(Editor’s note: Sorry for the Polish post, guys. We have a hacker who posts occasional posts in foreign languages, and I don’t know how to stop it. Anyway, thanks for reading all year. I hope you keep reading into the summer, as I will assuredly keep writing.)
Erik Spoelstra stood in front of the Heat bench, clapping his hands and telling anyone who would listen, “Grind it out.” He understood his team’s younger legs could persevere longer, could thrive when Boston started to wobble, and so he encouraged his troops to wear the Celtics down. The Celtics weren’t going to go anywhere without a desperate effort, but the longer the game lasted, the more their bodies started to disobey their commands. This wasn’t the Lakers collapsing and coming unhinged, it was just one team getting beaten by a better one, one aging team getting outlasted by their younger, healthier counterparts. The Celtics kept their pride and gave nothing away easy, but the Heat will move on in their pursuit of a championship just like they deserved to.
The Celtics led almost the whole game, but it was always the most fragile of leads, a lead as tender to the touch as Rajon Rondo’s elbow. Like children who walked into a house billowing with cigarette smoke, the Celtics could not get any breathing room. The clock ticked too slowly; their legs started to feel too much like spaghetti; Rajon Rondo laid on the floor with a body that had betrayed him; and that lead, so tenuous, never did become large enough. “Hold on. Just hold on,” I begged my television, but somewhere deep down I knew the ending. I’d seen this episode before. I’d seen it in Game 7 against the Lakers (ew) and I’d seen it in Game 2 against Miami. The Celtics could build a lead, but they could never get enough separation to sustain it. And when the game advanced to its later stages, the Celtics had emptied everything from their piggy bank; they had nothing left to spend. What came next was an unsatisfying ending, nothing to be ashamed of yet so far from what this season once promised.
Because the Celtics were favorites. Not decades ago or years ago, but just a couple months ago. They were the favorites, and then they weren’t, and then the Miami Heat systematically beat them down in one of the most tightly-contested five game series you’ll ever see. We’ll still remember parts of this season fondly—Ray became the three-point king; Pierce hit the 20,000-point club; Rondo came back from one of the most grotesque injuries I’ve seen in only seven minutes (and I still haven’t written enough about his heroic nature); Shaq subdued his ego to become part of the crew; Garnett came back from the toughest season of his career with a year of redemption; Jeff Green reached double figures a couple times (sorry, I can never resist taking a shot at Green)—but in the end, the year failed. It failed entirely. Or mostly. Or somewhat. Or not at all. Or maybe somewhere in between. Because this crew has always been about winning titles. Especially after the season started out so peachy, a title was pretty much the only goal. Before the season, if you asked any of the Celtics if they’d be happy with a second-round loss to the Miami Heat, they all would have told you, “Hell no.” They wanted to avenge last year’s title loss, and the core guys wanted to win a second ring for their legacies.
But still, there’s a nagging feeling that this team—at least the team that played five times against Miami—went as far as it could go. We’ll look back at certain plays from the Miami series with regret (the final regulation play of Game 4, for one), just as we’ll think back to the regular season and wonder, “What if the Celtics had earned home court advantage?”, just as we’ll wonder what could have happened if Rondo’s elbow had stayed in its socket, just as we’ll second guess Doc’s decision to continue trotting out Davis and Green no matter how often they let Boston down (then again, who else was there?). But in the end, the Celtics lost to a better team. They played hard as hell. Valiantly, even. They didn’t go out meekly, never pulled a Lakers no-show, and somehow gained even more of my respect despite losing four times in five games. They played hurt, they played with out-of-service arms, they hung close even though nothing comes easy anymore. But they were overmatched. The Boston bench couldn’t cut it, the starters couldn’t score as easily as they once did, and the Heat, well, the Heat are damn good. And the scary part for the NBA was that this was the year—in year one of the meshing process, before Lebron, Wade and Bosh got any semblance of a supporting cast—the Heat were supposed to be their most vulnerable.
From day one, we still knew the Heat would become deadly if Wade and James could learn how to co-exist. Against the Celtics, they didn’t just co-exist—they made each other better. They seized the biggest moments and made them their own. They were clearly the two best players on the court at all times, two sculpted, nearly unstoppable Zeus’s who would not stop hitting dagger shots. In the latest step in their development, Wade and James (with a little help from Chris Bosh and almost no help from anyone else) poured the final dirt on Boston’s grave tonight, almost three months after the Celtics’ season took a turn for the worse.
