This will be it for Big Three
WALTHAM - Banner year or bust.
That’s what it comes down for the Big Three, Rajon Rondo (hope he is renting), Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge, and the back-in-business Boston Celtics.
With the NBA lockout settled, the Celtics convened for the first practice of training camp yesterday at HealthPoint. Their mission and the story line are clear - one last run for one more ring. With yesterday’s trade of Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, the Big Three and Rondo are all that remains from the club that was bathed in confetti at TD Garden celebrating Banner No. 17 in June 2008.
This is season five of the Big Three. When Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were assembled in 2007, few thought they’d be as successful as they immediately were and even fewer thought they would still be together five seasons later. It feels like we’ve been predicting the final act of the Big Three for a couple of years now, but the curtain is coming down on an era of Boston basketball one way or another this time.
Allen, 36, and Garnett, 35, are in the last years of their contract and as Ainge has shown by shopping Rondo, he’s not the sentimental type.
It’s been a glorious run for the trio of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce, who have restored the luster to the game’s most storied franchise, but Pierce’s age now matches his number (34), and he’s the young pup of the trio of future Hall of Famers.
There is a sense of urgency surrounding the Celtics and an air of honesty.
“This is most likely our last shot, and I was honest with them about that,’’ said Rivers, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal in the offseason to remain coach. “I said this has to be a team that looks at ourselves because this is our only year that we can do it. You may never be in this position again as a player or as a coach, and we have to try to take advantage of it.
“With Danny, you know he is going to be aggressive enough he’s going to try to get us every single part. One of the things I told Danny is I don’t care if it doesn’t fit, get talent. I’ll take talent, and we’ll figure it out. I was serious about that. You need skill in this league to win.’’
That’s ultimately the question about the Celtics. Do their aging stars have enough left in the tank to overtake the nouveau riche of the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat, who bounced the Celtics in five games last year?
If you’re wondering why Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, had Rondo’s name swishing about in trade talks like merlot at a wine tasting, it’s because he can see the end coming. Trading for Chris Paul was as much about the present as the future. It was about giving this team the best chance to win this season and prying open a closing championship window.
Role players such as Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox don’t exactly have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh quaking in their Nikes in South Beach. Barring an unexpected act of personnel prestidigitation by Danny the Dealer, or a Jacoby Ellsbury-esque offensive epiphany by Rondo, the Celtics are going to be roughly the same team as last season, a team that wasn’t good enough to get out of the second round.
Allen, who doesn’t look a day over 28, knows this season is on the shoulders of the Big Three and their capricious young point guard, whom Celtics fans will be happy to know struck a mature tone yesterday about having his name floated in trade talks.
“I like our team. I feel very strongly about our chances,’’ said Allen. “One of the things that we said is that we have the guys that are going to help us win, but me, Paul, Kevin, and Rondo we have to make sure that we play our best basketball . . .That responsibility always falls square on our shoulders, and we have to be better than we were last year.’’
Some are suggesting that the lockout-reduced 66-game might be able to extend the shelf life of the Celtics’ championship aspirations. The common wisdom is fewer games should result in fresher legs come playoff time and thus the shortened slate is to their advantage.
However, the truncated season will have just as many back-to-backs - occasions on which the Celtics must play on consecutive days - as the traditional 82-game schedule had last year (19). Plus, this schedule has the dreaded back-to-back-to-back.
Last year, typical of an aging team, the Celtics struggled in the second game of back-to-backs. They went 15-4 in the first game and 8-11 in the second game, posting a 3-11 mark when the second game was on the road.
This is relevant because the landscape of the East has changed. The idea of the Celtics cruising into the playoffs as the fourth seed and flipping the switch in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals as they did in 2009 is as faulty as Tyler Seguin’s alarm clock. The Heat, Bulls, and Knicks are all significant road blocks to the Finals.
Boston stumbled down the stretch last season, as Shaquille O’Neal ossified, Rondo pouted, and Kendrick Perkins’s trade was mourned, going 10-11, to finish at 56-26 and drop from the top seed in the East to the third seed. It cost them.
Reversing the signs of aging are rare in the NBA. Recent history says that once the basketball baton is passed to a new team the old guard becomes the rear guard. That was the case for Boston’s Original Big Three.
But this group of hoopsters has made a habit of proving people wrong.
The hope is that their final run together includes one last Finals run.