It had to happen eventually. We thought it might have happened in the summer of 2010, when the Boston Celtics’ Big Three couldn’t get the job done in Game 7 against the Lakers. I remember thinking at the end of that game “they played hard, but that’s the last we’ll see of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce together with the Celtics.” It might have happened the following year, after Kendrick Perkins was traded to Oklahoma City, and the DNA of the basketball team was changed more drastically than Danny Ainge could have envisioned. The Celtics went from a stout defensive team to old, soft, and unable to run with the Talents in South Beach. It may have ended in the summer of 2012, and in a way it did. Ray Allen took less money to leave Boston for Miami, but the 2012-13 season showed us that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, The Big Ticket and The Truth, were the real heart and soul of the Celtics. We also learned this year that heart and soul can only take you so far in the superstar driven NBA.
When the Celtics transformed almost overnight from chumps to champs, it revitalized a city with a rich history in the NBA after twenty years of futility, tragedy, and squandered opportunities that clouded the legacy of one of the most successful franchises in all of sports. Less than a year after Red Auerbach’s death, the Celtics were back. They played Celtics basketball with modern stars checking their egos at the door and doing what was best for the team. A lot of great things have been written about the Celtics the last six years, but for me personally, I loved that they won as a team and lost as a team. It reminded me what was so lovable about the Celtics Glory Days before I was born, and reinforced all the things I hate about today’s NBA. Great players aren’t loyal to the teams that draft them, and they don’t care about history, unless it’s New York, LA, or somewhere warm. A city like Cleveland can get their collective heart and NBA relevance ripped out just because LeBron James wants to play in Florida with his friends. Now Miami has the best team in the league just because that’s where James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh all decided to play together. That’s not right. If geography has that much influence on building a team, why should the Milwaukee Bucks even try? I have nothing against Milwaukee, but every star player who ever played there wanted to leave as soon as they arrived.
This season has been a roller coaster ride for Celtics fans to say the least. Last summer Ray Allen left town, but it wouldn’t be that bad because the C’s signed Jason Terry and drafted Jared Sullinger, right? Then they get off to a slow start because they were not scoring enough despite Rajon Rondo putting together a record breaking streak of double doubles. Then Rondo suffered a season ending knee injury, then the team went on a hot streak, then Jared Sullinger suffered a season ending back injury, then they fell back to earth and backed into the playoffs. It was and up and down season even without the trade rumors, first involving Rondo, and later Pierce and Garnett, that threatened to blow up what was left of the roster that won the NBA Finals in 2008. On deadline day, the stars stayed put, but Danny Ainge did not do a whole lot to improve the team. The only significant trade sent Jason Collins, who went on to make headlines this as the first openly gay player in major professional sports, for Jordan Crawford, who did little, if anything, to help the Celtics with his undisciplined, selfish, defensively challenged style of play.
There was hope that the Celtics could steal the first round series against the New York Knicks. While talented, the Knicks had not won a championship since the 70s, and had not won a playoff round in the 21st Century. Carmelo Anthony was a selfish player, and was the NBA’s leading scorer as a result. He plays no defense. He was, and is, everything the Celtics are not. The Celtics, despite winning 17 NBA Titles, have never had a league scoring champion on their roster; not Bill Russell, not Sam Jones, not John Havlicek, not Larry Bird, not Reggie Lewis, and not KG, Ray Allen, or Paul Pierce. Carmelo is the anti-Celtic: a star player who was not satisfied in Denver, the city that drafted him, and demanded to be traded to New York, where he could still be an All Star who never wins anything, but also be able to be on TV and hang out with celebrities. In the first three games, the Celtics appeared overmatched by the Knicks. They were younger, more athletic, and had far more to prove. By Game 4, all we wanted as fans was to not get swept by Melo and Co.
That’s when the Celtics showed a glimpse of the Celtics of old. They stole a game they deserved to lose and headed back to New York with some added swagger. It was at this time that the Knicks decided to raise the irrational trash talk. The New York squad showed up to Madison Square Garden in all black. They were going to the funeral for the Boston Celtics, they told reporters. Irrational trash talk is an integral part of sports, but that’s not the kind of stunt teams that are up 3-1 typically pull. To add insult to stupidity, they declared they were going to the funeral for the Boston Celtics. The C’s are synonymous with the city of Boston, a city that had recently endured its share of tragedy with the bombing of the Boston Marathon a few short weeks ago. Winning franchises don’t participate in trash talk that low, and classy franchises don’t pull stunts that tasteless. Even though they won the series, it showed how behind the times the Knicks are in comparison to the Celtics. Their roster may not be as talented, but the C’s are much more the class of the NBA than the Knicks will ever be.
