The Celtics’ playoff journey ended just four games after it began this year. It was more of a pit stop, honestly, though there’s no shame in losing to the Cleveland LeBrons in such a manner. But as the postseason played on without them, reminders of the franchise’s recent past glories were stirred in virtually every series.
There was Paul Pierce, still looking so weird in that Wizards jersey, burying buzzer-beater and almost-buzzer-beaters in a near-upset of the Hawks. In Dallas, injured and/or insubordinate Rajon Rondo was sent to exile, a sad and stubborn end to his reputation as a playoff monster. Doc Rivers guided his Clippers to an epic Game 7-takedown of the defending champion Spurs, then watched without a solution as his Clippers collapsed into themselves when confronted with the powers of James Harden’s beard. Tony Allen talked some hilarious smack at the Warriors, and his tough Grizzlies even gave the Splash Brothers and their sweet-shooting friends a temporary scare.
Kevin Garnett? Well, he was not a participant in the postseason — having returned to Minnesota — where it all began and where it is beginning again. It was strange not having one of the great competitors of his generation around when the games matter most. But while there were no new KG highlights this postseason, at least there were delightful stories and revelations to be found.
Story continues after gallery:
Photos: The glory years of the New Big Three era
We cannot forget Kendrick Perkins, either. His role in the playoffs has mostly been to keep the Cavaliers bench weighted down in the middle, the fulcrum among the scrubs. But he did make a memorable cameo against his former team, checking in to Game 4 just long enough to steamroll Jae Crowder with a pick so vicious that it is illegal in most states. After hearing boos at the Garden, Perk hit us with a truth that packed a similar wallop: “Yeah, that was surprising,’’ said Perk, “but I know they still love me.’’
It’s true. We still love him, and them. There were so many beloved expatriated Celtics from the New Big Three era — that invigorating stretch from 2007-12 in which Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen united and reignited Celtic Pride while introducing New England basketball fans to the concept of Ubuntu — that we could not miss them if we wanted to.
They may be dispersed around the NBA now, they’re still right there in front of us. Ties to that era have been so prevalent during this NBA playoff season that I’m not sure I would be surprised if Eddie House or James Posey or, hell, even Sam Cassell emerged from deep on the Warriors or Cavs benches to steal a game or a moment before the Finals are complete. OK, maybe not Cassell.
Not that we would ever want to miss them, of course. They are always-welcome ghosts, not here to haunt but to aid in our reminiscences. Celtics fans may be in possession of some envy for fans in Oakland or Cleveland who have a dazzling team to pull for in June.
But we also know that it wasn’t so long ago that it was us, and while we cherished it in real time, after such a long wait between championships, the passage of time has only enhanced the appreciation.
The New Big Three’s six-year run yielded one championship, a few lingering what-ifs, and countless warm memories.
So let’s count some. Call what follows here — a look back at the New Big Three era, sorted into categories of, naturally, three — an homage, a tribute, a collection or a compilation of those days. Call it comprehensive. Hopefully you will call it all of those things.
Mostly, though, call it a seized opportunity to talk about them one more time for all the old times.
The New Big Three is no longer together on the court. But in the basketball-addled corners of our minds, they will never be apart.
Here they come, back again, three by three…
1. Leon Powe, Game 2, 2008 Finals: Powe, an Oakland high school teammate of Marshawn Lynch and an AAU pal of LeBron James, was considered one of the top prep prospects in the country in the early 2000s, but multiple serious knee injuries in high school and at the University of California caused him to fall to the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft.
He found a niche on the Celtics and had a seven-year NBA career, but stardom eluded him — except for one night during the 2008 NBA Finals. Powe scored 21 points off the bench in just 15 minutes, an essential performance in the Celtics’ 108-102 victory in Game 2.
Celtics fans chanted his name during the improbable rampage on the Lakers, but that didn’t prevent Phil Jackson from mispronouncing his name (he called him “Pow’’ rather than “Poe’’), which immediately felt like a calculated dismissal of the performance and a shot at his Lakers for getting taken apart by a relative unknown.
