If Paul Pierce’s rumored exit out of Boston ultimately comes to fruition, it would not only signal the unceremonious ending of one of the more storied careers in the history of this proud franchise, but also put the final nail in the coffin of the famed “Big 3” era.
While some will point to the departure of Ray Allen to Miami last offseason as the culmination of what had been an outstanding five-year run of Celtics’ basketball, the possibility of Pierce being bought out would hit even closer to home for a fan base that has grown to live and die with its veteran squad. After all, Pierce has spent his entire fifteen year career in Boston and was the one linchpin already in place prior to the arrivals Allen, Kevin Garnett, and even Doc Rivers.
With Allen slinking down to Miami, the last remaining ties to the Celtics 2008 championship team entering this season were Doc, Pierce, KG, and Rajon Rondo. Boston wasn’t too high on anyone’s list of title contenders, but as long as this remaining core stayed intact I always had the feeling that they would somehow rise from the ashes and make one last deep playoff push. Stretching Miami to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals demonstrated that they still had some gas left in the tank and that you could never completely write this group off.
It wasn’t in the cards though, as age and injuries decimated the roster (mostly notably the ACL tear suffered by Rondo). They fought the good fight against the New York Knicks in the opening round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs before eventually losing in six games, becoming the first time the squad didn’t win at least a playoff series since KG became a Celtic.
Success is often fleeting in the NBA, and outside of organizations such as the San Antonio Spurs, it is extremely difficult to maintain a level of sustained success for extended periods of time. Pierce, Garnett, and Allen were already nearing the back nine of their respective careers in the summer of 2007, so GM Danny Ainge was well aware that the “Big 3” had a limited shelf life when he orchestrated the moves that put this grouping together. Could they squeeze out a couple of championships before age and attrition took its toll?
Unfortunately for the Celtics, they could never quite replicate the magic of that ’07-’08 season. They came close on a couple of occasions, but at the end of the day they always seemed to get hit with an untimely injury or run into a superior opponent:
2008-2009: Boston seemed poised to repeat, starting off the season with a blistering record of 27-2 in route to 62 victories. They title hopes ended up being dashed by a mysterious leg injury to KG, who was ruled out for the playoffs and had to watch (glare menacingly is more like it) from the sidelines as his team fell in the second round to the Orlando Magic.
2009-2010: This Celtics team literally limped its way into the playoffs, finishing the season with a 27-27 record after racing out to a blistering 23-5 start. Written off by most, Boston proved that they could turn it on when it counted and memorably bounced LeBron James from the playoffs in what turned out to be his final series in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. They renewed acquaintances with the Lakers in the NBA Finals, dropping the deciding Game 7 in dramatic fashion by a score of 83-79. Losing Kendrick Perkins to a knee injury in Game 6 was definitely a factor, as without another big body in the paint the Lakers dominated the Celtics on the glass in the final game by a 53-40 margin. Still, even without Perkins, Boston held a 13-point lead at one point in the third quarter and couldn’t finish the deal.
2010-2011: In Year 4 of the “Big 3”, Danny Ainge blew up the starting five that won the title in ’08 when he traded Perkins to Oklahoma City at the deadline. The thought was that the team had enough frontcourt depth with addition that offseason of the O’Neal brothers (Shaq and Jermaine), and that they needed to get quicker on the perimeter in order to deal with the newly formed power in Miami. Ultimately, this move ended up backfiring. Shaq couldn’t stay healthy, Jermaine was a shell of his former self, and with Perkins gone the team lost a measure of its personality along with the defensive toughness that had come to define this group. Factor in a debilitating elbow injury to Rondo in Game 3 against Miami in the second round of the playoffs and Boston was helpless to stop the onslaught of LeBron and Wade, bowing out in five games.
2011-2012: Against all odds, Boston was a game away from eliminating the Heat in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. With a close out game at home on the horizon, the “Big 3” had a chance to reach their third NBA Finals in the last five years, further cement their legacy, continue the perception that the current mix of star players in South Beach wasn’t ideal, and keep LeBron ring less for at least another year. The Celtics were so close to the finish line only to fall short once again, getting blown out at home in Game 6 before losing the deciding game back in Miami.
It is hard to say that a collection of players that won a title and came within a few plays of winning another fell short of expectations, but looking back at this era of basketball in Boston you can’t help but feel that the Celtics left something on the table. Whether it was an injury that proved insurmountable or coming up a play or two short versus the likes of LeBron, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol, the Celtics were often exceedingly good but just not historically great. In some ways there were a lot like the Detroit Piston teams of the early to mid 2000’s; constantly knocking on the door and advancing deep in the playoffs, but only one knocking the door down on one occasion.
Outside of Boston’s 2008 championship team, year after year they often ran out of gas late in games, struggling to close out opponents of even average skill level. I think it is a testament to Doc Rivers that he was able to extract everything he possibly could out of his players and get everyone to buy in to the program. Still, more often than not, it just wasn’t enough to get over the hump.
Celtic fans of this era will always hold a special place in their hearts for Paul Pierce and the selfless behavior he exhibited in helping to bring this classic franchise back to life. They will also look back on this time period with a hint or regret, lamenting the missed opportunities that plagued this group since they raised their lone banner to the rafters.