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It's not yet time for this Big Three to go

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 15, 2012 12:31 PM

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Presuming Danny Ainge keeps these aging, often admirable Celtics together through Thursday's NBA trading deadline, it's not difficult to predict their final scene before we see it on the screen.

Like the New Big Three itself, it may look very much like a shot-by-shot sequel. Celtics glory will probably end for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the same manner as it did for their spiritual brethren 20 years ago.

And you know what? I'm completely OK with that, for a few reasons, the most sentimental of which is that this team deserves the chance to play together to the end, even with the knowledge that the end will be bittersweet at best.

Before further explanation, a relevant flashback. On May 17, 1992, the original Big Three era ended not with a celebration or another appropriate sendoff, but a whimper. The legendary Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish lost to the ascending, worthy Cleveland Cavaliers, 122-104, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

They were down 14 after one quarter, 18 at the half, and 24 after three. They trailed by as many as 27 points in the anticlimactic fourth quarter. Larry Bird, who would retire that August after winning gold with the first Dream Team and the only one that mattered, scored 12 points in his final NBA game. He missed four of the seven games in that series due to injury and spent the final moments of his NBA career flat on his stomach near the Celtics bench, his chronically aching back tormenting him to the end.

"We had problems with our defense. We had problems with our offense. We weren't aggressive at all," said Bird after the loss, a blunt assessment that has applied to the current Big Three at times this season. But it was Bob Ryan who recognized it was the official and ignominious end of an era in his column for the next day's Globe, writing:

As for the big men, yeah, the Big Three can still play, but every night? Sorry. You can pick your spots during the Big 82 and so much of what happens during the regular season depends on matchups and who's hurt when you show up in City X and other vagaries. In the playoffs you must confront a quality opponent every night, and if the foe happens to be younger than you, friskier than you and every bit as smart as you, then he will prevail. This is exactly what transpired in this series, and it doesn't matter whether it took four, five, six, or in this case, seven games for it to kick in.

McHale would limp proudly through one more season, his post-moves still textbook even as the nifty footwork of every up-and-under brought agony. Parish, who apparently found what Ponce de Leon was looking for, played on the longest, playing two more seasons in Boston, two in Charlotte, then winning a title with the Bulls at age 43 in 1996-97. Given the current Celtics' lack of size, Doc Rivers might be able to find 10 minutes a night for the Chief right now.

Of course it was difficult to watch it end the way it did, and Ainge, the first member of the starting five of the Celtics' legendary '80s teams to depart, has said often he does not want this era to play out in a similar manner, with injuries mounting, glory fading, and a reluctance to deal aging, iconic players stalling the inevitable rebuilding project.

But the irony as we await any news from the trading deadline this afternoon is that it should be apparent by now that Ainge should stand pat, presuming equal value and genuine building blocks won't be offered for Garnett, Allen, Pierce, or mercurial, wholly original point guard Rajon Rondo.

The best game-plan for the Celtics' long-term future is to retain the Big Three through this season, let Garnett and Allen walk, try to sign a big-ticket free agent or two. Should that fall through, that's when Ainge starts relatively anew, retaining the roster's few young and valuable pieces (Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson, perhaps Jeff Green) and begin building from the foundation up. Trading aging stars for a few mid-level players does nothing but assure that you'll be a mid-level team in an irrelevant place in the NBA order, somewhere between prolonged purgatory and hoop hell.

Besides, there can be plenty of fun to be had and memories to be made en route to the inevitable breakup. There were good times back in '92 -- we all remember Larry's 49-point game against the Blazers that March, which stands as the coda on his brilliant run with the Celtics. Those C's won 15 of their last 16 regular-season games and beat Reggie Miller and the Pacers in the first round, with Reggie Lewis scoring 36 points in the tone-setting opener.

To paraphrase Garnett, sure, I'm aware enough to realize that anything is not possible this year. These Celtics are already staring down the barrel of a similar ending to that of the original Big Three. Derrick Rose or LeBron James will probably do to them in the first round what Mark Price and Brad Daugherty did 20 years ago: cruelly inform them of their own basketball mortality.

That's all right. I'll be ready for the ending when it comes. But I'm not ready today. I want to enjoy watching this team a little bit more, the team that showed the cocky, undisciplined Lob City Clippers what real toughness looks like, rather than that get-my-mug-on-ESPN posing. The team that won a wildly entertaining game at Golden State Wednesday night. The team that every now and then, when their creaky legs are spry and the Gatorade flows like that fountain of youth, still plays with the elan of '08 champs.

No, the 2011-12 Celtics are not going to be champions. But more nights than not, they'll fight like one. Hell, I still miss Bird, McHale and the Chief. I'm in no hurry to see this fight end.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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