Sometime this week, Ray Allen will be introduced as a member of the Miami Heat. Allen didn’t just leave Boston; he went to the most hated team in the NBA. He left for less money. He left to buddy up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The pictures James has been posting on Twitter are enough to make you sick. Just imagine the shots you’ll see of James, Wade, and Allen — medium ice tea in hand — partying in South Beach if the Heat win it all again next season.
The immediate reaction to Allen’s decision has been harsh. Among hardcore Celtics fans, there has been little public sympathy. Some of it is pure anger (Good riddance), some of it is denial (Avery Bradley’s better, anyway). But no matter what you think of James and the Heat, this is not the time to rip Allen. Going down that road goes against everything Allen and this recent group of Celtics has stood for since 2007, when the team traded for the then-32-year-old shooting guard. It’s the worst kind of reactionary fandom.
The Celtics — you remember them, that too-old, no-good team that makes it to the conference finals almost every year — did pretty well with Allen. After five years of the New Big Three era, we can say with certainty that the combination of Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett worked. Three superstars can blend together successfully. The Celtics won it all in their first season together, and the rest of the league has been trying to replicate that formula ever since.
But now it truly is over, and it’s time to turn up the house lights and go home. A run that started with a draft-night trade to get Allen and saw 11 playoff series victories, two NBA Finals appearances, and one title, has come to an abrupt end.
Abrupt is an odd word to describe the end of a three-year window that went on two years too long, but that’s exactly what it feels like. When Garnett re-upped for three more years, there was a sense of relief. The Celtics weren’t completely starting over. There would be some semblance of continuity from a team with a championship pedigree.
Allen was very much a part of that continuity, even as the third of three superstars. He averaged 16.7 points in five years here. He made 40 percent of his 3-pointers and 91 percent of his free throws. No other Celtic took the job of playing basketball more seriously, and that’s saying something considering Garnett is on the team.
The first time I got to TD Garden way too early for a game and saw Allen going through warmups, I thought it may have been an aberration. Allen’s work habits were legendary, but I assumed he didn’t come to every single game more than four hours before tip-off. I assumed the routine might vary somewhat. Life would get in the way. I wasn’t always able to get to the games so early, so I’d ask security guards or ball boys if he’d already warmed up “A while ago,” would be the response. “You missed him.”
Speaking of life, it came down hard on Allen during the 2008 NBA Finals. With the Celtics up, 3-2, on the Lakers and on the brink of an NBA title, Allen was dealing with perhaps the most difficult moment he’d had to face off the court. His young son, Walker, was sick, and the Allen family didn’t know why. Tests were being conducted on Walker to figure out what was going on while the Finals were being conducted on two coasts. It was a trying time.
If there’s a time when a creature of habit might crack, it’s when his routine has been shattered. But rather than use the disruption as as an excuse, Allen used his prior hard work as a crutch. Even though he’d arrived to the arena for Game 6 at 5:50 p.m., well after he usually does, Allen put in a performance for the ages, tying a then Finals record for 3-pointers in the game. He hit four threes in an eight-minute span to start the fourth quarter as the Celtics opened the floodgates in a 131-92 victory over the Lakers that gave Boston banner No. 17.
“I just stayed in my preparation,” Allen said that night. “I didn’t change one thing I did. I know teams were trying to take me out of the offense, but I wanted to make sure that I did everything to make this team better.”
There were other great moments. Allen set the NBA Finals record all by himself by making 8 of 11 3-pointers in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals in Los Angeles. He scored 51 points in a playoff game against the Bulls in 2009. He was asked to take a back seat in Boston, but Allen often picked the biggest moments to step up. When you think of Allen in a Celtics uniform, you think of him coming around a screen and nailing a 3-pointer to tie a game or give the Celtics the lead in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
Allen wasn’t always a good soldier. He could be a sneaky diva, and evidence of the difficulties of working with him have surfaced in multiple reports over the years. Of the Big Three, he gave up the most to come to Boston. He took seven fewer shots and averaged nine fewer points in his first year with the Celtics than he did in his last year in Seattle. Used to being the best player on his team, Allen took a back seat. He was an All-Star. He was a movie star once. It could not have been easy.
But Allen left us with more good memories than these last 48 hours could ever sour. Allen missed 1,477 3-pointers during his time in Boston, but you’d have a hard time remembering any of them. He was the ultimate team player, and the fact that he’s now being called a traitor is a shame. The immediate comparison fans made to Allen was Johnny Damon, who left the Red Sox for the Yankees in free agency. There are some parallels to Damon, but only because of the vitriol reserved by fans for his destination. What about comparing Allen to Pedro Martinez? How about comparing Allen to a once-great Boston player who, in the twilight of his career, probably left at the right time. Damon left the Red Sox for more money. Allen is leaving for less, but for a better shot at a championship. Ray Bourque did the same and rode back into Boston with the Stanley Cup as a conquering hero. Allen will never get that chance, nor should he, but his legacy on his way out the door deserves to be somewhere between the legacies of Martinez and Damon.
The Celtics were entering the sixth year of a three-year window. They were becoming the butt of jokes, and Danny Ainge was being mocked for letting an old team get older. Did you really want to be looking at three more years of the same Big Three? Would you have been overjoyed to hear the news that Allen was coming back?
Allen is a great fit in Miami, where he doesn’t have to carry the load of a star, but where he’ll be a welcome reprieve from the so-so shooting of Mike Miller. The Celtics twice tried to trade Allen, then sent him to the bench in favor of a second-year player. It’s likely that pride — that being appreciated — had a lot to do with Allen’s decision. He’s made enough money. Still, for a person who thinks and over-thinks every little detail, the decision to leave must have been agonizing.
The Celtics can now go about the business of replacing Allen. Maybe they’ll find a younger player who will be a good fit. Maybe they really can begin to rebuild without blowing the whole thing up. Maybe, in the end, this is better for all parties.