It’s not so much that the Celtics lost. It’s that we don’t get to watch them anymore.
Sappy? No. It’s the simple truth, a notion no more sentimental and no less sincere than cheering “Let’s go, Celtics” in the closing moments of a blowout loss, a gesture that led more than one of the multimillionaire, presumably jaded professional athletes in the Celtics’ locker room to admit to having goosebumps during the impromptu serenade.
This team’s run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals was an unexpected coda to a three-year window that turned into five. A sixth season of the second Big Three era is unlikely at best, and so there’s something larger at play here than just the end of a season. As it turned out, the Game 6 serenade was as much a farewell as it was a salute.
It’s the end of an era that resulted in the resuscitation of the franchise, delivering one championship, the long-awaited banner 17, but so many more banner moments and performances. If you don’t miss watching this bunch, I’m not going to believe you were watching much in the first place.
So here we are, three days after LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat ended a fascinating and mostly fulfilling Celtic season in the fourth quarter of the seventh game, it’s OK to admit it: The team that won deserved it.
Sure, the missed opportunity of closing out the Heat in Game 6 will hover over the offseason, and what happened Saturday night — a tight seventh game snowballing into a loathed opponent’s coronation in the fourth quarter — felt way too much like what happened in Los Angeles two seasons ago.
It stinks losing to those South Beach frontrunners, but the Heat were worthy, especially LeBron, who gets way too much grief. The Celtics — the aging, proud, depleted Celtics — gave it all they had, and it wasn’t enough. No shame in that.
The disappointment is not so much in the defeat, but the departure, of this team from the present tense to the past and, soon, of some of the players who made it so fun to follow. Though any season that Larry Bird was around ranks as a joy I wish I could relive, I can’t think of a Celtic team I’ve enjoyed more than this one among those that didn’t end their season by securing a banner. This was a special team.
Part of the appeal here, admittedly, is the Cranky Old Dude Factor. For someone wondering where his 30s went and whether Just For Men can help get them back, it was reassuring and affirming to watch Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce humble and vanquish younger, less-savvy foes during this postseason. In other words, get off our lawn, Josh Smith.
They weren’t supposed to be able to do this during their lockout-abbreviated season. And it did not always seem like they would. There were personnel losses — thank heavens, not in the tragic sense — when Jeff Green (during the preseason) and, later, Chris Wilcox required surgery for heart ailments. Those conventional wisdom subscribers who thought age and attrition would lead to their downfall were looking prescient. They were just 17-17 as the calendar turned to March, and their condition was such that the idea of dealing Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce or Ray Allen at the trading deadline was considered reasonable.
But then the great Doc Rivers, equally adept as a tactician and a people-person and so essential to this franchise, made an crucial adjustment, shifting Kevin Garnett to center, while the emergence of defensive whiz Avery Bradley from bench-warmer to cornerstone in his second NBA season added another element. The Celtics beat the Heat three times in April (once coming against the LeBron-less, Dwyane Wade-less jayvee version), went 24-10 over their final 34 games, and dispatched the Hawks in six games and the lively Sixers in seven to reach the NBA’s final four.
The final shining moment would not belong to the Celtics, however, and so the season’s final scenes featured the Celtics acknowledging their conquerors (or, in Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett’s case, evading them). While watching Ray Allen graciously shake hands with the Heat players after Game 7, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the sharpshooter, a free-agent-to-be who wasn’t thrilled with ceding a starting role to Bradley late in the regular season, will be among Miami’s ranks next season.
If so, that would raise the count of Heat players who are tough to root against to one. We’ll remember him for an effortless style that was the product of compulsive dedication, and a toughness often masked by his grace. Allen will have surgery on his ankle Wednesday. A lesser competitor would have had it done weeks ago.
As for Garnett, well, he has to come back, because after his resurgence this season, due as much to good health as anything else, no one around here wants to fathom what it would be like should he opt for retirement. I have a hunch that he is leaning toward walking away and the Celtics know it, with no other evidence than his wrenching emotional reaction to being removed from Game 7 when defeat was a foregone conclusion.
KG took a moment to tell Doc that he loved him, and name me another athlete who would ever be secure enough, man enough, to say that to a coach while a crushing defeat was still technically underway. Doc choked up, and one can only imagine how the goodbyes played out behind the scenes. KG treated it like something bigger than the end of a game, a season or an era. He can be melodramatic, but this felt like his famous final scene. We’re not ready to say goodbye to this team. Cross your fingers and hope KG isn’t, either.
The Finals begin Tuesday night, and it’s too compelling a matchup to shrug aside. We’ll watch, and a massive percentage of us will root for the Thunder, and we’ll probably catch ourselves wondering once or twice, without regret, how Celtics history would be different had Kevin Durant ended up with the Celtics in 2007.
But even as the worthy finalists battle, we’ll think and think again of the Celtics and what’s to come. Will Danny Ainge pursue restricted free agent Roy Hibbert, or are there less-obvious targets on his radar? Will Bradley return to health and will Green be back to give Rondo some running mates? Will Paul Pierce recognize that it’s Rondo’s offense now and cease treating the third quarter from time to time like it’s his turn to get his?
And maybe we’ll continue to wish we could trade some of the future for a little more present, just to see this team play a little bit longer, to tack a few more games on to an era.
Say, anyone up for a Spurs-Celtics consolation round? Not in the blueprint, Mr. Stern? Then there’s only one thing left to root for:
Go get ’em, Perk. We’re used to rooting for old Celtics. The best we can do now is root for a former one who knows what we’re missing.