CELTICS: Memories Colored Green

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Sometime soon, the Boston Celtics will officially complete a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets, and will close the book on an era that began almost exactly six years earlier.

And what a story that book will tell.

The most-used name for this era–”The New Big 3”–must have been blasphemous for longtime Celtics fans, the ones who lived through the dominant 1980s era of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

During Bird’s career, the Celtics won three titles, five Eastern Conference titles and made it to three other conference championship series.

Since July 31, 2007, the Celtics won one title, two Eastern Conference titles and made it to the conference championship series one other time. So comparing the eras is difficult, and not really fair.

But what the Celtics will lose when they trade franchise icons Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett means more to me than anything else I’ve experienced as a basketball fan.

I could be bitter about that front office snake who lies through his teeth in public at almost every turn and is perhaps the most stone-cold businessman in the NBA.

I could be angry about trading Pierce and Garnett for draft picks, expiring deals and a washed-up, overpaid headcase.

I could be distraught about losing the best Celtics coach of my life, Doc Rivers, after he decided he didn’t want to honor his contract once the tide turned.

I could be upset about the other leg of the New Big 3 fleeing for our hated rivals and winning a title there.

I could be despondent that the franchise now appears to be in the hands of an equal-parts moody and talented point guard coming off a major injury.

I could be all of those things. But I’m not. You have to accept change. In life, in family, in work and in the teams you love. This was going to happen eventually.

I find myself grateful for the incredible times I experienced thanks to these guys, and the memories they provided. There were enough basketball memories in six years to last a lifetime.

***

Everything seemed lost in June 2007. The Celtics had endured their worst season in 10 years and the lottery came up snake-eyes. In a draft with two (at the time) consensus can’t-miss prospects, the Celtics were stuck at No. 5 despite having the league’s second-worst record.

One of the greatest what-ifs in team history has to be: “What if the Celtics ended up with Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft?” Undoubtedly, Danny Ainge would have built around youngsters Durant, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson, and likely would have dealt Pierce to bring back a shooting guard, either young or old. Perhaps that team would have won more than one title.

But alas, the ping pong balls came up as they did, and Ainge went to work, first netting Ray Allen at the draft and later pulling the deal with his old teammate McHale to bring in Kevin Garnett. Seeing the joy on their faces at that initial press conference, I knew we were in for something special. And we were.

For the first time in my cognizant life, the Celtics became a force. Amidst a Red Sox championship run and a Patriots undefeated regular season, the men in green were stealing headlines and winning the hearts and minds of fans like me who’d waited all their lives to see it.

Sure, during this recent run, the Celtics gained a reputation of being hot-heads. Overconfident. Even bullies at times. But to me, it created a sense of fear in the opposition. A bravado not seen on Causeway Street in years. When it was working, it was something to behold. Who wanted to play the Celtics when the games really mattered?

Garnett was the heart and soul of the entire thing. I think ultimately it was always Pierce’s team given his long and meritorious service in Boston. He was the captain, after all.

But everything changed when Garnett set foot in the Hub. Suddenly it became about work, about strength, about team and about wanting nothing but crushing the opposition every night.

Not beating them. Crushing them.

Garnett is such a rarity in sports these days. He’s extremely guarded about his personal life. He rarely, if ever, grants sit-down interviews. You’ll never see a KG reality show. Hell, he’s the one athlete I guarantee you will never have a Twitter account.

Why? Because he’s singularly-driven. All the bullshit associated with being a major pro athlete in the 21st century is secondary to crushing your opponents at every turn for KG. That’s why he never engages in the extracurriculars. Tim Duncan is similarly wired, and when they go, it’ll be a sad day for the NBA.

On the court, Garnett engages in a healthy amount of chest-thumping bravado and he’s perfected the art of trash-talking. Sure, maybe I’m biased, but I always believed it to be genuine. As a fan of KG’s team, I loved it. He would get so hyped up, so crazed with intensity night in and night out, it was hard not to feel it myself.

I’m sure it impacted his teammates too. Although he did make one of them cry once. That we know of.

Pierce had such a turbulent run in his first decade here I always wondered if he was suited to be a team leader. But when Garnett arrived, he was allowed to be himself.

And what was Pierce? Just one of the best pure scorers the league has ever seen. Garnett helped gloss over some of Pierce’s defensive shortcomings so Pierce could do his thing.

To paraphrase Lester Freamon, all the pieces mattered. Allen came up with timely three-pointers and free throws, cementing his place in history as the best at both. Rondo admittedly still has a long way to go, and will probably never get there, but he does absolutely amazing things on the court. And Perk was consistently one of the best rim-protectors in the league while doing the dirty work along the boards.

We can’t forget the great supporting players in this drama. James Posey, Tony Allen, P.J. Brown, Eddie House, Big Baby Davis, Leon Powe, Brian Scalabrine, Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson, Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus among others played their roles in the success of this franchise.

But it doesn’t happen without that starting five, which never lost a playoff series when they were all playing together from beginning to end.

***

As much as I loved this era, there’ll always be the questions of what may have been. The ‘08-’09 team was marching to a repeat when KG went down with a mysterious knee injury, which wrecked their chances after they expended every ounce of their energy in an epic first round series against the young Bulls.

