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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

Celtics finding success on borrowed time

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, left to right, are now in their fifth season together in Boston.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, left to right, are now in their fifth season together in Boston.

As you watch the Celtics submit their own peculiar brand of Jekyll-Hyde basketball, please keep in mind one thing.

This is Year 5 of a three-year plan.

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By rights, the Celtics easily could have been the Pistons already. But they could find themselves in the Finals. If you ask me, they’ve been playing with house money for two years. They’re already handling what could be considered their declining years better than the original Big Three did.

The overall circumstances of the respective Big Threes are different, beginning with the fact that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish were a unit for 12 seasons, the firm’s assembly taking place on draft day in 1980 when Red Auerbach secured future Hall of Famers McHale and Parish in the same trade with the Warriors. When they began play together Bird was 24, McHale was 23, and Parish was 27.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen are now nearing the end of their fifth year as teammates. When they began their partnership Pierce was 30, Garnett was 31, and Allen was 32. It was understood that theirs would be a relatively brief union and the universal assumption was that the championship window opportunity would shut after three years.

The Larry-Kevin-Robert - henceforth, simply “LKR’’ - association peaked in 1986 with the third championship in six years, and remained viable for two additional seasons, the final highlight a seven-game conquest of the Dominique Wilkins-Doc Rivers Hawks in 1988, capped by the legendary Larry-’Nique Game 7 fourth-quarter shootout.

But there was already trouble right here in River City because McHale had broken his foot when stepped upon by Larry Nance in early 1987, and though he would play six more years, he was never the same consistent two-way force again. And is it necessary to go over the painful Bird injury history? Double-heel surgery restricted him to six games in 1988-89, and an assortment of other injuries, mostly back related, kept him out of 59 games in his final two seasons of 1990-91 and 1991-92. And we never will know how many games he played in which he was 50 percent, at best.

As for The Chief, he was apparently indestructible, but we can assume that stoicism often triumphed over common sense in his case.

After defeating the Hawks in 1988, the Celtics lost to the surging Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference finals, which makes ’88 the cutoff point for LKR. And would you care to guess how many playoff series they won as LKR soldiered on, with Larry retiring in ’92, Kevin checking out in ’93, and Robert leaving Boston in ’94? The answer would be two (2). They edged Indiana in a 1991 best-of-five (Bird’s vaunted Game 5 comeback after smacking his head on the parquet) and a three-game sweep of those same Pacers the following year.

Dave Gavitt’s issue was the same one Danny Ainge has been facing for two years. Should he have broken up LKR, and, if so, how? Mr. Ainge, who once upon a time had found himself sacrificed for what was considered to be the greater good when the Celtics wanted to replenish their stock of big men, must have been agonizing at various times the past couple of years.

Don’t forget that there was going to be a transitional figure - two, actually - to help the Celtics negotiate the aging of LKR. But Len Bias never got to play a game for the Celtics, and Reggie Lewis died tragically in the summer of 1993 at a point in his career when there was no doubt he was establishing himself as an NBA great.

LKR had its post ’88 moments, such as a 29-5 start in 1990-91, but never could sustain anything, primarily because Bird could not remain healthy for long enough stretches.

In the here and now, no one rightfully can complain about the accomplishments of the new Big Three. First of all, they got the essential job done in Year 1, not only delivering franchise championship No. 17, but doing so in a breathtaking manner. No previous Boston championship team played harder for longer stretches than the 2007-08 team. I’ll always hold out for the ’86-87 team as being the Best of the Best, but it took nights off. That could easily have been the first team to win 70 had that been made the goal. I believe the ’07-08 bunch took no nights (or afternoons) off.

They followed that year up by winning 62 games and a memorable playoff series over Chicago before losing to Orlando in seven, all postseason games played without an injured Garnett. They went to the last three minutes of Game 7 of the Finals against LA in 2010, losing control of the game in four damaging possessions encompassing 94 seconds, during which time they went from 3 up to 6 down. Last year they swept New York before losing to a Miami team headed for the Finals. Now they already have won a series and are in perfectly decent shape to win another.

Repeat: It’s Year 5 of a three-year plan.

Is this group alternately exhilarating (squashing Atlanta, routing Philly on the road in Game 3, etc.) and exasperating (losing an 18-point lead in Game 4)? Yup. Do people wish there was a wee bit more scoring off the bench? Yup again. Is it a team that fills you with confidence every time it takes the floor? Hell, no.

But it’s still ticking. It’s May 21, and there’s going to be a game on top of the train station tonight, and another one in Philly Wednesday and, presumably, several more after that. It’s Year 5 of the three-year plan and this team, built around a trio of proud veterans, a team with obvious flaws and quirks (the young point guard being the King of Quirk), remains a tough out in the tournament.

No matter what happens, never forget it’s Year 5 of a three-year plan. Don’t get greedy. Just be thankful.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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