THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

For team’s core, call tonight the last hurrah

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 17, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Take a good look at your Celtics when they break from their huddle and walk on the Staples Center court for Game 7 against the Lakers tonight.

This will never happen again. Not with this group.

Ray Allen might be gone next year. Paul Pierce could opt to leave this summer. Coach Doc Rivers says he’s not sure he’s coming back. Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis are the only Celtic substitutes under contract for 2010-11.

Even if by some chance they all return, they will never get to another Game 7 in the Finals. Allen and Kevin Garnett are 34, and their rookie-issue NBA tires are almost as bald as their heads. Pierce turns 33 this year. There are three other thirtysomethings on the bench.

This is it. The last stand for the old guard.

“I think we should always view it that way,’’ said Rivers. “I hope not. Obviously, I’m not sure. You can never take for granted a season, a game, and especially a Game 7 of a Finals. You never know if and when you’re going to be back in that position.’’

Captain Pierce said, “Obviously we have some unrestricted free agents in Ray, some decisions by Doc, but I’ll probably worry about that on Friday.’’

In many ways, this 2010 playoff run serves as a bookend to the 1968-69 season when a fourth-place Celtics team won Game 7 of the Finals at the Forum in Los Angeles. That squad had six players over 30, including Bill Russell and Sam Jones, who retired after the game. One year later, the Celtics went 34-48 and failed to make the playoffs.

Danny Ainge disputes the notion that these Celtics are headed for a fall after tonight.

“Not necessarily,’’ said the Celtic boss. “I hope that’s not the case.’’

But it’s the reality.

We knew this was a three-year window when Ainge assembled the New Big Three in the summer of 2007. The Celtics made a decision to keep Pierce, then gave up a raft of youth in exchange for Allen and Garnett. They were able to get Garnett because Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca opened their wallets to pay an aging talent who was not going to get $25 million from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The 2007-08 Celtics went to Italy for a preseason bonding experience, then trashed the competition in a 66-win regular season. It took them a while to find their mojo in the playoffs. They failed to win a road game in each of their first two series, winning Game 7 at the Garden both times. They found their stride in the conference finals against Detroit, then bullied the favored Lakers in a six-game Finals. When they won the clincher, 131-92, Garnett screamed, “Anything’s possible!’’

. . . including the possibility of injury.

The Celtics tonight will be without their starting center, Kendrick Perkins, who tore ligaments his right knee in Game 6 (“I’ll probably never get this opportunity again to even make it to the Finals,’’ a dejected Perkins said yesterday). Perk is on crutches because of bad luck and a freak play. But his geezer teammates spent time on the shelf because of wear and tear. Pierce missed 11 games this year, Garnett 13. Those numbers are likely to increase.

Experience is nice at playoff time. Age is another matter. Garnett injured his knee in the middle of his second season in Boston and was unavailable for the playoffs last spring. When the Celtics lost the conference semifinals in seven games, the theme was, “Wait until next year when KG comes back.’’

Garnett did come back this year, but it took him all season to recover, and he’ll never again be a consistent superstar. It’s the same with Allen and Pierce. They have their moments, but they can’t sustain elite performances on a regular basis. That’s why tonight represents the last loud roar for the New Big Three.

This will be the fourth Game 7 in three seasons for Pierce, Allen, and Garnett. Unlike Kobe Bryant, who continues his pathetic charade of underplaying the rivalry and the moment, Boston’s Big Three acknowledge what is happening tonight.

“This is definitely a special treat just for the NBA,’’ said Allen, “knowing that we’re going to Game 7 and this is the Finals and it’s the Celtics and Lakers. When it comes to Game 7, it’s like this is what we were born to do.’’

The mind games have already begun. Folks at Staples Center departed from routine and left the Game 6 score on the big board over the court for yesterday’s practices. The chagrined Celtics were forced to work with “89-67’’ staring down at them from the rafters. Sounds like something Red Auerbach would have done in the old days.

“I just love the pressure, truthfully, man,’’ said Pierce. “I love the fact that I get to play against the Los Angeles Lakers in a Game 7 on the road.’’

And he gets to do it with Doc Rivers, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. For the last time.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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