“I’m not worried about people not pronouncing my name right. I ain’t tripping off that,’’ Powe said.
No, it was Jackson who was trippin’. Probably not for the first time.
2. P.J. Brown, Game 7, 2008 Eastern Semifinals: The tough, smart veteran forward was famously convinced to sign with the Celtics in February 2008 after Pierce and Allen made a recruiting pitch during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, his home state. Thank goodness he listened. The 17th banner may not have been collected without him.
While Brown’s regular-season statistics weren’t spectacular (2.2 points, 3.8 rebounds per game), he proved a master of the important little things during his 18 regular-season games in Boston.
Like fellow bench stalwarts James Posey and Eddie House, he delivered a few big things too, most notably with 1:21 left in Game 7 of the Eastern semis against the Cavs. Brown drilled a 20-foot jumper, giving the Celtics a 91-88 lead in an eventual 97-92 victory. It capped a 10-point, six-rebound performance in which he hit all four of his shots.
“When I signed I thought I could help the team. I thought I could contribute, defensively, offensively,’’ he said afterward. “More defense and rebounding. That’s what my career has been built on. As far as the shot, I definitely was not brought here to shoot last-second shots.’’
Doesn’t that quote encapsulate what was great about Brown. He knew he wasn’t supposed to take last second-shots. He also knew when he had to, and damned if he didn’t make them.
3. Glen Davis (Shrek), Nate Robinson (Donkey), Game 4, 2010 NBA Finals: It’s fair to categorize both Davis (nicknamed Big Baby) and Robinson (who was slightly larger than a normal baby) as inconsistent and occasionally maddening performers during their time with the Celtics.
Robinson submitted a 13-point quarter in a series-clinching victory over the Magic earlier that postseason, but Doc Rivers’s didn’t trust him enough to see if he could give the offense a jolt when the Celtics were struggling to score late in their Game 7 loss to the Lakers.
But both had their moments — including one hilarious shared moment. In Game 4 versus the Lakers, the Celtics’ evened the series at 2-2 thanks largely to the performance of four memebers of the Celtics bench, who turned a two-point deficit starting the fourth quarter into an eventual 96-89 victory.
Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen contributed to the rally, but it was Davis (nine fourth-quarter points among his 18 for the game) and Robinson (six of his 12 points came in the fourth) who sparked the Celtics’ win. They were outstanding on the court — and even better in the postgame press conference.
Here’s Davis, hilariously acknowledging that he slobbered all over himself after a conventional three-point play gave the Celtics a late seven-point lead.
“Let me tell you something right quick,’’ said Davis. “When you’re in the moment, you’re in the moment. If I slobber, snot, spit, please excuse me. Kids, don’t do that. Have manners and things like that. Sorry about that.’’
Robinson, who bounded onto Davis’s back in celebration, admitted a covert attempt at a cleanup.
But Davis, lost in the moment, didn’t notice any of that, including that Robinson was attached to him like a barnacle to a hull.
“You were on my back?’’ Davis said.
“You didn’t even notice. We’re like Shrek and Donkey,’’ Robinson said. “You can’t separate us.’’
That brought Davis to a moment of rare clarity:
“You know,’’ he said, “you shouldn’t have let us two get up here.’’
1. Shaquille O’Neal, 2010-11: When Shaq memorably plunked down his 7-foot, 300-plus-pound frame and spent part of an October afternoon posing as a statue in Harvard Square, the jokes were as irresistible as they were lame. He’s been posing as a statue on defense all season! He’s faster as a statue than he is… ah, that’s enough.
The jokes, like Shaq, were tired then.
Shaq battled an Achilles’ tendon injury during his final NBA season — man, what unfathomable stress that thing must have been under all those years — and was limited to 37 games as a Celtic.
But it was a blast having him around, and when he offered an occasional flashback to what he was in his youth, such as a 25-point, 11-rebound performance against the Nets in November, the mind wandered to an irresistible hypothetical: what carnage would they have wreaked on the NBA had Shaq and KG had played alongside each other in their primes? Imagine.
