Their championship window is closing and a roster overhaul could be coming, but now that they're healthy, the Celtics don't look like a team that's ready to give up
The triumphant music thundered and a torrent of red and gold confetti poured down from the gray ceiling, another celebration arriving at the expense of the beaten Celtics. They hurried off the court, making it into the tunnel just before the glittering rain. For the next few minutes they sat in the visitors' locker room at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena with their feet numbed in buckets of ice as they considered all that had gone wrong over these last two years, and how little time they had left to make it right again.
Is this the last stand for the 2007--08 champs? Their performance last Saturday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against Cleveland, a game Boston controlled for long stretches, indicated that the series will most likely not be a rout for the top-seeded Cavs. But the result, a 101--93 Cleveland win, was all too familiar for a Celtics team that couldn't help but recognize the justice in their defeat, a sense that maybe they'd received their due after a season of too many blown leads and too many nights when they failed to maintain their high standards of two years ago. "It was like the games during the regular season didn't have enough meaning [for us] to fight through whatever adversity we might find," said Boston general manager Danny Ainge last week. "The signature [issue] of our postseason was going to be, What kind of resolve do we really have?"
Ainge would neither appreciate nor be surprised by the answer to that question on Saturday after the Celtics dominated the first half and led by 11 points in the third quarter—only to watch Cleveland outscore them 43--24 over the final 18 minutes. Though LeBron James admitted to "tentative" play and "thinking too much" about his painfully sprained and bruised right shooting elbow, he still had 35 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks while never appearing to worry that his team wouldn't prevail. "We've been there before," said Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, whose team-leading 27 points and 12 assists went for naught. "We were up at halftime again, and we lost a double-digit lead again, and we didn't get the win." Again.
When the Celtics made their dramatic moves in the summer of 2007 to supplement forward Paul Pierce with guard Ray Allen and forward Kevin Garnett, they acknowledged that the remade squad had a three-to-four-year window of contention. Now they must appreciate how time does fly. All season Boston has struggled to overcome knee injuries to the 32-year-old Pierce and the 33-year-old Garnett while dealing with trade rumors involving Allen, 34, who becomes a free agent after the season. Throughout the year, coach Doc Rivers was forced to choose between managing the health of his elderly stars and trying to pile up wins to improve his playoff position. The Celtics wound up with a disappointing 50--32 record—twice as many losses as during their 2007--08 championship season—and the No. 4 seed in the East, but Rivers, Ainge and CEO--managing partner Wyc Grousbeck all agree that the injuries left them with no choice at all.
"What else are we here for?" Rivers said over a plate of Phoenix rolls at Douzo in Boston's Back Bay the night after his team eliminated the Heat in the first round. "We won a title, but that's not enough for me and it shouldn't be enough for anybody. If we're not trying to win it with this group, then break it up and go young. But I owe it to them, as long as they're here, to go all in. Whether that's good enough or not, we'll find that out. I believe it is."
Even as Rivers embarked on his long-shot run to steal an 18th title for the NBA's winningest franchise, Ainge was seeking to create a new contender out of the old pieces. In February the Celtics discussed a makeover that would have dealt Allen to the Wizards for a package involving forward Caron Butler, followed by a second blockbuster that would have sent center Kendrick Perkins and other salaries to the Jazz for power forward Carlos Boozer—leaving Boston with a revamped lineup of Garnett, Boozer, Pierce, Butler and Rondo. The idea died when the Wizards moved Butler to the Mavericks instead, but it's an example of Ainge's willingness to consider anything. The speculation grew so hot that Ainge invited Allen and his wife to his office to explain how Allen might indeed be dealt if his expiring $18.8 million salary could land a younger star.
Ainge had the same kind of heart-to-heart with Rondo in the preseason, after he was mentioned in trade rumors last summer. "If there was an opportunity for me to get traded and they would have had better guys come in, I'm sure they would have made the deal," says Rondo, who was coming off a breakout year of 11.9 points and 8.2 assists per game yet was on the books at an affordable $2.1 million. "It wasn't like you had to make a blockbuster trade to get me."
"He was hurt by it," said Rivers. "That's human nature. I would have been hurt too."
