-time, when so many teams tend to devolve into clear-out offense, Boston always had a plan and it almost never involved an isolation. They played basketball the right way. The way a fourth-grade coach would preach to his young players. With heart, passion, teamwork, and a chip on their collective shoulder.
The playoffs were tougher than the regular season, and the Celtics bent but wouldn’t break. Pierce’s epic shootout with Lebron James ended with Pierce’s free throw bouncing high off the rim and finally bouncing through. As Pierce’s smile radiantly exposed a veteran player dying for his first championship, the announcers wondered whether the ghost of Red Auerbach had helped push the shot in. I knew they were joking but — the way the ball hung in the air well above the rim before bounding down through the net — it almost made you think Red was up there in the rafters enjoying yet another victory stogie.
After Cleveland, the worst was over. The Celtics overcame Detroit in six games and met L.A. in the finals. The Lakers, having coasted through the Western Conference, were the favorites. Boston didn’t care. They kept doing the things that had won them so many games over the season. Smothering defense. Simple, unselfish offense. An unwillingness to ever quit, even down 24 points in game four. When the Celtics rallied from that deficit, you got the feeling the series was over. The air had been sucked out of L.A.’s lungs. Game six evolved into a glorified Celtics layup line, and the Celtics were the champs. The Celtics’ three stars, who said all year long they wouldn’t consider themselves the Big Three unless they won a championship, had earned their stripes.
Ray Allen hadn’t played his best in the playoffs, but he couldn’t have cared less. Not even getting outplayed by Wally Szczerbiak in a playoff series could erase the joy of finally winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Allen had a nice new ring on his finger, and always would. Nobody could ever take that away.
Same with KG. Garnett didn’t have a great finals either but, just like Allen, was entirely unbothered by that fact. The Celtics had been about nothing but winning all season. They did what it took to win, and — at the end of the day — as long as another W was posted, nothing else mattered. Actually, that’s not true. Winning the right way mattered, too. And with the clinic in team basketball they put on during game six, they had.
Just like Allen’s and Garnett’s, Pierce’s career had finally been validated. To win a championship was unbelievable, but to reach the NBA’s mountaintop with the same team for which he’d mired in mediocrity for so long was special. Pierce had played with Sebastian Telfair and Gerald Green the season before. To be sipping on champagne with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, only a year later, must have felt like a dream. Too good to be true.
And maybe it was. The following season, everything fell apart. Garnett got injured, and a ragtag Celtics’ front line kept it from defending its title. Allen and Pierce were kept down by a tough Orlando Magic defense, and the aura of game seven’s in Boston was shot by a dominant Magic win. At least they’d have another chance, when Garnett came back…
But maybe it just isn’t to be. Maybe the 2008 championship really was nothing but a dream. When Garnett went down last year, somebody pinched all of us Celtics fans and we woke up. Maybe the reality of it all is what we now see: A hobbling Garnett, step-slow Pierce, and suddenly-ice-cold Allen. The Big Three quickly became the Old Three. Soon, it could become the Pushing-Towards-Retirement Two.
The Big Three came to Boston, almost completely unexpected, at a time when the Celtics’ future looked as bleak as ever. They weren’t only stars, but they were the perfect recipe. Three studs willing to sacrifice any personal glory for the team. All yearning to finally win a championship after a decade filled with failures. A shooter, a slasher, and a big guy. The calm and unwavering killer, the even-keeled but cocky Celtic mainstay, and the fiery leader. Even their celebrations after big shots seemed to be a perfect match: Allen would give a subtle pump of the fist, Pierce would tug on his jersey and scream to the crowd, and Garnett would spew expletives to noone in particular.
They say opposites attract and, with the Big Three, Boston had cornered all three ends of the superstar spectrum. They meshed immediately, and left their collective mark on the NBA landscape. 24-58; 66-16. Lottery; Champions. Crazy the changes one offseason can make.
But changes can happen in-season too, and everything has been falling apart. The Celtics, right now, are like the bobsled in Cool Runnings. They were on such a fast ride, near record pace, but the screws started to come undone. Now nothing remains but an old and rickety group spiraling downhill, hoping to race to the finish line before those Goddamn screws finally come undone.
I’m harping on this, but everything fit with the Big Three. They were an almost perfect concoction. Alone, they had their flaws, as their individual playoff records can attest to. But together… man, they were a sight to behold. They ran the NBA season like it was a sprint, but still had enough to land haymakers towards the end. They played hard, they played smart, and they played valiantly. They not only stressed teamwork, but strived to be its absolute definition.
Tonight, it might be over. Everything might be over. The Big Three could be done, lost, extinguished. Ray Allen, and his expiring $19 million contract, might be on the way out and some new Celtic, or two, or three, on the way in. The era of the Big Three might dawn on a random February 16 against the Sacramento Kings.
On Thursday, I might be cheering for Andre Iguodala, or Kevin Martin, or Antawn Jamison. The name on the front of the jersey will still read Celtics, so I will still find it in my heart to embrace them, adopt them, consider them as my own.
But the name on the back of a jersey makes a difference, too. Wherever Ray goes, if he goes, I’ll wish him the best. I’ll hope he plays well, and that he wins every night except against Boston.
And I will always remember the Big Three.