2. Rasheed Wallace, 2009-10: Sheed, man. You could love him and hate him within the same game — maybe even the same possession. Can’t you see him in your mind’s eye right now, bricking a three (he jacked up 290 during his Celtics season, hitting 28.2 percent), watching sedately as someone else got the rebound (he averaged just 4.1 per game that season), then eventually sauntering down to the block and casually scoring on a gorgeous, textbook turnaround jumper (his basketball intelligence was Rondo-like when he was properly engaged).
If NBA games were three quarters long, he would have been the hero of Game 7 of the Finals. Alas, he ran out of gas, and so did the Celtics. An 18th banner would have been wonderful. But the best Sheed could leave us is this consolation compilation:
Sheed? He don’t lie, either. Well, maybe a little bit.
3. Stephon Marbury, 2008-09: There are certain players whom basketball-reference assures me made several shots for the Celtics, and my memory refuses to recall a single one of them.
Jason Terry played 2,313 minutes for the 2011-12 Celtics, and I am not being facetious when I say I do not remember him hitting a single jump shot. It boggles my mind that he played major minutes for one of the four remaining playoff teams. Probably boggles Kevin McHale’s mind, too.
Michael Finley, the excellent Maverick/Sun/Spur for so many years, is another he-was-really-here? type. He played 21 games for the 2009-10 Celtics, even starting a game.
Yet I don’t recall him taking off his warm-ups, let alone scoring 88 points in green-and-white.
As for Marbury, well, I do remember him, I certainly do, and I wish I remembered him better. He was sad and broken as a Celtic, hesitating to take open shots, the confidence of his Coney Island/Yellow Jacket/Me-and-KG youth long gone. He shot 34 percent in 23 games as a Celtic, then he was gone.
The next time we saw him, he was starring in some bizarre live-stream, eating Vaseline and melting down and crying for help — and why the hell were we watching that anyway?
I’m not sure if his current redemption in China — he is adored, and the feeling appears mutual — is Marbury’s second act or a chance of a much greater number.
But I’m sure glad he has it. He got one last shot, and damned if he didn’t bury it.
Also: The hell with Jermaine O’Neal… that quitter among champions.
1. Say, A .931 Winning Percentage ? That’s Good, Right? Though he also journeyed to Hoops Hell more than any transcendent player should ever have to, Bill Walton did reach Basketball Utopia at different stages during his career.
It happened at UCLA, and with the 1985-86 Celtics, and in between those beautiful bookmarks, he found it with the champion 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers.
What is sometimes forgotten is that the Walton-led Blazers the following year appeared to be even better, winning 50 of their first 60 games before Walton suffered a foot injury that derailed the season and devastated his career for years.
Why do I bring this up here?
1. Any chance to remember Peak Bill Walton is an opportunity that must be seized.
2. With the benefit of retrospect, it’s impossible to dodge a cruel truth, even if it might have eluded us in the moment: 2008-09 Celtics met a remarkably similar fate to those 1977-78 Blazers.
It’s uncanny: An injury to a selfless big man, a player upon whom everything pivoted, wrecked a sequel that teased us with early scenes hinting it might be even better than the original.
The Celtics started the season 27-2 — including a franchise-record 19-game winning streak — which surpassed the 1966-67 Sixers for the best two-loss start in NBA history. But on February 19 in Utah, Garnett landed — not in a particularly awkward way, he just bleeping landed — after a dunk, injuring a tendon in his knee.
He would play exactly 66 minutes and 18 seconds over four games the rest of the season. The Celtics were never so good again.
They finished the regular season at 62-20 and battled with their usual valiance as the No. 2 seed in the playoffs before succumbing to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Would they have won back-to-back titles if Garnett’s knee did not fail him? To say yes would be only a guess. But this much we know: They were never better than during the spectacular first few weeks of their title defense.
2. Automatic Allen, December 2008-February 2009: For 32 games and nearly two months of the schedule, the smooth shooting guard did not miss from the free throw line, not once. Hell, it’s possible he never even hit the rim.