Though he wanted to remain in Boston, Rondo approached the season believing it could be his last with the team, as he was due to become a restricted free agent this summer. He added 13 pounds of muscle (he's up to 188 pounds) by undertaking a weightlifting regimen for the first time, and he worked on his shooting with consultant Mark Price, the former Cavs star who counseled Rondo to keep his elbow close to his body and improve his follow-through. During negotiations with the Celtics for a contract extension, Rondo and his agent, Bill Duffy, were adamant he would accept nothing less than the $11 million average salary that Spurs point guard Tony Parker is receiving on his six-year deal. "They weren't budging from what they wanted," said Ainge. "So it came down to the point: Do we want to do this or do we want to walk?"
Grousbeck pushed through the negotiations, viewing the 24-year-old Rondo as not only vital to this season but also to the Celtics' future after the Big Three are gone. Last November, Rondo got the deal he wanted, a five-year, $55 million extension that not only earned him newfound respect in the locker room (where money plays a large factor in the hierarchy among players) but also gave him peace of mind. "I definitely got to sleep at night not stressing that if I play bad, I'm not going to get a deal," he says.
His nerves settled, Rondo made his All-Star debut and turned to helping his elder teammates recover. Garnett, who had off-season surgery to remove a large cyst from his right knee, and Pierce, who underwent an arthroscopic irrigation in December to remove a right-knee infection, were both in the midst of their worst scoring seasons since they were rookies. In February and March, Rivers asked Rondo to cut back on his shooting so his stars could get back into the offense as they healed. "Rondo did it with no problem, he was great," said Rivers. "The problem was the other two weren't ready. And Rondo was still [feeding them]. On the one hand he understood, but he was like, Man, we're going to them even though they can't even move.
"We just felt if we were going to win, if we had any chance, we had to get them back to where they're at now. I didn't want to lose any games. [Boston went just 21--16 from the beginning of February through mid-April.] But it was worth it to get them back."
By the end of the season Pierce was driving to the basket on strengthened legs, and Garnett looked more spry last Saturday than he has in months as he blocked a shot from the other side of the basket, dunked emphatically while crossing the lane and completed a variety of spin moves on the block. Garnett's recovery had come with the special assistance of Rondo, who during the championship run had been viewed by the Big Three as a pesky little brother but who has since grown up to become the family savior—a Michael Corleone taking command in time of crisis. Over the second half of the year Rondo tried to coax Garnett back into shape by lobbing him occasional alley-oops, knowing full well that a similar play had set off KG's original knee injury. "I'm just trying to get him confident, so I don't even want to throw him a pass where he's in traffic and he's worried about coming down," says Rondo. "If I do throw a pass, it's usually when it's just him and his man so he can hang on the rim and it won't be contested."
But confidence and health aren't everything. The Celtics' improvised approach to the 82-game season left scant time to recover the selfless and highly synchronized teamwork that defined their '08 championship team at both ends of the floor—the same woven rotations that now define LeBron's Cavaliers. The free-agent signings of forward Rasheed Wallace and swingman Marquis Daniels (who has fallen out of the rotation since undergoing thumb surgery in December) haven't paid off, and so the Celtics are now hoping to suddenly pull themselves together against a title favorite that is younger, deeper and better prepared to focus for 48 minutes.
And yet there remains hope for one more parade, that this proud team can reconstitute the breathtaking 1969 farewell of Bill Russell when he led his elderly Celtics to a Game 7 Finals upset of the Lakers. Can today's Celtics summon that resolve? "They've had it through most of their careers," Ainge said last Thursday as he sat in his office overlooking the practice gym, players' shouts audible through an open window. "I know what's inside our guys, and that gives me comfort."
Which is not to be confused with feeling comfortable. Ainge is facing difficult choices this summer. Does he re-sign Allen, move him in a sign-and-trade or simply replace him with a mid-level free agent? Does he investigate dealing Garnett for a younger replacement in hope of jump-starting Boston's transition to the next era? Much will depend on whether the three old stars can renew their dominance by peaking in the playoffs, which has been the Celtics' plan all along.
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"We won a title," says Rivers, "but that's not enough for me and it shouldn't be enough for anybody."
Photographs by BOB ROSATO
GREEN MONSTER Rondo's 27 points and 12 dimes in Game 1 were wasted, leaving Rivers (above) with an all too familiar feeling of frustration.
Photographs by BOB ROSATO
OLD SCHOOL Like fellow thirtysomething Garnett (right), Pierce had his lowest scoring average since his rookie season.