Ray Allen is the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history, but bone spurs in his right ankle were flattening his impact like a nail in a tire. Kevin Garnett, at 36, was working so hard defensively that he lacked the lift to dunk on the break, and he was bouncing his signature turnaround jumpers off the side of the backboard. Paul Pierce, who has scored more points than any Celtic except John Havlicek, was fouling out with four minutes left and a three-point lead separating him and his accomplished teammates from an abrupt end to their run of title contention.
Last Saturday night it was clear that Boston had a Big Three in need of a boost—and not for the first time. In 1986 the Celtics used the second pick in the draft on Len Bias, a power forward who was supposed to rescue and extend the careers of stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Bias died of a cocaine overdose three days after the draft, and that threesome never won another title. But the Big Three of today has Rajon Rondo, the 26-year-old point guard who enables his old teammates to maintain a level of success they never knew in their youth.
Just when the basket appeared to be shrinking and Boston's window closing, Rondo pried it back open. He outscored the young 76ers—his peers in age but not in responsibility or achievement—by 9--2 down the stretch to give Boston an 85--75 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Fans at the TD Garden were so excited by his performance that they couldn't get their cheers straight. Some began by chanting M-V-P! M-V-P!, which is surely Rondo's role on this team, even as competing words came from the other side of the arena. Not until Rondo swished the last of his four straight free throws with 53 seconds left did they speak with one voice: Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat! Beat the Heat!
This Big Three era in Boston is supposed to be ending five seasons after it was conceived and executed with the trades that surrounded Pierce with Allen and then Garnett. With the expiring contracts of Garnett and Allen creating gobs of cap space with which the Celtics may rebuild around Rondo, Boston fans have been both anticipating the future and dreading saying goodbye. But these injured, enervated and elderly Celtics refuse to take their exit cue. The day after their Game 7 triumph, while players and coaches were boarding a plane to Miami to begin the Eastern finals, their employers and fans were reminiscing dreamily without end. It was the best of both worlds.
FROM A COURTSIDE SEAT at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia on May 23, 90 minutes before the 76ers won Game 6, Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics' majority owner, grew sentimental. He recalled the afternoon in July 2007 when he was running on the beach alone on Martha's Vineyard with his phone in hand, a half hour before the team's self-imposed deadline to complete the trade for Garnett. After caving on his demand that Boston include Rondo, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor finally called Grousbeck to agree to the deal. "I believe you will win the NBA championship," Taylor told him.
But their success was neither simple nor assured. The Celtics were building with used parts: Pierce, their 30-year-old mainstay; Garnett, who had been dealing with chronic knee issues; and Allen, 32, who recently had surgery on both ankles. One month earlier Boston, which had finished with the league's second-worst record, had been hoping to rebuild in the draft. (Celtics officials insist that if the team had won the lottery, G.M. Danny Ainge would have taken Kevin Durant over Greg Oden.) But after plummeting to No. 5 in the lottery, they traded that pick to the Seattle SuperSonics as part of a deal for Allen. The move—cashing out their young assets in return for an expensive roster with a relatively brief future—flew in the face of convention.
Before committing to the Garnett trade, Grousbeck called a meeting of his top seven co-owners and Ainge, who laid out the pluses and minuses of paying the three stars $56 million in 2007--08, more than the Bobcats and the Grizzlies would spend on their entire rosters that season. "I said, 'If they can coexist and thrive, this could really work; we could win the whole thing,'" recalled Grousbeck. "But if it goes badly, we might each need to chip in some more money, and I want to make sure everybody is comfortable with the risk and reward." Not only was every owner committed, but each also offered to buy out any partner who didn't want to invest in the new (or old, depending on your point of view) Big Three. There were no takers.
Ainge, who played three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays before spending 7½ years in the original Boston Garden alongside Bird, would tell Grousbeck he had never seen a team in any sport play as intensely throughout a season as the 2007--08 Celtics. After they won Game 7s against the Hawks and the Cavaliers, then weathered a knee injury to Pierce in Game 1 of the Finals, Grousbeck didn't know what to make of their 23-point halftime lead over the Lakers in Game 6. He was fretting in Boston's high-end Courtside Club lounge when he sought perspective from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I go, 'Bill, I'm a little worried,'" says Grousbeck. "I'm thinking if anybody's going to give me the canned speech—it's not over till it's over—it's Bill Belichick. He says, 'Hell, you got this; you're world champs! Have a shot.' And he hands me a shot of tequila."
Subsequent title runs came up short. A knee injury kept Garnett out of the 2009 playoffs, when Boston lost the conference semifinals to the Magic after taking a 3--2 lead. The next year the Celtics returned to the Finals but squandered a 13-point third-quarter lead to Los Angeles in Game 7. Last season they believed, stubbornly, that they were superior to Miami and could have advanced past the second round if not for a hyperextended left elbow suffered by Rondo in Game 3. Now their steadfast refusal to give in to a variety of injuries has propelled them into the conference finals as underdogs against the younger and more explosive Heat.
Originally Grousbeck and Ainge assumed that the Celtics would enjoy a three-year window of contention. They hoped to extend the run by trading the expiring contract of center Kendrick Perkins last season to the Thunder, though the Celtics as yet have nothing to show for it: Center Nenad Krstic moved to the Russian Super League during the lockout, and forward Jeff Green was sidelined for the year by a heart procedure. Those setbacks contributed to Boston's 15--17 start this season. But the Celtics improved at both ends of the court when Garnett moved to center and received inspired play from Rondo, who was finishing his second year when the Celtics won the 2008 Finals. "I'm not surprised," says retired forward P.J. Brown of Rondo's ascension. When Brown signed with the Celtics in February 2008, three months before he would famously make a jump shot that would help them beat the Cavaliers in Game 7 of their conference semifinal, he would return to the gym at night to improve his conditioning and usually find Rondo there. "That proved to me this kid's special, and he's going to be a star one day," said Brown. "Young guys come into the league with the mentality that everything's going to be given to you. But you couldn't be that way with the Celtics at that time. With Kevin and Paul and Ray, you had to give it your all."
