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The Power of 3

Quirks, but Celtics’ trio still works

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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They each have their quirks.

Paul Pierce might be the cockiest player to ever wear a headband. He’d trash talk a nun. He’s never seen a last-second shot he didn’t want to take.

Ray Allen has know-it-all tendencies. “Wikipedia,’’ as Kevin Garnett calls him.

Garnett, of course, is intense beyond measure. Fluent in all languages profane.

On the court, there are different levels of maintenance for the Celtics’ Big Three.

Coach Doc Rivers will tell you that Pierce and Allen are “thirsty scorers,’’ their appetites for the ball constantly needing to be fed. Garnett, on the other hand, can be painfully unselfish, to the extent that young point guard Rajon Rondo will yell at him to “shoot the damn ball!’’

But they knew each other’s peculiarities when they signed up three years ago. Since that June 2007 news conference when the three stars first aligned, they’ve made it work.

“It’s like some of the things that my wife does, I don’t like that,’’ Pierce said. “But we’ve been together, so we tolerate it. You take the pluses and the negatives and you weigh them both. That’s like with the team.’’

The time hasn’t exactly flown by.

“Hell no,’’ Garnett said. “I know it’s been three years. It feels like it.’’

A lot of it has blurred together. From the duck boat ride to the 66-win regular season in 2007-08. The near-crash landing against the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The NBA title. The expectations for a repeat. The never-ending saga that was Garnett’s knee injury. The seven-game, endless-overtime series against the Bulls. The roller coaster ride that was last season. A Game 7 loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

And that’s the abridged version.

“Time tells everything,’’ Garnett said. “The fact that we’ve been together, we’ve known each other for a while, I can honestly say we’ve been able to grow each year, learn. I can definitely say that we’ve learned a lot each day since we’ve been with each other. It’s helped on the court and off the court.’’

Pierce, Allen, and Garnett all have changed. They’ve reached the pinnacles of their careers together, and they’re also staring down their basketball mortality, eyeing their last chances to reach the summit. They’ve married and had children. And they’ve accepted each other’s personalities off the court as much as they’ve learned each other’s style of play on it.

“You can see it,’’ Pierce said. “We’ve all had kids since we’ve been together. That’s one way to grow and mature. We’ve been through two Finals. Being around each other and just seeing each other grow, it’s a beautiful thing on the court and off the court. I just think the bond between us is kind of like we’re feeding off one another as far as growth and maturity and it’s helping us as people and players. I could write an 800-page book off the last three years. A lot of memories. I’m soaking it all up.’’

It’s as much relationship building as it is basketball. In some ways, Rivers has had to be Dr. Naismith and Dr. Phil. He’s managed minutes and found ways for his stars to play together on the floor. He’s also dealt with egos and kept the stars happy.

Rivers’s decision during the offseason to return to the team was the first step in getting Pierce and Allen to return. Pierce said he couldn’t see himself playing for anyone else.

“They’re older, but I haven’t changed much,’’ Rivers said. “I think you change because you get to know them better. You know who they are. You know their buttons. Just our relationship is different.

“The first year, there was more of a coach-player relationship, and it’s still that. But we have a great respect, so it is different. So you can tell them things now that you could have never told them before. Now you know what you can do, and you also know what not to do. When you have a team where you keep your core together, each year gets better.’’

There’s a newer, shinier Big Three in Miami, leading a Heat team the Celtics will host tonight in the season opener. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett faced some of the same questions and expectations the Heat’s LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are being hit with now. How fast can they win a title? How can they coexist?

“I never thought that we couldn’t,’’ Allen said. “I was never worried about whether we could or couldn’t get along. I was going to make it happen from my end. I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it happen.’ ’’

Allen was taking 21 shots a night before he came to Boston. He hasn’t taken more than 13.5 a night since. Pierce was scoring 25 points a night before management found reinforcements for him. He topped out at 20.5 points in the 2008-09 season. At times it may have felt like there weren’t enough shots for both of them. But they’ve been able to sort it out.

“I just think it comes when you’re comfortable,’’ Allen said. “I know who each one of these guys are, and I know what their intentions are. Even in tough times, you know where guys rest, where they lie, what their mind-set is. If I take a bad shot, if Paul takes a bad shot, I’m not mad at anybody.

“If I’m open and somebody misses me, I’m not mad — I just know everybody wants to win. We just get to a point where you just kind of brush it off. Everybody knows what everybody’s intentions are, so that stuff doesn’t faze you. You don’t have to say it. It’s just, ‘Come on guys, let’s get this thing together.’ It’s just respect.’’

Garnett has a reason to look at the past three years differently. When he got to Boston, he was practically invincible — injury free, a double-double waiting to happen. He intimidated opponents, ripped rebounds out of Pau Gasol’s hands in the 2008 Finals. Then, his knee betrayed him. A bone spur showed him how quickly things could change, how fragile greatness is, how inevitable the problems that come with age are. He spent all of last season playing at a level he knew he was better than, hearing critics say he’d never reach that level again.

“For Kevin, it’s probably been the longest because he’s had to fight through more stuff,’’ Rivers said. “The first year was quick for all of us, but the next year with Kevin’s injury and last year Kevin’s [coming back from] injury. So he’s had to go through a lot to still be here.’’

They all had separate identities before they came together, but they realize now that they’ll never be identified any other way than together.

Allen had a conversation with team president Danny Ainge about it. Ainge went to four Finals with the Celtics and won two times. A lot of success, but some heartache, and every so often someone on the street brings it up.

“You speak to Larry lately? You speak to Kevin?’’

Ten years from now, Allen knows he’ll be hearing the same thing.

“You speak to Paul lately? You speak to KG?’’

“We’ll be linked forever,’’ Allen said.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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