Allen made 72 straight free throws from December 28 until February 22, breaking the franchise record of 71 straight made free throws held by one Larry Bird. (What, you expected it to belong to Eric Fernsten?)
Remarkably, after Allen’s miss, he began a new streak, knocking down 57 in a row over the next 14 games. Presuming you don’t have your calculator handy, that’s 128 makes in 129 attempts over that stretch, good for 99.2 percent.
For his career, Allen hit .8939 percent of his foul shots, good for sixth all-time. It’s not a surprise that he made 4,398 free throws in his career. But I have no clue how he missed 522.
3. Rondo’s Daily Dish, October-December 2010: Rajon Rondo’s basketball peccadilloes could be both exhilarating and exasperating, sometimes at once.
That was never more obvious than at the advent of the 2010-11 season, when the point guard morphed into a human assist machine — though sometimes, his chorus of skeptics reminded us with some evidence, the passes came at the expense of passed-up open shots.
Only Rondo could be accused of being selfish while passing and have the accusation come with some merit.
But to Rondo’s fans, a club to which I own a permanent membership, he was expertly playing the role of the quintessential distributor.
Beginning with the third game of the season, he reached double-figures in assists in nine straight games and in 15-of-16, including a high of 24 against the Knicks on October 29.
“He got the popcorn man involved, the got the announcer involved, he got everyone involved tonight,’’ said Paul Pierce, a beneficiary of several of those passes. “It was beautiful to watch.’’
1. If only KG’s knee had healed: Haven’t we said enough about that? We’ve said enough about that. So let’s just punctuate it with this permanent truth and move on: there is probably no way the Celtics lose to a Dwight Howard-centric team in the postseason with a healthy KG, and there is definitely no way the they lose to a Dwight Howard-centric team by 19 points in a decisive Game 6 at the Garden, which is precisely what happened to lower the curtain on the 2008-09 season.
“We still felt like this was a team that could have gone to the championship and won it, regardless of the injuries,’’ said Paul Pierce afterward, his defiance sounding an awful lot like denial. “It felt like we ran out of gas.’’
2. If only Perk had stayed healthy: The notion, one still put forth nowadays by many diehard Celtics fans and many more casual ones, that Danny Ainge made a grave miscalculation in trading Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder in February 2011 is only partially accurate.
Believing that Jeff Green, who came to Boston in the deal, would be anything more than a talented but chronically untrustworthy tease was the mistake, one most of us learned in frustrating retrospect. Trading Perkins, as much as he meant as an enforcer and defender, that willing doer of the dirty work in a starry starting five, was not a mistake.
Trading him before he suffered a torn ACL and PCL while trying to corral an offensive rebound in the first quarter of Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, would have been an epic blunder. But the harsh truth is that Perkins was never the same after the injury — and in fact regressed in other ways not related to the scar on his knee, his offensive game seeming to become even cruder through the years.
Had Perk stayed healthy, the Celtics probably would have won the 2010 title, for KG, who was outrebounded by Pau Gasol, 18-3, in Game 7, might have had some much-needed assistance on the boards. Instead, Celtics fans are left to repeat an observation first made by Doc Rivers, one that comes tinged with both pride and lament: That starting five — KG, Perk, Pierce, Allen and Rondo — never lost a playoff series together. Never will.
3. If only it had been three quarters long: For the disappointments that were wrought by the KG and Perk injuries, there’s one opportunity lost and never to be found that forever lingers above all others, hovering in the space where a banner should fly.
In Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, the Celtics led the Lakers by as many as 13 points in the third quarter. They held Kobe Bryant to 6-for-25 shooting for the game, and limited the Lakers to just 21 field goals over the first three quarters. Yet when all 48 minutes had been completed, they found themselves as the sole owners of a dubious place in franchise lore: They were the first Celtics team to lose a Game 7 of the Finals.
The Lakers, led by Pau Gasol’s KG-conquering 19-point, 18-rebound performance and an improbable “are-you-bleeping-kidding-me?’’ Ron Artest three-pointer with just over a minute remaining, prevailed, 83-79, winning their 16th championship and thwarting the Celtics’ bid for No. 18.
