I went to the bar last night after the Celtics dropped Game 7. Not to drown my sorrows or to unwind after a crazy two-month playoff run that had me essentially working three jobs, but because my roommate was DJ’ing at a place around the corner and asked me to stop by.
I wore my Celtics hat. This one. Everybody danced on a floor near the back of the bar. Girls wore Paul Pierce jerseys. Guys wore all green. Only one person had Miami Heat attire. He approached me, grabbed me by the shoulder, looked into my eye with a level of seriousness one doesn’t expect at 1:30 a.m. early Sunday morning, and said one word:
It was an unexpected send-off to an era which only needs that one-word description.
If Saturday indeed marked the end of the Big Three Celtics (I want to say they couldn’t possible return and contend again next year, but nothing they do will surprise me), we can’t overlook the few major opportunities they left on the court. They led Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals by 13 points, and lost. They took a seven-point advantage into halftime last night with a chance to reach their third NBA Finals in five years, and lost. They hosted Game 7 against the Orlando Magic in 2009 (albeit without Kevin Garnett) in a wide open Eastern Conference, and lost. They accomplished so much — so many wins, that one title, restoring pride to a franchise that spent 15 years without it — but we can’t push aside how close the Celtics came on so many flirtations with adding to their resume.
The Celtics fell and they often fell in the most painful way possible, but nobody intelligent will ever call them chokers. It’s because we’re all rightfully too busy respecting they way they lost.
In sports, we often confuse accomplishments for legacy. But Steve Nash shouldn’t be remembered as a two-time MVP who couldn’t earn a title. He should be remembered as the hand-licking, hair-stroking magician who helped infuse an increasingly selfish game with a refreshed commitment to ball movement and offensive freedom. The Celtics are similar to Nash in that what they have or haven’t accomplished doesn’t define them. They won brilliantly, they lost in devastating fashion, they were left for dead, they rose from the ashes, and all along they helped teach us, all of us, even their biggest haters, that sports aren’t just about the score left on the board after all the time ticks away. Champions sometimes lose and winners don’t always prevail. It’s not what always we take from the game, but what we give it. And the Celtics, each of the past five years, gave basketball everything they had.
“I love you,” Kevin Garnett told Doc Rivers after Game 7, according to SI’s Ian Thomsen. “We could not have gotten any more out of this group.”
Rivers would later sit at the press conference podium and gush about his team. This wasn’t the most talented squad of the Big Three era, not by a long shot. The bench didn’t have a single play-maker. By the end of the season the roster contained two natural centers, one of whom played in Turkey last season and another who was cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year. Ray Allen had taken a step back even before developing bone spurs in his ankle. Paul Pierce isn’t the same dude who won the 2008 Finals MVP. Four players were lost to season-ending surgeries. Rajon Rondo took another step toward superstardom and Garnett spent the season reversing aging patterns, but they alone couldn’t make up for the slippage elsewhere on the roster. Slippage, yes. But success isn’t always determined by wins and wins aren’t solely determined by talent.
“My father passed away three years ago and I haven’t cried since my father passed away until tonight,” Keyon Dooling said last night. “This bunch of guys, it was a like a senior year of high school. It was a memorable, lifelong friendships, a lot of great moments. This team was very unique. We love each other, we care for each other and though we aren’t champions this year, we have hearts of champions, and that will always keep us connected.”
“If we could have gotten this group to the Finals, it would have been fantastic for all of us,” added Rivers. “That’s all I thought about today. Somehow let’s see if we can get this group to the Finals. They deserve it with their will.”
I can’t finger exactly when this season became special to me. Not during the season’s first half. Maybe when the Celtics returned from the All-Star break with a five-game winning streak and finally started to look like a playoff team. Maybe when they left on an eight-game road trip that could have derailed the season and came back to Boston with a split. Maybe when the schedule became even more difficult, and Ray Allen was injured, and Avery Bradley took advantage of his opportunity, and the Celtics just kept winning, finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best second-half record. I don’t know when it became so special but I realized I needed to enjoy this ride well before the postseason, as Rondo racked up double-digit assist games and KG kept dominating on both ends and the Celtics kept trudging forward, even sprinting forward, no matter how much weight tried to hold them back.
