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An appreciation of the Celtics in flux

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 5, 2013 12:56 PM

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The twin cruelties of attrition and age aren't about to start doing them favors, and so it would be easy and probably even accurate to declare this latest great era of Celtics basketball as complete, ready for the archives rather than prime time.

Rajon Rondo's season is over, the victim of a torn ACL in his right knee, an injury that could not be overcome by pure stubbornness despite his best efforts that night in Atlanta. Ray Allen left in a snit over the summer, and while the reasons may have been petty, that he's burying 60 percent of his corner threes for the Heat suggest the decision was prudent.

Only Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett remain from the championship team of five full seasons ago, and while the effort and the savvy are there every night, the ancient legs sometimes don't allow for those old familiar results of big numbers and entertaining victories.

While it's hard for me and perhaps you too to concede that the final buzzer will soon sound on the half-dozen mostly fulfilling and always entertaining seasons of New Big Three era, Celtics boss Danny Ainge isn't about to get sentimental on us now. He busted up the championship starting five with his out-of-nowhere swap of Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City in February 2011 for, essentially, Jeff Green, and Doc Rivers isn't the only one in that locker room who still cites from time to time that the KG-Perk-Pierce-Allen-Rondo quintet never lost a playoff series when all were united and healthy.

Ainge's lack of sentimentality springs from his own unquenchable competitiveness and his first-hand knowledge of what happens to a great team when the past takes precedence over the future. There are occasional flashbacks and endless ghosts on the descent to basketball purgatory (trademark, Washington Wizards/Bullets), and late picks in the lottery do nothing to relieve perennial mediocrity.

wilkinsdominiquefinn.JPGAinge was the first of the Celtics '80s core to go, dealt for 14 feet of mediocrity in Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine, which isn't the way to maintain relevance either, but he saw from afar what happened when Larry Bird and Kevin McHale got old and eventually hobbled away. It set the franchise back half a decade, leaving them grasping for quick-fix bad ideas -- yes, Dominique Wilkins really did happen -- before finally crashing at the bottom.

Ainge has vowed time and again that he will not repeat that mistake, and with the Rondo injury snuffing out any glimmer of a championship hope, I don't think any of us would be surprised to see the two remaining pillars, Pierce and KG, sent elsewhere before the February 21 trading deadline. I mean, it would be shocking to see them go, particularly Celtics icon Pierce, because they are so associated with the rejuvenation and tenor of this franchise, but it wouldn't be a surprise, if that makes sense.

bledsoeericfinn25.jpgThe rumors are already floating across your medium of choosing. Sean Deveney, who does fine work for The Sporting News, wrote Sunday in advance of the Celtics-Clippers matchup that Los Angeles covets Garnett and offered forward Caron Butler and guard Eric Bledsoe. Butler, who turns 33 next month, would have little long-term value to the Celtics -- he's the mid-'90s Xavier McDaniel in this scenario, and they have very similar careers in terms of Win Shares. Bledsoe is intriguing, a very talented kid who is expendable only because the Clippers have Chris Paul ahead of him, presuming he can be retained beyond this season.

Bledsoe is appealing, but the pieces don't quite fit, and it's a deal Ainge should not make even if the fiercely loyal Garnett, who says he's not going anywhere unless Pierce does, is willing to waive his no-trade clause. Now, if the Clippers want to include D'Andre Jordan (whom the Celtics passed on to take clueless J.R. Giddens in the 2008 NBA Draft) or recognize that Pierce might be a better fit for them, maybe it's worth reviving, if it ever existed beyond a Clippers wish-list fantasy at all.

Before we learn how it will all play out, I recommend making conscious effort to appreciate the moment. The Celtics have seven games between now and the deadline, including a pair of clashes with the Lakers, the first at the Garden Thursday, and the second a 10:30 p.m. start on Wednesday, February 20 in LA. That late-night nationally televised matchup could serve as a final, appropriate scene for Pierce and/or Garnett here, or it could be just one more game on the Celtics' road to a destination yet to be determined. Should they stay together, I'd love to see what they could do in a first-round series against the Knicks. Should they depart, well, count me among the newly-minted fans of the Clippers or Warriors or whichever team ends up with Pierce or Garnett, two of the truest, most admirable Celtics I'll ever have the pleasure of watching.

I count Rondo in that category, too. While the suggestion during this four-game winning streak that they're better off without Rondo is the half-formed blip of a thought by those whose opinions come from sports radio rather than watching the games themselves, there's no doubt certain players are performing better in his absence. Rondo is a dominating presence on the court and in terms of personality, and that's how it should be. You're damn right the ball should be in his hands as much as possible.

But there's no denying that Courtney Lee and especially Jason Terry and seem to have found themselves in his absence, and while Rondo's rehabbing here's hoping he recognizes that with his remarkable talent and intelligence comes the responsibility to make all of his teammates better. I do wonder how many of them he'll recognize when he returns.

But until February 21 delivers answers one way or the other, I'm enjoying watching this team, with Pierce and Garnett and young Avery Bradley and ol' Doc and a bunch of pieces desperately trying to fit together. They're exciting and exasperating and wholly ours, and I'll miss it when it's no longer this way.

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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