The Final Days of Boston’s Big 3
When the Boston Celtics first acquired perennial All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join their longtime stalwart Paul Pierce in 2007, it was understood that this group would have a limited shelf life to play together and try and win championships. After all, at the time all three players were already on the wrong side of 30, and the Celtic organization was hoping to squeeze every last bit of solid basketball out them before they were relegated to shells of their former selves. This rational seemed to be shared by Celtics GM Danny Ainge and Coach Doc Rivers, and the window given to this group to play together was largely believed to be three years. With this group now in their fifth season together and limping to a 4-8 start, the question of why Ainge and Doc didn’t go in a new direction a few years ago must be asked.
The three year window for this group of Celtics culminated as they walked off the court in defeat after the 2010 NBA Finals, and in retrospect that would’ve been the perfect time to break up the band. Everything fell in perfectly into place for the C’s during the 2007-2008 season, as their superstars gelled as if they had been playing together for years, they all remained relatively healthy for a majority of the season, and Boston ended up cruising to the best record in the NBA. The combination of their three stars with grinders such as Tony Allen, James Posey, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Big Baby Davis had made the Celtics into not only a good team, but a tough and physical one as well. In the playoffs the drive and hunger of this squad was apparent, as their superior team defense combined with the stellar play of Paul Pierce led Boston to its first title since 1986. For that one brief spring/summer of 2008 Pierce was arguably the best player in the NBA, as he managed to outplay the likes of LeBron and Kobe and make most of America forget about his Game 1 NBA Finals Wheelchair spectacle (Google this for a good laugh). The moves by Ainge were vindicated, and the combination of the Big 3 with its talented younger core of Rondo and Perkins gave Boston plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about its prospects of repeating as champions.
Unfortunately for KG, Ray, Pierce, Ainge, Doc, and Bill Simmons, the 2007-2008 season this was the zenith of the Big 3 era, and things have been trending slightly downhill ever since. The Celtics looked to be in prime shape for another title in 2008-2009 before KG suffered a knee sprain that ended his season, and despite winning an exhilarating first round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls they would fall short to the Orlando Magic in the Conference Semifinals, losing a decisive Game 7 in Boston.
Boston staggered towards the end of the 2009-2010 regular season and entered the playoffs as #4 seed, but Doc Rivers knew his group could beat anyone in the East when it came down to it and focused his attention of ensuring his team was healthy for the stretch run. In the playoffs the bullies from Boston showed their collective team-first brand of basketball was superior to the individual talents of their opponents, and in successive series took out D-Wade’s Heat, LeBron’s Cavs, and Dwight Howards Orlando Magic to make their 2nd Finals in 3 years.
In a rematch with the Lakers, Boston and its Big 3 had a golden opportunity to cement their legacy and be mentioned in the same breath with former Celtic greats who had won multiple championships. It was not to be however, as in the end they simply ran out of gas. In the finale of a hard fought series, Boston seemed prime to win Game 7 on the Lakers home floor, leading by as many as 13 in the 2nd half of that deciding game. In a stunning reversal of the 2008 finals though it was the Lakers who eventually imposed their will on the Celtics, as they dismantled them on the board and played suffocating defense. No player on Boston seemed capable of scoring in the 4th quarter, KG was outplayed and embarrassed by Pau Gasol, Allen and Pierce seemed to lose their legs, and the Lakers eventually beat them by a score of 83-79 to win their 2nd consecutive title.
You couldn’t have faulted Danny Ainge if he wanted to end this particular chapter of the Celtics after that crushing loss to the Lakers. His team gave it everything they had and left it all out there on the court, and if Kendrick Perkins hasn’t blow out his knee in Game 6 of the Finals perhaps the outcome would have been different. They had won a title, gotten close a couple of other times, a solid run.
But his team had gotten so close in 2010 that Ainge assumed they were only a player or two away from winning it all in 2011. He disregard the age of his stars and the three year window he had initially signed this group up for, and proceeded to re-sign Allen and Pierce and brought in the O’Neal brothers (Shaq and Jermaine) . For a while it appeared Ainge had made a wise decision in giving this particular team another shot at a title; they had the best record in the league for a stretch and were once again a team that was feared by many of the NBA’s elite.
This perception seemingly changed overnight, as Boston traded one of their defensive anchors (Perkins) in a salary cap move, went for long periods of the season without either of the O’Neal’s due to nagging injuries, and began to lose games at an alarming rate. Despite these setbacks, many people (myself included) figured the Celtics would simply turn it on again during the Playoffs and that their veteran savvy, teamwork, and defense would lead them over the freshly minted Big 3 of Miami in the Conference Semifinals. Displaying a scary mixture of speed, power, and athleticism, D-Wade and LeBron overwhelmed the Celtics, beating them down in five games. It was painfully apparent that this proud team (with the exception of Rondo) had gotten old, slow, and outdated before our very eyes.
All of which brings us to the current NBA season. It’s hard to believe the Celtics brass would make the same mistake the 80’s/90’s team did in hanging on and building its roster around stars (Bird, McHale) well past their respective primes, but they did. At ages of 34 (Pierce), 35 (KG), and 36 (Allen), Boston’s Big 3 still remains intact, albeit a poor man’s version of what they used to be. Surprisingly Ray Allen, the oldest of the group, appears he has the most life left in his game. KG hasn’t been able to finish around the rim for three years now, and Pierce seems to be sluggish as he plays himself back into shape.
Unless the Celtics somehow upgrade their roster (a longshot given their salary cap constraints), they are probably somewhere between the 5th-8th best team in the East, and getting past the first round of the playoffs this season will be a struggle for them. At this point in their careers they are pretty much playing for a title, but it is hard to project them in the same breath as Miami or Chicago. Is it worth keeping this team together if that is the case? While the contracts of KG and Allen come off the books after this season, teams are already reportedly inquiring about the availability of Pierce in a trade. Doc Rivers has said he wants to rid it out with this group until the end. The only question that remains is will the end come this spring by way of a playoff defeat to Miami, Chicago, Orlando, or Indiana, or via a mid-season jettison of some (or all) of Boston’s future hall of fame trio. I hope they get to play the final string out, as it is clearly not their fault their GM didn’t dismantle this team when he had the chance. Due to age, injuries, retirements, and player departures, the bully team this Celtics group used to be has gradually lost its swagger and a portion of its identity. But like all champions, they deserve to finish the game.
Follow us on Twitter:@PACsSports