MIAMI - No more loud nights at the Garden. No ride down Thunder Road to play Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals.
The Last Roundup for Boston’s fabled (new) Big Three was Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena near South Beach. The much-maligned Miami Heat came up big in crunch time and defeated the Celtics, 101-88, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s hard to believe Boston’s basketball spring of 2012 is over. The 2011-12 Celtics were a gift, keeping us up until midnight for three rounds and six weeks of playoffs. Boston’s Wheeze Kids, a.k.a. “The Duct Tape Five’’ looked like they might make it to the Finals for the third time in five years when they smoked the Heat in Miami to take a 3-2 series lead last Tuesday.
But Boston’s Old Gang could not close the deal on Causeway Street, losing by 19 points Thursday. Saturday night, with 28.3 seconds remaining, the curtain came down on the era of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Doc Rivers cleared his bench with the Celtics trailing by 11.
There were hugs all around. This group played 94 playoff games over five seasons, getting to the Finals twice and winning the franchise’s 17th banner.
“They had a great run,’’ said Celtics boss Danny Ainge, who assembled the Big Three in the summer of 2007. “It was a spectacular run, especially at the time of their careers that they came together here. What they were able to do this year was amazing. I figured we’d still be in the playoffs, but to play at this level was amazing.’’
“They were a great group, a great team group,’’ said Rivers. “They all gave up things for the better of the team. This year, we were two games under .500 at one point, but I liked this team, and they almost came through.’’
Indeed. After the Celtics dominated the Heat in Game 5, we all made our reservations for Oklahoma City. But for the third time in franchise history, the Celtics lost a series after taking a 3-2 lead. Boston’s Game 7 record is 21-8. The (new) Big Three finished 4-3 in Game 7s.
The finale proved to be yet another demonstration of flawed predictions that marked the fortnight fury. The one thing we were supposed to be able to count on was the Heat choking in crunch time; instead, it was the Celtics who caved down the stretch. This game was tied after three quarters and there were seven lead changes at the start of the fourth, but the Heat outscored the Celtics, 20-6, in the final eight minutes. Fittingly, the surge started with a thunderous dunk by LeBron James, who finished with 31 points and was easily the series’ best player.
LeBron now takes his talents to Oklahoma, where he will attempt to finally win a championship. The Celtics will figure out what to do now that the (new) Big Three era is over. Allen has almost certainly played his last game with the Celtics, and Garnett is not certain to be back.
The Celtics were optimistic when they gathered at the arena early Saturday night.
“We only win games when we have to win,’’ said owner Wyc Grousbeck. “We have to win this one. I checked.’’
“I think we’re ready,’’ added Rivers. “That’s my sense. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t play extremely well. This group has been told all year what they can’t do. This is a strong-willed group.’’
All the pressure was on the Heat.
The Celtics came out playing in-your-face, smashmouth defense, an obvious response to Thursday’s night’s matador effort when LeBron connected on 12 straight shots en route to 45 points. With Allen looking refreshed (salary drive?), the Celtics bolted to a 23-14 lead and settled for 27-23 after one.
There was trouble in the second quarter when Garnett was tagged for a phantom offensive foul and went to the bench with three personals with 6:50 left in the half. It was one of those calls guaranteed to embolden the conspiracy theory folk who believed commissioner David Stern wanted LeBron vs. Kevin Durant in the Finals.
The strategy failed. With Garnett on the bench, the Celtics ran to a 49-38 lead. The capper was a Brandon Bass steal and breakaway dunk off a lazy pass by Dwyane Wade. Bass and Allen combined for 26 first-half points, outscoring LeBron and Wade by 5. The Celtics led, 53-46, at intermission.
It was 73-73 at the end of three. This was supposed to be a good thing for Boston. But the ever-mocked Heat stood tall down the stretch. It wasn’t close. They were finally able to demonstrate that they were the better team. LeBron hit a back-breaking three from international waters and sidekick Wade finally played like a champion.
The Heat led, 99-86, with 1:23 remaining. De facto NBA commissioner Bob Ryan, covering his last NBA game in a career that started in 1968, said he’d never seen a team come back from a 13-point deficit in the final 83 seconds.
That made it official. The Celtics’ season was over. The (new) Big Three era was over.