While I refuse to say this team overachieved — basketball includes intangibles that impact the scoreboard sometimes as much as athleticism or skill, and these Celtics were loaded in those areas which aren’t as obvious as a 40-inch vertical leap — it certainly outperformed its talent level. The Celtics were a bad offensive team which couldn’t have been anything but due to an obvious lack of shot creators. They came eight minutes from reaching the NBA championship.
We can talk all we want about how injuries impacted this crew. To an extent, injuries and “what-ifs” helped define the Big Three Era.
“I wish we could have had healthy runs,” Rivers said. “This team won a title. Got to another one, a Game 7, where they had a shot to win. Got to the Eastern Conference finals and one game away on the road. Banged up. So, I don’t know – because of really Kevin’s injury [in 2009] – I don’t know if we could have gotten more out of this group. I would have loved to have seen this team in this whole stretch where Kevin was injury free.”
Jeff Green went down with a heart issue before training camp even began. Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and finally Avery Bradley joined him in undergoing season-ending surgery. Bradley’s loss especially hurt the Celtics in the NBA Finals, when the Celtics could have used his energy and animalistic defense, when they could have used Allen’s shooting threat off the bench (Boston’s reserves scored two points in 40 combined minutes in Game 7). Yet the Celtics kept plugging in new players and they all contributed. And remember, injuries giveth and they taketh away: Were it not for Derrick Rose’s ACL tear, perhaps the Celtics’ season would have ended one round earlier.
But this isn’t about when this season ended. It’s about how it ended, and it ended as we’ve come to expect from the Big Three era Celtics — with a team that unloaded every bullet it had and had nothing left for the end of the gunfight. It seems almost cliche, but these Celtics test an opponent’s resolve. They make teams examine themselves and question themselves and wonder if the way they’re approaching basketball makes sense.
Explained Spoelstra, “Boston now for two years has probably been the single team that has pushed us and bended us where we’ve had to improve. And we’ve had defining moments both years, usually during the regular season, after very tough losses where they have forced us to redefine ourselves and recommit.”
“Competitors. They’re great,” James said, according to WEEI. “You can never relax at all on the court when you’re competing against those guys. You can never feel comfortable. You always feel on edge when you go against them. This is the chemistry that they built over the years. It’s like no other team that I’ve ever faced in the postseason. They’re great. They’re great.”
“I think one thing we take away from looking at the Boston Celtics is you want to talk about throwing dirt, they get dirt thrown on them all the time,” Wade added. “They said too old, they can’t do it again. They’ve been saying that three years now. They continue to come out and prove they’re going to be there. Kevin Garnett is 36 years old, [and] you can’t tell. He looked amazing. He had an amazing series. All of those guys.
“So, we look at them as a team and say, ‘look what they deal with, look what they go through on a yearly basis.’ That’s something that hopefully one day we strive to be, because that would mean we’re successful and that means we’re still together. They are great champions. It was tough to beat them the last two years. We’re thankful we were able to.”
We don’t know where the Celtics are headed. Garnett walked away from Game 7 without shaking hands with the Heat, without speaking to reporters. I know nothing about whether he will retire now, but I always envisioned he would leave the game quietly, exiting through a back door and retreating to privacy in Malibu, rarely to be seen or heard from again. Rondo will return and Bradley will be by his side, but Allen isn’t necessarily coming back in free agency and Danny Ainge came close to trading Pierce a couple times this season. It would be harsh to deal a legend, but Ainge seems like he would make out with his mother if he felt it would help the Celtics. The Big Three might all return, but their run can’t continue forever. At some point they will finally fade away.
Rivers knows the Big Three better than anyone, and he wants them forever remembered as a trio rather than three individuals.
“Kevin, Paul and Ray. I’m never going to look at them individually. They all gave up plus-seven shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball and they all did it, and they’re willing to do it for the better of the team. So, I think that’s what we should focus on: how much they gave up to try and win. That’s what I’ll remember most about them,” he said.
Because this seems like the end, finally, we can look back now at the Big Three era’s legacy. Maybe Allen, Garnett and Pierce will all return to write another chapter. Maybe not. Whatever happens from this moment forward, whatever moves Ainge makes this summer, we should know by now how to remember these Celtics.
They didn’t always win, but they knew exactly what success required and never deviated from their quest to attain it.