“There’s a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care,’’ said Rivers afterward. “I don’t think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful.’’
1. Double Triple-Doubles, Eastern Conference quarterfinals, 2009: The concept of Playoff Rondo met gruesome demise this postseason, his half-season with the Mavericks ending by mutual consent and with stunning condemnation by his peers before the team’s season was complete.
But even if Playoff Rondo has suffered permanent relegation to the past tense, that does not diminish the truth: Rondo submitted so many sublime and distinctive postseason performances during his seven-plus seasons with the Celtics that it’s a challenge to narrow his feats to three.
For magnitude, his 21-point, 8-assist, 7-rebound, 6-steal we’re-ending-this-now gem in the Celtics’ cathartic, championship-clinching 39-point win over the Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals is tough to trump.
Speaking of tough, his determination to play after a weaselly Dwyane Wade pile-driver in Game 3 of the 2011 East Finals dislocated his elbow stands as a tribute to the power of his competitiveness.
For sheer dominance,Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals deserves its own spotlight. While eulogies for the Celtics were being written after a 29-point loss to LeBron and the Cavaliers in Game 3 dropped the Celtics into a 2-1 hole, Rondo stepped up with a 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist masterpiece to even the series. The Celtics won in six games. LeBron? He didn’t win another game as a Cavalier until this season.
Yet incredibly, all of those those performances must be relegated to honorable mention status. Rondo’s magnum opus was not a single game, but an entire series: the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinal versus the Bulls and rookie point guard Derrick Rose.
Rondo averaged 24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists over the first five games of the seven-game set, with his greatest performance actually coming in defeat:
In the Bulls 121-118 double-overtime win in Game 4, Rondo played 55 minutes, scoring 25 points, collecting 11 rebounds, and dealing out 11 assists.
It was his second triple-double of the series, making him the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1986 to record multiple triple-doubles in a series. Company doesn’t get any more exclusive than that.
2. Better Than LeBron, Game 2, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. In researching this project, some recollections — even the coolest ones, the ones that should own permanent real estate between a Celtics fan’s ears — required refreshing.
I remembered, for instance, that Rajon Rondo scored 44 points and filled out the scoresheet with a bunch of assists and rebounds (10 and 8, as it were) in the Celtics’ 115-111 overtime loss to the ascending Heat. And I remembered that his otherworldly performance put him in the rarest of categories: he was irrefutably the best player on the floor in a game that involved LeBron.
What I forgot? That he played all 53 minutes; that he hit 10 of 12 free throws; and that the Celtics scored a dozen points in overtime — with Rondo accounting for every single one of them.
“Rondo was absolutely amazing,’’ James said. “The performance he put on tonight will go down in the record books.’’
Yet the best player on the court that night was not enamored with his own brilliance:
“It’s irrelevant,’’ Rondo said. “We lost. It’s as simple as that.’’
3. The Steal, Game 3, 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals: Listen up and listen good, because I’m saying this once, which is one more time than it should need to be said.
If you dug White Chocolate’s And1-wannabe, no-substance game but for some reason didn’t enjoy Rondo when he was at his athletic and competitive peak, well, I suggest watching this on an endless loop until you see the error of your ways:
If one viewing, maybe two, didn’t remind or convince you that the New Big Three not only was enhanced by Rondo but often required him to take center stage, I guess I’m going to have to reconsider whether we can still basketball friends.
1. King of Threes, February 11, 2011: He was the first to go, departing for a rival — a shrewd personal and professional move, as it turned out, but one that dented his legacy here.
The farewell wasn’t graceful, and it left a mark. Pierce chooses not to remember him as one of the three superstar amigos, awarding his spot to Sam Cassell of all people. And KG, he doesn’t even acknowledge him.
While Allen’s coolness could be interpreted as aloofness, this also must be acknowledged. He sacrificed the most of the New Big Three to make this work — one of the best shooters in the history of basketball sacrificed shots to fit in.
When he set the mark for the most career 3-pointers made, the moment was as cool as the shooter himself.
