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Bob Ryan

History teaches us some old lessons

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2010

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Kevin Garnett’s knees began to betray him last year. Paul Pierce keeps coming up with one owie after another. When is Ray Allen’s turn? Rasheed, too.

Isn’t this what happens when you are dependent on aging basketball players?

Four of the first six members of Doc Rivers’s rotation are 32 years of age or older. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact. You can’t act surprised if an older player gets hurt. That’s another fact.

What the events of the last two seasons are teaching us is that it was a very wise idea for the Celtics to get the job done two seasons ago. Was it not a general assumption that this second so-called “Big Three’’ had a three-year championship window? Well, OK, they did it. The pressure was off. Now, two years later, with the team showing great vulnerability, no fan has a right to get greedy. This group has already delivered on its promise.

People are wondering what, if anything, Danny Ainge is going to do. Is this season salvageable? Does he play it out with the Big Three? Does he break it up, blow it up, or simply market somebody - specifically Ray Allen, who is not the consistent player of even last season, but who has that juicy expiring contract in a year when teams are eyeing the free agent crop of 2010?

If Danny allows this group to age together, can they get through the rest of this season with heads held high, let alone survive the next one?

As always in this town, history serves as a handy guide. Once upon a time, there was another Big Three, all over 30, coming off a championship. And there was a far more sentimental attachment to that trio than there is to this one. For in that instance, two of the Big Three were megastars on their way to being Celtic lifers while the third guy was a pretty darn big star on his way to spending 14 years in a Boston uniform, and was absolutely as beloved a family member as the other two.

There was even a Rasheed figure in the mix by the name of Bill Walton. In 1985-86, the 33-year-old Bill Walton, who had not been able to suit up for more than 65 games in any previous NBA season because of a variety of lower-extremity injuries, played in 80 of 82 regular-season games and all 18 playoff games as the Celtics went 67-15 and 15-3, respectively, winning the championship. Walton was the Sixth Man of the Year, the extra ingredient that, in my view, made the 1985-86 Celtics squad the greatest in NBA history.

The following fall, Walton somehow injured his ankle while riding an exercise bike in the preseason and missed all but 10 regular-season games. He was essentially useless in the playoffs - had he been even 60 percent of his old self, the Celtics might have defeated the Lakers in the Finals - and he retired.

Granted, the Bill Walton saga was unique to him. But he was an older player, and that is always a risk any team takes. Older players are more prone to injury and they are slower to heal. That’s a given.

In the first nine years of his career, Larry Bird, though never what you would call injury-free, was able to suit up most of the time. The fewest games he played in that span was 74. But from 1988 on (age 32), he became fragile, missing all but six games of the 1988-89 season with double ankle surgery and eventually missing 22 games in his 12th year and 37 in his 13th and final season, 1991-92. If it wasn’t his back, it was his elbow, but there always seemed to be something. Every once in a while, there was a flashback game, but he was finally done in by his balky back.

Kevin McHale was going along very nicely in his first six-plus years, four times playing all 82 games. But in the middle of his finest season, 1986-87, Larry Nance stepped on his foot and Kevin was never the same again. He courageously/foolishly played on a broken foot in the 1987 playoffs (remember Larry’s famous admonition), which was quite noble and also quite debilitating. At age 34 in 1991-92, he missed 26 games, and in 1992-93, he shot a career-low .459 while missing 11 games, retiring after the Celtics lost to the Charlotte Hornets in the playoffs.

The truly amazing Mr. Parish outlasted both of them, leaving Boston after 14 seasons in 1994 to go win one more championship as a backup center in Chicago. He went till he was 43, which only shows that there are always exceptions that prove whatever rule it is you’re trying to emphasize.

Let the record show that after 1988, the Celtics never again got out of the second round of the playoffs with the aging Big Three. There was always talk about what to do about the Big Three, but it remained just that - talk. Team CEO Dave Gavitt fretted about what to do, but in the end, he stuck with them, and after McHale left, the Celtics made the playoffs once in the next eight years, and that was with a first-round closing of the Old Garden in 1995.

Danny’s group has some chilling wear-and-tear numbers. His Big Three, Plus One, have each logged in excess of 30,000 minutes. Garnett, in fact, passed Bill Russell’s career total of 40,726 in last night’s game against the Miami Heat. And what must be understood is that today’s NBA minutes are harder than the NBA minutes of 40 or 50 years ago because there is so much more emphasis on consistent team defense than there was in Russell’s day, when teams picked their spots to put the hammer down and when, in Boston’s case, the idea was to funnel people in his direction and yell, “Hey, Bill!’’

Does this mean the 2009-10 Celtics are doomed? No, especially since they have a very aware and sensible coach in Doc Rivers. What it does mean is that this team has to be nursed gently in the months of February, March, and April, so that when the playoffs come, they will have a chance. Remember, in the playoffs there is plenty of recovery time between games. There are no back-to-backs, no stupid travel. If Doc can get them there, reasonably healthy, they could make some noise.

Notice the “if,’’ however, and hope it’s replaced by a “when.’’

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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