End of the road
High times over as Celtics, aging Big 3 fall
MIAMI — It was fun while it lasted.
They made the NBA relevant in our town once again, bringing back the pride and mystique of the golden days of Russell and Red. They reintroduced NBA America to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that burned with Magic and Larry in the ’80s. They won 234 regular-season games, got to the Finals twice, and broke a 22-year championship drought when they hung banner No. 17 in the rafters. They schooled us in Ubuntu. Anything was possible.
And now it’s over. Thirtysomethings Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen will probably return to the Celtics next year, and Doc Rivers might come back to coach again, but the championship window closed last night when the Heat defeated the Celtics, 97-87, to clinch the Eastern Conference semifinal series in five games.
Father Time always wins. The Celtics never looked older than they looked at the finish. Boston led, 87-81, with 4:29 left, but was outscored 16-0 down the stretch.
What a field day for the Heat. Miami torched the Green with a closing run of 16-0. Brutal.
It was 87-87 with 2:10 remaining when LeBron James hit a stake-driv ing 3-pointer from the left corner while wearing Pierce. James almost fell into the first row of the stands after releasing the shot. Then he canned another from out top. Then he stole a lazy pass and went in for an uncontested dunk.
Pierce, Garnett, and Allen were on the floor with Delonte West and Jeff Green for the late-game carnage. It made for a sad ending to the once-dominant New Big Three. The Celtics did not score a point in their last eight possessions.
“I’m very proud of them,’’ said Celtic coach Doc Rivers, while indicating he was leaning toward coming back next season. “We just missed shots. We had a couple of turnovers. We didn’t have all the guys in that we wanted.’’
Let the record show that, unlike the Lakers, the Celtics did not lose their dignity as they lost their place atop the conference. The Celtics led for most of the night, but as has happened too often in this series, they didn’t have the legs late in the fourth. James and Dwyane Wade scored 33 and 34 points, respectively. Chris Bosh chipped in 14.
“Miami is a terrific team,’’ said Rivers. “Those three guys are tough. Those two guys [Wade and James] are monsters.’’
“We have the utmost respect for Boston,’’ said King James. “They push us every game, every second . . . I knew deep down in my heart, I couldn’t do it by myself against that team. I knew that was the team I wanted to go up against. I had to get some guys that could match them.’’
“They have championship DNA that they earned for four years,’’ offered Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.
Having ceded their throne as Beasts of the East, the Celtics limp home with a coach who has finished his contract, a point guard (Rajon Rondo) who played 2 1/4 games with one arm, a tired Big Three and . . . no center.
Celtic apologists don’t want to hear this, but the Green were never the same after team president Danny Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins and brought in five new players in late February/early March. It was a blunder. Plain and simple.
Ainge made the deal with the belief that 39-year-old Shaquille O’Neal would somehow recover from leg injuries and come back to help in the playoffs. That never materialized. O’Neal played in only three games after February 1, never more than six minutes. He was inactive for last night’s finale and Rivers finally acknowledged the Shaq Project was a failure.
The Celtics were 41-14, top seeded in the East when Ainge broke up his starting five. At that moment, the Celtics were the most feared team in basketball, still bragging about never having lost a series with the quintet of Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Perkins.
Something changed. The Celtics lost their way. They lost their toughness. They lost their ability to beat the Heat by just coming out on the floor for warmups.
Think about it: Wade had lost 11 games in a row in the Garden before Monday’s Game 4. Before the trades, the Celtics were a comfortable, confident 3-0 against the star-studded Heat-les of 2010-2011. The Heat were the ones who choked at closing time.
There is no guarantee the Celtics would have won the NBA championship this year if the trade hadn’t been made, but they would have had a better chance. Ainge tried to sell it as a trade that would make the Celtics better this year. Baloney. Nenad Krstic was a spare part (he did not play in Games 3 and 4 against the Heat), and Green turned out to be the first soft player in the history of Georgetown University. Green may yet make a mark as a Celtic, but he did little to help this year. He looked lost. And the Celtics looked like a team trying to play without a center. They missed Perkins in the paint, setting picks and bouncing bodies.
Ainge said he’d still make the deal.
“Yeah, I’d still do it,’’ said the Celtic boss. “You don’t think Perkins has anything to do with where we are, do you?’’
Actually, yes. The Celtics probably wouldn’t have beat the Heat, but he would have helped. Maybe they’d have gotten a higher seed. Maybe they’d have postponed the inevitable a little longer.
But now the torch is officially passed and Boston will be looking up at the Heat for the next half dozen years.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.