Allen retired with 2,973 made 3-pointers, or 413 more than runner-up Reggie Miller. Steph Curry currently stands 50th with 1,191, so the record should belong to Mr. He Got Game for a few more seasons.
“[Allen’s jump shot is] right at the top [of the all-time best],’’ said noted basketball historian Kobe Bryant, a ‘96 draft class contemporary and occasional enemy of Allen’s, the night Allen set the record. “It’s pure, it’s pure. In the game today, you got to put Dirk [Nowtizki] right up there in terms of just having a beautiful stroke, but Ray’s is water, man. It’s water.’’
2. Fifty-one, Game 6, 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals: During their six seasons together, the New Big Three had to survive some truly epic early-round series.
In the two seasons in which they advanced to the Finals (’08, ‘10) they had to dismiss LeBron-led Cavs teams in the conference semis. The pesky Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round in 2007-08. In 2011-12, the unofficial last hurrah for this group even though Pierce and KG remained for another year, they required seven games to get past Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand, and the so-so Sixers.
But the most spectacular early series came in 2008-09, when they duked it out for seven rounds with Derrick Rose and the upstart Bulls before advancing. Five of the games were decided by three or fewer points, and with the most momumental and memorable matchup coming in Game 6.
The Bulls prevailed in triple overtime, 128-127, to force a seventh game. But the performance everyone remembers came by a member of the losing team. Playing 59 minutes, Allen hit 18 of 32 shots — including 9 of 18 from 3-point territory — en route to 51 points.
What was the term again, the one Kobe used to describe Allen’s shot? Ah yes. Water. In Game 6 against the Bulls, Allen made splash after splash.
3. Tears of a Clown, Game 4, 2008 NBA Finals: While Allen suffered some inconsistencies during the two Finals appearances, he has also had a couple of crazy-good shooting efforts even by his high standards.
He hit 7-of-9 3-pointers during the championship-clinching Game 6 dismantling of the Lakers in ‘08. And in Game 2 in 2010, he buried a Finals-record eight 3-pointers — including his first seven attempts — in a 103-94 Celtics win that evened the series.
Funny, but Allen’s most important Finals moment came not on a picturesque swished jump shot, but on an almost casual slash to the basket. His drive and reverse after he found himself isolated on Lakers guard and sniveling dope Sasha Vujacic gave the Celtics a 96-91 lead with 16.4 seconds left in Game 4 of the ‘08 Finals.
It was the punctuation mark on a rally from a 24-point deficit to earn a 97-91 win and take a commanding lead. The comeback was the best part, of course, but Vujacic’s chair-slapping he-stole-my-binky reaction to being toasted by Allen was a sweet sidebar.
Beating the Lakers is a joy that never wanes. Making them petulant in defeat is always a welcome bonus.
1. A champion’s redemption: On June 27, 2013, Pierce’s eventful and oft-exceptional 15-season run as a member of the Celtics came to an end. He was traded to the Brooklyn Nets along with Garnett and the remnants of Terry for a package that included three first-round picks.
It was a savvy and unsentimental trade by general manager Danny Ainge. It was also necessary. Allen was already gone, Garnett was a limping old lion, Rondo’s knee had acquired a fat new scar, and Pierce had just been agitated by Iman Shumpert into a mediocre performance during a first-round loss to the Knicks.
When you’re losing a playoff series to the Knicks, that’s a tell-tale sign that it’s time to give up the ghost and begin the quest anew.
Not that anyone wanted to see Pierce go. Hell, Pierce didn’t want to see Pierce go. But it was time, and the local reaction to the deal left me somewhat bewildered.
There was a sadness to the day, a grim and lingering pall, especially among my younger colleagues and friends. I thought I understood. I admired Pierce, from the day he arrived.
I was working in my first real job as a layout editor and wanna-be occasional writer in Concord, New Hampshire when he fell to the Celtics at No. 10 in the 1998 Draft. My headline in the paper the next day reflected both my giddiness in watching the Kansas star end up in green-and-white and also my utter lack of creativity as a headline writer: Luck of the Irish.