To ignore that this season began to fall apart (or at least reveal some serious issues) sometime near February would be to leave out so much. At the trade deadline, the Celtics had the second-best record in the NBA (behind only the Spurs). Miami seemingly had no chance against them (doh). The Celtics were the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, at least. They had a starting five that had never lost a playoff series. The Big Three was playing better than it had since ’08. And Rajon Rondo had become an evolutionary John Stockton. So what happened?
Let’s start with what we know: Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson were traded to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. At the same time, Luke Harangody and Semih Erden were traded away for almost nothing (presumably to open two roster spots, which ended up being filled by Troy Murphy and Sasha Pavlovic—or, in other words, mannequins to sit on the bench). Keep in mind, if Marquis Daniels had remained healthy, Danny Ainge probably would have kept the roster intact and continued forward without any major moves. But Daniels went down with his spinal cord injury and Ainge felt he had to acquire an impact small forward. Really, the seeds for the trade were planted even months before the injury. Daniels had always been injury-prone, but Ainge did not re-sign Tony Allen and opted to enter the season with Daniels as Pierce’s lone backup.
Shortly after the trades, the Celtics started to lose games. Doc Rivers became visibly frustrated with his team, more so than at any other time during the Big Three era. Rondo stopped playing to his high standards, the Celtics began to drift through certain games like a fifth-grader with ADD might drift through history class, and the Celtics fell from the first seed to the third seed in a matter of weeks. Jeff Green revealed himself to be a flawed player, Glen Davis fell apart like an over-sized piñata, Nenad Krstic proved himself to be nothing more than seven feet of everything the Celtics despised, and the bench—even with new toys that cost Boston their starting center—continued to give away games.
At this point, we turn to speculation and opinion. Kendrick Perkins was not irreplaceable, but the problem was that there was nobody (or at least nobody healthy) to replace him on Boston’s roster. Jermaine O’Neal played admirably after his return from injury, but there were two major problems with Jermaine: 1) he missed almost the entire regular season, meaning the Celtics tried to fend off the Bulls and Heat for the top seed with Krstic as a starting center, and 2) even on good nights he couldn’t stay on the court for more than 25 or so minutes, leaving Krstic and the under-performing Davis to share the remainder. Look at tonight’s game: with the season on the line, Krstic was Boston’s fourth-quarter center. I repeat, with more scorn in my tone this time: with the season on the line, Nenad Krstic was Boston’s fourth-quarter center. He played reasonably well, I know. But Krstic playing important minutes wasn’t ever part of the plan. Meanwhile, Jermaine, nursing injuries to his knees, his wrist and his back, was not healthy enough to play. Shaq, 350-pounds and nursing a bum leg (and foot, and whatever else), couldn’t play either. And to anyone paying attention to the last few years, those facts should not have come at all as a surprise.
The other part of the trade Ainge should regret? He traded his team’s starting center in return for nothing of true value. Jeff Green was lauded as a James Posey-esque versatile forward who would help on both ends of the court, but anybody intrigued by advanced statistics knew that Green is (and has always been) an inefficient offensive player, an incapable (or unwilling) defender, and a ‘tweener without a real NBA position. Too small to defend power forwards, not solid enough to defend small forwards, Green’s presence on the court normally makes his team worse. No, really.
In all fairness to Ainge, Green does come equipped with certain positives; he’s athletic, which was key for a Celtics team lacking great athletes, and he’s young, which was key for a Celtics team lacking youth. But to expect Green to enter the equation and take control of the Celtics bench was to expect too much. By the end of the season, my benchmark for being happy with Green was, “Well, at least he didn’t f*** things up too badly tonight.”
If Ainge really thought he would start the rebuilding process with Green as one of his cornerstones, he was sorely mistaken. In fact, the one biggest positive about Green’s play in Boston was that he played himself out of a whole lot of money—the Celtics can likely keep him at a reduced rate. Assuming, you know, they still want to keep him. The portion of the season he spent in Boston could best be summed up by Doc Rivers, who, when asked about Green’s play in the Miami series, responded something like, “Umm, well, it was a good experience for him.” Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Green.
