BOSTON — Tuesday night the 2012 NBA Finals begin with the Oklahoma City Thunder hosting the Miami Heat. As those teams prepare to write new chapters in their franchise history books, the Celtics could be closing one here in Boston.
In 2007, the Boston Celtics finished with a record of 24-58. It was their third losing season in four years and one of the worst in franchise history. But trades brought change, in the form of two longtime NBA stars still seeking their first championship rings: Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. And at their first Celtics press conference, team captain Paul Pierce welcomed the reinforcements.
“We’ve all been in the same situations,” Pierce said. “We’ve been on teams where we’ve had to carry a lot of the load for a number of years and as you all know, you can’t win that way.”
But with the new Big Three in place, the Celtics did win. That season they earned the first Celtics championship since the large triumvirate of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish roamed the parquet.
In 2010, the Celtics returned to the Finals, falling to the Los Angeles Lakers. After Saturday’s loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, coach Doc Rivers said for five years Pierce, Allen and Garnett have sacrificed personal achievements while trying to win titles.
“I’m never going to look at them individually,” Rivers said. “I’m going to look at them as a group collective. They all gave up plus-seven shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball and they all did, and they’re willing to do it for the better of the team. That’s what I’ll remember most about them.”
The valiant, but losing, effort against LeBron James and the Heat is likely to be the last stand for the Big Three. Garnett and Allen are about to become free agents. Allen says series-ending losses always feel final, but this year’s hurt more.
“At the end of every season it always feels like it’s it,” Allen said. “Up to this point, we fought hard to keep together. Now there’s just so many emotions. This one hit me hard. We wanted it so bad.”
Allen turns 37 this summer. Garnett just turned 36. After the Celtics eliminated Atlanta from the playoffs last month, the famously intense Garnett reflected on what kept him motivated this season.
“Not knowing if this is my last year to play — to come here every day is an easy thing to do,” Garnett said.
Those kinds of comments have led to speculation that Garnett might retire or be willing to stay in Boston for less money than he’d make on the open market.
There are plenty of fans in Boston who would like to see the Big Three remain intact. Sarah, a Concord resident who asked that we only use her first name, had the topic on her mind during the Celtics’ second-round series against Phildelphia.
“I’d be heartbroken,” Sarah said, “I would be. I would be. A lot of special meaning coming to the Garden watching them. I remember Larry Bird from when I was little, but I think this is the group I’m attached to.”
Nashua, N.H., resident Josh Boucher said the 2008 championship provided his defining memory of the Celtics.
“I see that picture of Paul, Garnett and Ray Allen together holding the trophy,” Boucher said. “That’s what I’ll picture for the rest of my life.”
After his team was done in by a Rajon Rondo Game 7 triple-double, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins said Rondo could be the bridge from past and present to future.
“I don’t look at them as the Big Three,” Collins said. “I look at them as a ‘Championship Four.’ If you’re going to leave Rondo out, you’re making a huge mistake because that guy’s the motor that drives this team.”
In Game 2 of the conference finals, Rondo posted a career-high 44 points, adding 10 assists. The performance might be viewed a symbolic passing of the torch, but as Pierce, Allen and Garnett learned before joining forces, it’s tough to do it alone. Rondo led the team in scoring that night and twice more during the series. The Celtics lost all three of those games.
Rondo and Pierce remain under contract. The future’s uncertain for Garnett and Allen, but the league’s all-time leading three-point shooter made a simple case for keeping the core four together.
“There’s still a lot of basketball left in my legs, I know that for sure. So it’s hard to say what can happen, what may happen, but the four of us know how to play basketball. We know how to win games.”
Wherever they end up — on or off the court — next year, the Big Three’s crowning achievement isn’t going anywhere. Championship Banner No. 17 will always be in the rafters looking down on the latest group of Celtics.