We watched him grow up here, endure some tough times on the court and a particular terrifying one off it — the man nearly died on our streets — only to mature and persevere and grind and thrive, becoming the rare athlete who not only thrived in Boston, but understood Boston. He was born in LA, but long ago, Paul Pierce became a son of our city.
I understood all that, knew all that, yet the deeper reason for the sadness on that day of the trade didn’t resonate until I did the math. If you were say, 26 years old on the day Pierce became a Net, and you’d been rooting for the Celtics since childhood, that meant that you were 11 years old — a peak formative year for a sports fan — when Rick Pitino actually did something right and drafted him.
Pierce had been a Celtic for your lifetime, and it was sad and strange and maybe a little jarring that he would not be a lifetime Celtic.
The math jostled my common sense, reminding me of something I should have known all along: to this generation of fans, The Truth was their Hondo, their Larry Legend. It didn’t seem right that he wouldn’t play his entire career in green and white like they did, but the cool blessing is that before it ended, he accomplished what they were most renowned for — winning it all.
Pierce had many, many brilliant performances as a Celtic, even before the New Big Three was assembled. But his greatest achievement? The outcome of Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. Never have I been happier to watch a particular athlete become a champion.
2. The wheelchair: Seven years later, we can admit it, if for no other reason that it’s a chance to remind still pissed-off Lakers fans of a year they lost to the Celtics in the Finals.
So here comes the admission: Yeah, all, right Pierce needed that wheelchair in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals only slightly more than he needed that sock wrapped around his jaw after he was tossed from the finale of the Indy series in 2006.
Hey, the man could be dramatic for effect, and the 3-pointer he rattled in immediately upon returning to the court was confirmation that he was never in danger of losing anything — the game, playing time, hell, the temporary ability to walk. I’ll admit, though, when he crumpled to the court, clutching his knee, I practically swallowed my tongue as we all shared a horrifying collective thought: The Celtics got this far, after winning 24 games last year, and now Pierce gets hurt? Turns out he was fine, beyond a sprained knee. Lakers fans’ delicate sensibilities, however, were bruised beyond repair.
3. Conquering the King: No one believes in Paul Pierce’s greatness more than Paul Pierce. I’ve always thought it was part of his charm, that the last shot belonged to him no matter the degree of difficulty, because dammit, he was going to drain it and be the hero like it’s supposed to be.
He always is sure he’s going to conquer, which leads to brilliant clutch performances and bold moments of failure that can range from amusing to aggravating.
(And sometimes both at once: In retrospect, he probably shouldn’t have yelled “Series!’’ after that temporary dagger against the Hawks in the Eastern Finals. But you know what? It was the quintessential Paul Pierce thing to do.)
History will confirm that he’s not quite on the tier of contemporaries such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, legends in their own time for whom a last name is no longer necessary for identification and adulation. Pierce is a legend, too, but on a smaller scale, and perhaps that legend is just a bit enhanced in his own mind. There have been times, though, when his legend was built at their expense.
He was the MVP of the 2008 Finals against Kobe’s Lakers and outplayed him in the series. He had a long and entertaining history of getting the best of LeBron, at least until LeBron changed the course of league history with his I’m-not-losing-tonight performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Finals.
But the singular tour de force of Pierce’s career came in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2008 against LeBron’s Cavs.
LeBron scored 45 points, but Pierce nearly matched him with a relentless 41, including two crucial free-throws with 7.9 seconds left.
Ironically, the New Big Three’s dominance of LeBron’s underwhelming Cleveland teams played a significant role in his decision to form a super-team of his own in South Beach – as it was, James’s last game of Act 1 of his Cavs career came against Pierce’s conquering Celtics in the 2010 playoffs.
“Obviously he gets a Cliff Note or a couple notes in my book as far as guys that helped me get over the hump or kept me where I was,’’ James said when asked about Pierce recently. “I knew I had to become much better individually. He’s one of those guys.’’
It should be more than a note or a few pages. LeBron couldn’t become LeBron until he overcame Pierce. And there were a couple of chapters of failure before it happened.