They played behind their capabilities the next year but turned it on in the playoffs. It was an incredible, exciting run, nearly as rewarding as the ‘08 run, until Game 7 in LA. With no Perkins, Sheed ran out of gas, Pau Gasol ate them up on the boards and they blew a double-digit second half lead.

It still stings. They should have won that damn title.

For ‘10-’11, the Celtics may have been on their way to another deep playoff run when Ainge decided to take a bigtime gamble and trade away Perkins for Jeff Green’s promise, which is still yet to develop. Ainge banked on healthy returns for the unrelated O’Neals (Shaq and Jermaine) to provide size in Perkins’ absence. It didn’t work.

In the weird, lockout shortened year that followed, they made their third and final deep run. The last great moment of the New Big 3 era came when Pierce hit this shot in Game 5 against Miami to seal the game. It was the old guard having a laugh at the expense of the punk upstarts. But that shot maybe was the spark  LeBron James needed. He eviscerated the Celtics in Game 6, and the Heat ran away with Game 7 late to get the last laugh.

This year? Well, Ainge decided to go for one last run, adding pieces like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee while hoping for bigger contributions from Green, Bradley and rookie Jared Sullinger. But Rondo blew out his knee, Sullinger blew out his back, Terry and Lee flatlined and Pierce finally appeared weary from all the mileage in an ultimately disappointing season.

The way this team would tend to coast in the regular season then turn it on come playoff time was tough to take as a fan. It directly hurt them in ‘10 and ‘12, when having home court in the playoffs may have made a difference.

The second-guesses, wouldas, couldas and shouldas aren’t as important as the tremendous basketball we saw watching this team over six years. There was, after all, the first year, when it all came together.

***

A few things stand out to me about that championship year. I’m not sure the expectation was a title right out of the gate. Real questions existed about Rivers’ wherewithal to coach a championship team and if they could get by with a young Rondo at point guard.

But they blew through the regular season, compiling a 66-16 record, their best since the legendary ‘85-’86 team was one game better.

I knew they were for real when they made a Texas trip for three games in March and dispatched each of the defending-champion Spurs and the playoff-bound Rockets and Mavericks in succession.

The Hawks were a much tougher than expected opponent in Round 1, taking the Celtics to the wall, but the better team prevailed.

Next was the classic series against Cleveland, where LeBron proved he once again wasn’t quite ready to be the best. That Game 7 showdown with Pierce was the stuff of legend. So were those improbable shots hit by Brown.

Beating the Pistons in six in the conference finals was something of an Eastern Conference torch-passing, with one memorable team surpassing another in a hard-fought contest.

You could not have drawn up a better dream matchup for the Finals. Celtics-Lakers. Finally, Pierce and Kobe Bryant could etch their names next to the past greats who’d duelled on the biggest stage in sport, with Wilt and Russell, West and Jones, Bird, McHale and Parish vs. Kareem, Magic and Worthy.

The Lakers were the favorites. Sure, the Celtics had a lot going for them, but Kobe was the best player in the series and the Celtics didn’t have enough offensive firepower to outlast them. That’s what conventional wisdom said.

Mid-way through Game 4, it looked like a lengthy series was afoot. Down 24 points, the Celtics looked beaten, downtrodden. But then they came alive and staged an astounding comeback, silencing the Lakers crowd and taking what proved to be an insurmountable series lead.

Game 6 in the Garden proved to be among the most satisfying experiences I’ve had as a sports fan, alongside the Red Sox drubbing the Yankees in Game 7 of the ‘04 ALCS and the Bruins shutting out the Canucks to win the ‘11 Stanley Cup.

And to believe the Celtics were only up by four at the end of the first quarter. From there the lead grew, and grew and grew…to the final whistle, when the scoreboard showed a 39-point victory for the men in green.

It wasn’t just a win. It was, in one fell swoop, an erasing of the myriad disappointments of the franchise dating back to the sudden, tragic death of Len Bias in 1986. For Pierce, Allen and Garnett, they were vanquishing their own career disappointments that night. For Celtics fans, it was a three-hour long exhale after a so many years of holding their breaths.

They dumped Gatorade on the coach. They yelled completely incomprehensible things on live TV. They sprayed each other in the eyes with alcohol. But most importantly, they raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy and a 17th championship banner for the city where they came together.

***

And that’s what I choose to remember as it all comes to an end.

It will be so hard next year to watch Pierce and Garnett, Pierce in particular, play in something other than green. To put this in context, Pierce was drafted by the Celtics around the time I was finishing up 5th grade. I was 12! And now he’s gone.

Right now this Celtics team, as currently composed, is too good to be a bottom feeder trying to get a top pick in a loaded ‘14 draft. Rondo has to go, Green too if Ainge can find a taker. They need to go all-in on this rebuild. Right now they’re only half-in.

I have confidence they’ll load up again, one way or another, under the cerebral, analytical Brad Stevens as head coach. By the time his six-year contract is up, I think there will be another run of success with new players. We just don’t know who they’ll be yet.

Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca are good owners. They won’t allow this franchise they’ve built up to wallow in the depths for too long. Reloading now is the right move.

It’s hard not to feel wistful about the end of this era. It’s hard to watch as a team goes into a rebuild. But what we’ve got are the memories of these past six years, when Boston was once again a great basketball city.

As a fan, what I’m left with are memories. And what memories they are.

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