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A collision of Celtics nostalgia and reality

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 8, 2013 06:07 AM

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The misguided among us who are still lamenting the distant swap of more or less Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green will surely disagree. But as the season and possibly an era ended against the Knicks Friday night, the player the Celtics desperately required from that infamous trade was not the beloved, declining Perk, but one of those more or lessers:

How much would Nate Robinson, Game 1 Heat slayer and Guy Who Could Dribble The Ball Upcourt Without Getting Stripped By Iman Shumpert, have helped the Celtics in this lost series?

I know, I know – that it's come to the lamenting the absence of pesky, gunning-like-a-Mini-Melo, pain-in-the-everything Robinson is further evidence that the ending was grim and the finality real. It's one of the small what-ifs you think of when your season is over and your exes and conquerors play on. It's not as depressing as being a, say, Minnesota Timberwolves fan left with the eternal hopeless daydream of a Ricky Rubio-Stephen Curry backcourt. But it's still a bummer.

Hey, at least we aren't pining for Nenad Krstic. Though, you know, they could have used him too. What got me thinking about all of this, though, was Perk, and how coveted he remains by those who obviously haven't watched him play more than a time or two since he moved to Oklahoma City:

He was and still is beloved here, and the past tense aspect of it is absolutely understandable. He was a starter on a championship team, a throwback role player who had a ferocious on-court persona and an impossibly likable, gentle demeanor at every other moment. The New Big Three might – hell, would – have two rings had he not messed up his knee in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, given that he might – again, would – have made up some of Pau Gasol's 15-rebound advantage over Kevin Garnett in Game 7. Then again, I'm not sure he was much more valuable during the 2007-08 postseason run than P.J. Brown.

I know, I'm meandering here, looking through the photo albums and rewatching the highlight reels, probably savoring the past as a way of avoiding the present. But while Perk has been gone for a couple of seasons now, his departure is telling – and perhaps reassuring in a way – regarding how Danny Ainge will approach this offseason.

From a purely basketball standpoint, I know it's probably time to move on from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and that 20-0 run in Game 6 was their Celtics coda, the final confirmation that the determination is extraordinary but their talent is slowly leaking out.

I know that this should be goodbye. I just don't know that I'm ready for goodbye – this six-year Celtics stretch, watching the core of this New Big Three revive this franchise (yes, including already-gone Ray Allen) with their uncommon ability, on-court unity, work ethic and competitiveness, is a joy I'll always savor. Sentimentally, I want a seventh year. I want them back next year.

Ainge – as we learned with the Perk deal, not to mention his infamous comments about how the original Big Three stayed together too long – will not be so sentimental. He will not be sentimental at all, actually. He's kept this group together for three years beyond the original three-year plan because it made the most sense every single year.

It may still – but man, is it ever complicated. It's hard to fathom paying $15.2 million to Paul Pierce next season if he's the shell of himself that Iman Shumpert, Jason Kidd and the Knicks made him appear to be. He's always had the old man's game. In Game 6, he just looked like an old man. If Ainge can't trade him, that $5 million buyout has to be at least a consideration.

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But again ... it's complicated. Kevin Garnett, intensely loyal, has made it clear his fate is tied to Pierce. I hope he does not retire, even if it means he leaves Boston. If he so chose, KG could be a Walton-esque role player ever for a team like the Spurs. I know, he and Duncan can't stand each other. But just imagine those two true basketball geniuses as teammates.

If Pierce and Garnett go, you have to wonder if Doc Rivers, the second-greatest coach in franchise history, follows them in walking out the door. He was non-committal Friday, which is surprising until you consider his relationship with Pierce and Garnett. Between that trio, Ubuntu still exists. None is a champion without the other two. Rivers's appreciation for what Garnett – a legend who 17 seasons into his career works like one bad night will mean he's relegated to the Albany Patroons – has done for his legacy is apparent.

I thought the reason Rivers signed the long-term deal was to provide stability through any transition. Maybe he doesn't want to fathom coaching a middle-of-the-pack team in which the mercurial Rajon Rondo is his veteran leader. Or maybe – and this is more likely, I think and hope – he just needs a few weeks to decompress. But the man certainly has options. Doc is great on TV, and he'll have his pick of coaching gigs when he decides he he wants to get back on the sideline.

piercefinn56heritage.JPGUntil Pierce and Garnett know what they will do – or until Ainge sets the wheels in motion by making a decision on Pierce – the Celtics are in something of a basketball purgatory. They have some interesting pieces – Rondo, of course, and Jeff Green, an immensely likable player who is learning how to use his considerable basketball gifts, and hopefully a healthy Jared Sullinger and a confident Avery Bradley.

But there's nothing here that suggests Ainge has accumulated enough pieces to make a deal similar to the one that brought Garnett here in the first place. All we have right now is creative but probably wishful thinking. I loved CelticsBlog's suggestion of at least asking the Bulls about a Rondo for Derrick Rose swap while they're at the peak of their frustrations with him. I give less credence to rumors that Garnett, Pierce and Rivers could go to the Clippers for a package including Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe, unless Chris Paul, whom the Clips are desperate to re-sign, has some unknown deep-seated hatred for Kias or something.

While he's had his misses lately, faith remains in Ainge to make the right decisions. He's drafted well given where they've been slotted, and while some of his high-reward free-agent gambles (Rasheed Wallace, Shaq) have faltered, the process is the right one for the type of veteran, contending team the Celtics had, even if the results were sometimes disappointing.

Now, Ainge is facing a whole new set of challenges, and the solutions aren't aren't simple. A year ago Ray Allen ditched The Basketball Beatles to join LBJ and the Sunshine Band, and it proved the right move for him. His New Big Three brethren could be the next to go, or they could be back for one final go-round with a healthy Rondo, a grown-up Green, and perhaps a couple of new guys who can hit a jumper once in a while.

But it's complicated, it has enormous bearing on the future of the franchise, and all we know for sure is that the man making the decisions won't be clouded by sentimentality.

Which is how it should be. Those of us who adored this era from the outside, who know it probably should end and yet aren't quite ready to bid farewell, well, we'll linger in the nostalgia for him. Until this is resolved, it's all we've got.

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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