1. The ultimate team player: For consistency’s sake and proper acknowledgement of his specific feats of brilliance too, I’ll offer up a flashback on three exceptional individual Garnett performances here in a few words.
First, though, it’s appropriate to salute him not for any individual great games, but for who he was: the most unselfish superstar since Bill Russell. KG was a showman, but his greatness was never about the individual.
As the Celtics attempt to accelerate their ascent to true NBA relevance again, the most difficult aspect of the process — finding a genuine top 10-15 player to build around — has served to remind us of the singularity of KG’s unique brand of superstardom. The search for the next KG is repeated confirmation that it will never bring the next KG.
That search might deliver a superstar, maybe even one with lost-in-Minnesota NBA roots. But Kevin Love — or virtually any other truly great and available modern player — is not going to deliver what KG did.
Do you realize how rare it is to have as the fulcrum of your championship-level roster a superstar who can shoot beautifully but lives to terrorize on defense and does not give a hopping damn about getting his own shots?
We pause here to picture KG, at the foul-line extended, unfolding like a mantis deciding to get along with his day, then releasing a jumper so well-honed that your mind’s eye remembers it going in the same way every time, off the inside of the back rim, then straight down.
Then he pounds his chest, pulls out the CELTICS name on his jersey to remind us for whom he is doing all of this, barks something the courtside microphones never intended for us to hear, and bounces backward down the court, ready again for his true labor of love: keeping the ball out of the hoop.
There will be other Celtics superstars, perhaps soon. There is no next KG.
2. The last hurrah: Some of what we remember fondly about KG are the specific acts rather than the performances. Blindsiding Zaza Pachulia with a pick in Game 7 against the Hawks in ’08. Bonking his head on the stanchion to psyche himself up even beyond his usual zest and zeal. Knuckle pushups and clapped clouds of talcum. The unabashed enthusiasm for Gino, the punctuation mark on every big win. Ignoring traitorous Heat-seeker Ray Allen before the 2012-13 opener.
But to remember those scattered moments first does not mean we’re forgetting all the great games. It was tempting to slot his 33-point masterwork against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals here. Or perhaps his 18-point, 10-rebound, 5-steal gem in Game 5 of the 2010 Finals, the Celtics’ last victory in the series.
But it seems appropriate to go with the last huge win of the New Big Three era. In Game 5 — man, he showed up in those rubber-matches, didn’t he? — of the tied Eastern Conference semifinals against the Heat, Garnett delivered his last brilliant game as a Celtic, scoring 26 points, collecting 11 rebounds, and serving as the usual heartbeat of a Boston defense that held the Heat to 39 percent shooting.
The Heat would win the next two games, the series, and the NBA title. King James would finally seize the crown.
But not without one final night of proud resistance by KG and the Celtics.
3. ‘That’s that.’ This, this forever enduring clip right here, must be considered the classic KG snapshot en route to the classic KG outcome:
Now, we’re not sure if he actually called bank or glass there. But he could have called game. Hell, he could have called series, since his banked-in, holy-bleep-this-is-really-happening runner gave the Celtics a 56-35 lead with just under a minute remaining in the first half of Game 6 of the ’08 Finals.
Come to think of it, in his own distinctive way, he actually did declare the series over with his words as well as his actions. As the Celtics took a 23-point lead into the break, with it all over but the coronation, Garnett was heard to yell upon leaving the floor: “That’s that!’’
The Celtics would claim their first championship since 1985-86 with a ruthless and cathartic 131-92 dismantling of the Lakers. Garnett concluded the clincher with 26 points, 14 rebounds, and, most important to him, a bond with Bill Russell as a fellow selfless Celtic champion.
“I got my own. I got my own,’’ Garnett howled joyously to Russell afterward. “I hope we made you proud.’’
“You sure did,’’ Russell said.
He sure did.
And that acknowledgment from Russell, the patriarch and patron saint of all selfless, winning big men, gets to the essence of how KG, more than Doc or Rondo or Allen and perhaps even Paul Pierce, made it all possible.
Check that. He made anything possible, and an era unforgettable.