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Bob Ryan

Celtics: Once more, with healing

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 11, 2010

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Year 65 of the NBA. Year 16 of the Fill-In-The-Bank Garden. More importantly, Year 4 of the — I’m going to say it once and once only — Big Three.

When this Celtics unit was first assembled, the operative phrase was “three-year window.’’

“Yeah, we got ’em,’’ says coach Doc Rivers, whose team defeated the Raptors, 91-87, in an exhibition last night at the Garden. “I mean, we still don’t know what the expiration date is. It could be a year, it could be two years, it could be the middle of this season.’’

This much we know: it was all worth it. The scoresheet after three years is one championship, one Game 7 loss in the second round (without Kevin Garnett), and one excruciating Game 7 loss in the Finals. What president of basketball operations Danny Ainge did by taking enticing young talent and draft picks (you’re free to factor in the largesse of Kevin McHale) and turning a 24-58 team that had lost 18 straight into an instant champion will go down as one of the great managerial maneuvers ever.

Anyway, they’re back again, the basic core fortified by a cavalry that includes the old (Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal), the young (Avery Bradley, Luke Harangody), and the in-between (Delonte West).

On the eve of the 2010 playoffs, I certainly didn’t think we’d see these guys together again. That 27-27 ending looked very much like the real deal, and there didn’t seem to be any sense in investing more money in what would be a 35-year-old shooting guard (Ray Allen), and if that were the case who knew what would happen with Paul Pierce? At that point Ainge had the very real option of slamming the window shut and proceeding to the next phase of Boston Celtics history.

But the events of April, May, and June changed everything. The Celtics dispatched Miami, regular-season titan Cleveland, and Orlando with relative ease before taking a 3-2 lead on the Lakers in the Finals before going back to Los Angeles for Games 6 and 7. Kendrick Perkins, by far the team’s best interior defender, injured his knee in a Game 6 loss, but the Celtics gamely constructed a lead as the fourth quarter of Game 7 reached its midway point.

Now you hear people in the Celtics’ camp speak of how they were “six minutes’’ away from winning championship No. 18, but that is simply not the case. In reality, they were 94 seconds away.

The simple truth is they had a 3-point lead (64-61) with 6:11 to play, and that one minute and 34 seconds later they were down by 6 (70-64). The LA comeback began, as have so many Laker surges during his amazingly productive career, with a game-tying Derek Fisher 3-pointer. From that point on, Rajon Rondo, Allen, and Pierce missed shots. The LA response was not very dramatic, but it was effective. The remainder of the 9-0 LA run consisted of two Kobe Bryant free throws, a Bryant 17-footer, and two Pau Gasol foul shots, which made it 70-64 at the 4:37 mark. Those 94 seconds, as it turned out, were the ballgame.

The great coulda/woulda was, of course, Perkins. But the fact is it was just one game, and we all know of the countless times in all sports a team has overcome the loss of a key player to win a game, or even The Game, so there’s no sense whining about that. The larger truth was that the Celtics had given everyone a surprising and exhilarating playoff run, and it brought them tantalizingly close to making it two championships in three years for the Hall of Fame Three. Neither the owners, nor the general manager, nor the coach could pass up a chance to try it again, albeit with a few reinforcements.

Make no mistake: the loss stung. Listening to Rivers, one gets the idea he never will get over it. As a card-carrying member of the Professional Coaches Society, he finds himself grieving more about that loss than he does exulting in the memory of Boston 131, LA 92.

“It’s painful,’’ he said. “I think about it every day. It’s really interesting how much you think about it.’’

But it’s not just him. Doc says he showed some clips of the Lakers celebrating to his current team, just because, “and it’s amazing how intense it was.’’ That core may be old, but it’s not decrepit, and it deserved another chance for a ring.

Rivers knows the pros and cons. He lived through it all last year. “They’re professionals,’’ he said. “That helps. They keep themselves in great shape. We’ve been lucky with injury, except for Kevin. And they’re all smart. That helps, too.’’

The potential negative is relying too much on their experience.

“Experience is fine, but you still have to do the work,’’ Rivers said. “You can’t have them saying, ‘Wait till March, I’ll be ready.’ And then they’re not ready.’’

Gee, I wonder whom he’s alluding to?

Year 4. Call it Bonus Year, call it Retribution Year, call it Geezer Year. Call it I Can’t Believe It’s Happening Year. But it’s here.

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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