The Celtics won Game 5 in New York. The Knicks’ funeral antics just added fuel to the fire of a team that showed the most substance in the face of adversity. They probably didn’t need that extra bulletin board material to win that game. This team had enough heart to begin with. As Bill Simmons wrote the other day, “[the Celtics] understand that they aren’t playing in Boston as much as playing for Boston. Big difference.”
The Celtics played all of Game 6, which was back in Boston, from behind. The Celtics showed their age, and the Knicks’ shots were falling that night. Pierce and Garnett had each played the majority of Game 5, and those old legs can only carry the team so far. All hope seemed lost, but in the 4th quarter, the Celtics found one last bit of Big Three Era magic with a stunning 20-0 run. The energy in the TD Garden was electrifying. While the Celtics eventually came up short, and the Knicks advanced to the next round, the Celtics could leave with their heads held high. They were the Rocky Balboa of the NBA, the perennial underdogs who never quit, were never afraid of their more physically gifted opponents, and always went the distance, taking every series as far as they could possibly take it. It’s a testament to the work ethic that Garnett, Pierce, and head coach Doc Rivers instill in the Celtics. Those guys would have fit in really well with the Red Auerbach/Bill Russell/Bob Cousy teams of the 50s and 60s, the Tommy Heinsohn/Dave Cowens/John Havlicek teams of the 70s, and the Larry Bird/Kevin McHale/Robert Parish (the Original Big Three) teams of the 80s.
The future is uncertain for the Celtics as an organization. This summer, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge will have some difficult decisions to make. The team is not good enough to contend for a championship as it is currently constructed. Even with Rondo and Sullinger expected to come back healthy next year, they lack depth at the center and point guard positions. KG and Pierce will be a year older. Ainge may decide that the best way to improve the team would be to trade Paul Pierce, the childhood Lakers fan who has been a Celtic for the duration of his NBA career, becoming one of the four best Celtics of all time along the way, for younger assets. With Pierce gone, Garnett might be more willing to waive his no-trade clause, and Ainge will be able to move him for even more young assets. If the C’s are in full rebuilding mode, Rondo, Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Jeff Green might also be used for trade bait should the right deal be out there. As sad as it would be to see Pierce play in a different jersey, it might be worse to see the team return to futility while he is still in green. No matter what they do for the rest of their playing careers, Pierce and Garnett have already cemented their places in the pantheon of all time great Celtics. Even though Garnett has only been in Boston for six years, it’s as if he was always meant to be a Celtic. Drafted out of high school and tutored by legendary Celtic Kevin McHale in Minnesota, Garnett knew what it meant to be a Celtic long before he ever wore green. Garnett will be the last Celtic to wear the number 5, and Pierce will be the last Celtic to wear 34 no matter what teams they finish up with.
There are many directions this team could go, and there is a very real chance that the Boston Celtics will be really bad before they get really good again, but this is as good a time as any to look back at how good it has been the last few years. The NBA is a top-heavy league where the superstars dictate the terms more than any other. When a team falls to the cellar, it could take decades to become relevant again. I was two years old when Larry Bird retired, I was 17 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen landed in Boston, and I might not have hair on my head the next time the Celtics reach the NBA Finals. That’s the nature of the league, but we’ll always have 2008. We’ll always have The Big Ticket, The Truth, and Jesus Shuttlesworth. We’ll always have unlikely heroes like Leon Powe, Nate Robinson, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis lighting it up out of nowhere in the playoffs. We’ll always have Doc saying the right thing at the right time, and not just because that’s what we want to hear. We’ll always have the memories that make LeBron, Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant seem mortal, while ESPN plays their flawless highlight reels long after their playing days are over. For better or for worse, we will always have the Celtics. Even if this is not the end, thanks for the memories guys. LET’S GO CELTICS!!!