The Celtics' remarkable postseason run came to an end Saturday evening in Miami. After hanging with the heavily favored Miami Heat for six games and three quarters, and trading blows early in the fourth quarter of Game 7, Boston finally succumbed to the talent deficit, succumbed to their age, succumbed finally to reality. There was a finality to everything after the game that was lost on no one. It lived in the blank stare that Ray Allen had on his face for his entire post game press conference. It bubbled over in the emotions of Doc Rivers, both on the sidelines and on the dais. It rang in the remarks Paul Pierce gave from a somber locker room. It even caught up with Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett as they tried to escape it by running to the locker room as seconds still remained in Game 7. There was no hiding from it, the finality of that Game 7 loss.
The Big Four Era is over.
You may say, "we heard this last year," and indeed, many fans and media jumped the gun on penning the obituary of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen trio. Most thought that the five game dismantling at the hands of the Heat in 2011 would be enough for Danny Ainge to do what he must and blow up the team. But even after Ainge stood pat in the off season and at the 2012 trade deadline, there was always an expiration date on this deal. The contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are up and the Celtics won't re-sign both, if either. Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley are the only non-rookies currently on the books for the 2013 season. Rondo is the future of the organization now; either the cornerstone on which to build or the most valuable asset at Danny Ainge's disposal.
No matter which direction Danny Ainge goes, and there are many, that is a discussion for another day. Now is the time to reflect on an a team that will be remembered as much for its toughness and heart, as it will for its sole championship.
It all started with Garnett.
Technically, the opening salvo from the Boston Celtics in 2007 was the draft day trade with Seattle for Ray Allen. But if that was "bang" from the starters gun that let the league know that the Celtics were making some changes, then the trade for Kevin Garnett was the shot heard 'round the world.
The Intro was epic.
It is not hyperbole when it is said that KG changed the entire culture of the Celtics organization.
KG wasn't just "the defensive backstop," a cliche used on every big man who sits around the rim blocking shots or fouling people. Kevin Garnett was the central nervous system of the Celtics when they were on defense. KG would call out sets and rotations like a brain firing out synapses through the body. Each defender responded and rotated like limbs, independent bodies acting as extensions of KG himself. Garnett was very good on offense, but he was transcendent on defense. He made good defenders out of Pierce and Allen, he brought Perkins to be viewed as one of the league's best defensive centers, he put Rajon Rondo on the all-defensive second team, twice. People questioned what would happen to the Celtics defense when assistant coach Tom Thibodeau left. With KG it was business as usual. We'll see what the result is when KG is no longer with the Celtics.
KG's presence wasn't felt on defense alone, his impact was felt throughout the organization and the locker room. Beyond his swearing, trash talk, and pregame histrionics, KG's name alone gave legitimacy to a team and an ownership group that had been a doormat for the better part of a decade. Before KG came Paul Pierce had the same cocky swagger he does today; telling everyone that would listen that he was one of the best in the NBA. KG came, the Celtics were in the Finals, and Pierce was the MVP. Before KG came Ray Allen was a great player who had never been able to showcase it on the big stage. The Celtics blew out the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to win a championship on the back of Ray Allen's seven three-pointers in the final game. Rajon Rondo ached to be the leader of the Celtics team. KG said he was and it became true. Celtics fans have always claimed to be the best fans in basketball. KG told us we were, and then it became true.
The other three had their moments as well, don't get me wrong. While KG was the driving force that brought the Celtics to the Finals in 2008, Paul Pierce's run against the Lakers, where he was the best player on the floor for six games, is what ultimately raised banner 17. Pierce's timely defense and offensive explosions were the difference in match-ups against the league's stars in both the regular season and the playoffs. Pierce hit dozens of game-winners over the last five years, including some true back breakers that demoralized the Knicks and sent Dwyane Wade home in the 2010 playoffs. Pierce will always be the Truth and the Captain, and his presence kept the organic relevance to this era in Celtics history.
Rajon Rondo was an underrated part of the Celtics 2008 championship team in my opinion, but he really didn't emerge as a force to be reckoned with until 2009. Since then he has been a walking triple-double. He plays like no other point guard in NBA history and as intriguing and mysterious as his game is on the floor, Rondo vexes us all off the floor as well. With all of the Hall-of-Famers he has played with, I've enjoyed watching Rondo the most over the past five years.
Ray Allen had two historic shooting nights in the NBA Finals, in Game 6 in 2008 as mentioned above and in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals when he hit a record eight treys to tie that series. It was two other performances that I remember most of Ray Allen's Celtics career. In Game 4 of the 2008 Finals after coming back from down 20-points, the Celtics were clinging to a late lead. Rather than give the ball to Pierce on a clear out, or play pick-and-roll with KG, the Celtics gave the ball to Ray Allen. Not for a three-point shot, but to play a little "hero ball" against Sasha Vujacic. Ray took the weak defender off the dribble and all but ended the Lakers chances in the series. The other moment I'll remember was Ray Allen's epic shootout against the Bulls' Ben Gordon in the opening round in 2009. The Celtics, with KG injured had all they could handle against Derrick Rose and the upstart Bulls, and while the series was pitched to be a Rondo vs. Rose affair (and it often was), the real duel happened between two former UConn stars, Allen and Gordon. The most memorable of the games was Ray Allen's 51-point performance in a Triple overtime thriller.
Like that Bulls series in 2009, the most meaningful performances, and the ones that define this era for me, didn't come in the 2008 season that brought the championship. The times that this team showed its colors, its grit and balls, came when few beyond Celtics loyalists believed that they'd succeed. That championship team had to win. They wanted to prove to the league that the three of them could succeed together and they treated the regular season like their own personal punching bag. By the time they got to the playoffs, with the league's best record, they had to finish. They owed that to Boston and the fans, they owed it to Celtics legends as a ticket into the club, they owed it to themselves. In 2009, with their best player on the bench, the Celtics fought two grueling seven games series, finally losing to Dwight Howard and the Magic, who eventually lost in the Finals. In 2010, as the regular season dragged, the basketball world wrote them off. In the playoffs as the fourth seed, the Celtics sent home Dwyane Wade, Lebron James, and Dwight Howard in succession, before falling to the Lakers in seven memorable games. It took a Kendrick Perkins knee injury and a few Metta Ron World Peace Artest prayers to dispatch the Celtics in Game 7. In 2011, Rajon Rondo's dislocated elbow led to a shortened, five-game affair against the Heat. I believe the Celtics still would have lost with a healthy Rondo, but it would have gone seven games. I was maybe proved right this season as they took the heavily favored Heat until late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to put this Celtics team down, maybe for good.
These Celtics are champions. They won a Finals against champions and lost a Finals against champions. With a healthy Big Four they were never dispatched in less than seven games (Rondo and his bad elbow spent the last 12 minutes of Game 5 on the bench). They weren't always the best, but they were always the toughest. I don't believe they'd appreciate any compliment more.
Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus underwent surgeries on Wednesday, joining Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Avery Bradley, and Jermaine O'Neal. Pierce and Greg Stiemsma could join them shortly. The Celtics have collected their share of battle scars over the past five years. These warriors aren't getting any younger. Winter is coming.
If Game 7 on Saturday night truly was the Outro for this era, we couldn't ask for anything more.