After the Perk trade, Rondo was never the same. For a while, many folks suspected his dropoff was a case of a young, enigmatic point guard missing his best friend. In retrospect, we can probably give Ainge a pass for that aspect of the trade. Seeing Rondo reduced to laying on his back tonight and hearing Garnett discuss a number of gruesome injuries he’d seen Rondo play through, the truth more likely was that Rondo’s body was just run down. He was healthy enough to run rampant against a New York Knicks defense designed almost entirely to let him run rampant, but—even before his Bogut-esque dislocated elbow—was not healthy enough to torch Miami’s far-more-proficient defense. If Rondo did enter a funk because of the Perkins trade, I suspect his reaction wasn’t as severe as we once believed.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Ainge should be cleared of all charges relating to the bad side effects his trade caused. By shipping away four players at the deadline (five if you include Daniels, who had already undergone a season-ending injury anyways), Ainge essentially left the Celtics with only five rotation players who had ever played significant time using Doc’s offense and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. (Delonte West and Jermaine O’Neal, keep in mind, both missed most of the beginning of the season.) The lack of continuity in the rotation caused the Celtics serious problems, one of which was an inability to execute simple plays. You can probably remember that Doc had to cut the playbook in half before the team began the playoffs; they had too many new players to run all the plays he wanted to. We spent a lot of time discussing how Boston’s experience could prove the difference against Miami in a playoff series (damn it). In reality, it was the Celtics who were left scrambling to get all their newcomers up to speed. Tonight, Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West all saw second-half playing time. All of them had essentially played less than half a season in Boston. And team chemistry? We’ll never know just how the trade altered that, but something seemed amiss.
Would the Celtics have won if The Infamous Trade had never been made? We’ll never know. But I believed on that day, and believe more strongly than ever now, that the Celtics had a better chance at winning a title before Danny Ainge gave his team some serious plastic surgery. And to think, he could have just traded for Anthony Parker, kept the rest of the team intact, and still gotten just about as much production from the backup small forward as the Celtics got from Green. Or, you know, just re-signed Tony Allen. Damn it all.
But the team will move forward. Doc Rivers said he’s “heavily leaning” towards returning next year, the Big Three (if Ray Allen picks up his player option, which he said he will) are all under contract, and Rajon Rondo will be around for the foreseeable future. The supporting cast will change, of course—Ainge will have decisions to make on Davis, Green, West, Krstic, Arroyo, Murphy and Pavlovic, and both O’Neals will have to choose whether to return for another season—but the Celtics nucleus should all return for another encore. Not that the encore promises to end any differently (you know, if it even happens, considering the potential for a lockout). With the Heat’s stars in their prime and the Bulls presumably set to improve with experience, the Eastern Conference won’t get any easier. And the Celtics, who spent much of this season defying age before getting a flat tire in the second half of the year, won’t get any younger.
That’s why this all feels like the end, not the final time this Celtics team will play together but the final time they can legitimately be expected to contend for a title. If that end in fact has arrived, consider me relieved (not happy, but relieved) by the way it came to pass. The Celtics didn’t bow out shamefully. They didn’t tap out in submission. Instead they left behind some heroic memories from Game 3, and in a way they enhanced everything this team stood for—plodding on no matter the circumstances, fighting even when the odds stack against them, battling with pride, togetherness and a certain heroism even when left with only one good arm (or leg, or whatever other body part these Celtics have injured over the years). They went out kind of like Rocky did against Apollo Creed in the original Rocky. Maybe they didn’t go the full 15 rounds like Rocky did, but they threw as many punches as they could muster. And when it was all over, the Heat knew how tough a fight it had been. When Lebron James praised the Celtics following the game, he wasn’t just being politically correct—he was revealing his respect for a team that had competed harder and caused more problems for him than any other team he’s ever played.
No, the Celtics did not win a title. In that sense, they failed themselves and fell short of their own goals and expectations. But in an NBA landscape that worries so much about legacies, the Celtics did nothing to damage theirs. They were bloodied and battered and old and bandaged, but they stumbled on as far as they could go. They ran into a better team, a younger team, a more athletic team, but they gave that team hell. The five game series was too short for my liking and the second-round exit was too early, but I’ll take some solace in the fact that, even in defeat, the Celtics never stop giving teams hell.
Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and there will be no games left to be played, no games left to write about. The offseason will come, I assume Danny Ainge will make significant changes to Boston’s roster, and, lockout notwithstanding, a new season will eventually arrive. When it does, the Celtics will no longer be the Eastern Conference’s top dogs. They won’t be anybody’s title favorites. Even if the nucleus remains unchanged, everything will be different. But we’ll always have the memories, and, though we’ll no longer expect championships, hopefully next year the Celtics can make some more good ones.
This year wasn’t perfect. It didn’t end the way we would have liked, the way many of us—at least until a couple months ago—predicted. But it’s another season we can be proud of, another season we’ll smile about in a few years when we reminisce. Even if those smiles will surely be accompanied by a whole slew of “what ifs.”