What might Rondo have become when he was viewed as the least reliable starter on their title team if he hadn't been forced to elevate to the standards of the Big Three? Six years after he left Kentucky as a poor shooter to join the Celtics as the No. 21 pick, Rondo demonstrated how much of his elders' audacity has rubbed off on him. When Pierce fouled out in Game 7 last Saturday, Rondo instantly transformed himself into a younger Pierce by sinking one long jumper with his foot on the line and another longer shot at least three feet behind the three-point arc. He is a 24.1% three-point shooter for his career and an equally unimpressive 58.5% foul shooter over the last two regular seasons, and yet Rondo swished four straight free throws under pressure.
Rondo's exposure to his veteran teammates has enabled him to make any number of plays when they're needed most. Before they were flung together near the end of their careers, Garnett, Allen and Pierce—who had a combined zero Finals appearances—had each been a losing team's go-to star. Then they realized how much they needed one another if they were ever going to win a championship. "All of a sudden they were reinvented, and you saw what they had always been," says Ainge.
When Ainge traded for Allen and Garnett, he was hesitant to refer to his stars as the Big Three out of deference to Bird, McHale and Parish, who won three titles in their 12 seasons together. Now Ainge feels that the current trio has earned the right to be called Big. "The biggest difference has been health and longevity," said Ainge. "When Kevin and Larry and Robert were healthy, they were extremely special. They just didn't maintain it this long; Kevin and Larry weren't the same players after their surgeries. When they were in their 20s, I'd give the nod to the Big Three of the '80s. But in their 30s, I'd give the nod to the Big Three of today."
Mike Rotondi couldn't get used to the idea of saying goodbye to this team. He has been a Celtics season-ticket holder for 32 years, sitting courtside throughout the titles of the Bird era and the ensuing 21 seasons without a championship before the latest Big Three came together. "All I've heard on the radio five times today already is how it could be Ray's last game, Kevin's last game," said Rotondi before Game 7 on Saturday. "I'm very sad thinking about the inevitability of it. I don't know what we are going to do when we break them up."
The Celtics' influence reached out to Los Angeles, where the Lakers' 39-point loss in the decisive Game 6 of the 2008 Finals (as prophesied by Belichick) inspired L.A. to mimic Boston by growing tougher at both ends of the floor. Would Kobe Bryant be viewed with such esteem if Boston hadn't pushed him and his teammates to win the next two championships while renewing the Celtics-Lakers rivalry? Would LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have formed their own trio in Miami?
Despite losing three of four regular-season meetings, the Heat has all kinds of reasons to be confident of delivering a second straight knockout to the Celts. Boston's backup center Chris Wilcox joined Green on the sideline while dealing with a heart issue. Starting center Jermaine O'Neal underwent season-ending wrist surgery, and backup Greg Stiemsma's minutes have been limited in the playoffs by plantar fasciitis. Pierce is dealing with a sprained left MCL, and Allen, in spite of his own painful injury, was forced to return to the starting lineup when Avery Bradley—a crucial perimeter defender—underwent surgery last Friday to repair his dislocated left shoulder. Who will be able to stay in front of Wade, and who will help Pierce guard James?
The Celtics are resolute that they can cause problems of their own; the Heat has no ready answers for Rondo at the point or Garnett in the post. Perhaps more important, though, is the Big Three's sense of urgency. They were able to wed their talents instantly in 2007--08 because they sensed they were running out of time. Now, their final loss this season may well turn out to be their final game together.
"You look at the talent of our team from last year to this year, it's not even the same ballpark," says coach Doc Rivers. "But this is a team. I love this team. They just like each other, they fight for each other, they pull for each other. They know we're undermanned. They know it every night."
But they continue to survive, and that shared understanding of how to win may yet keep them together. Having seen the growth in Rondo, Bradley and other Boston prospects raised in the presence of Garnett and Allen, the Celtics haven't given up on the idea of trying to bring back their leaders this summer. "I really value those guys with young players around," said Ainge.
A full reunion, however, is unlikely. The end is near. "I literally won't allow myself to go down that road," says Rivers. "Whenever that day comes, that will be an emotional day." And yet the certainty of that sad day is to be treasured, because it brings out the best in those who play every game as if it may be their last.
WHEN TAYLOR SIGNED OFF ON THE GARNETT TRADE, HE TOLD GROUSBECK, "I BELIEVE YOU WILL WIN THE NBA CHAMPIONSHIP."
IN GAME 7, RONDO DEMONSTRATED HOW MUCH OF HIS ELDERS' AUDACITY HAS RUBBED OFF ON HIM.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
MOMENTS OF TRUTH The longest-tenured of Boston's talented trio, Pierce led the Celtics in scoring this year—the 12th straight season he's done so.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (GARNETT)
WEARY WARRIORS An ankle injury sidelined Allen (right) for 20 regular-season games, while Garnett (below) was so gassed during the Philly series that he didn't have the legs to dunk on a breakaway.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
[See caption above]
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
THE FOURTH MAN Rondo has provided the Big Three with vital help: His triple double in the clincher against Philadelphia was his third of the playoffs.