The Celtics’ loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night was the end of a dream, the end of the season and, in all likelihood, the end of an era, South Florida serving as the sepulchre for the union of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The enduring legacy of the Big Three (or Core Four, with Rajon Rondo) goes beyond hanging Banner No. 17 in the rafters and always hanging tough in the face of adversity. It’s restoring the phrase Celtic Pride to the organization’s lexicon, making basketball relevant in Boston again/Boston once again relevant in basketball and finally, ushering in the era of NBA superfriends.
It was Boston’s Big Three that begat, necessitated really, the Miami mercenaries that sent them home on Saturday. The fourth quarter of Game 7, when Miami’s triumvirate outscored the Celtics’, 28-7, was like watching a bulky laptop try to compete with an iPad. The Celtics had been supplanted by a newer, sleeker, more advanced model with a faster processor and more capability.
It was not a coincidence that during the 2008 Summer Olympics, less than two months after the Big Three won the NBA title, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh first hatched their plan to ultimately unite their talents in South Beach. The Heat’s unholy trinity, formed two summers later, was in direct response to the Celtics.
Now, it’s Boston’s turn to formulate a response to the Heat’s trio. The question that must be asked is how to do the Celtics, eliminated by Miami in back-to-back seasons, beat the Heat? Rebuild and hope to hit the free agent lottery in 2013 and/or 2014 or reload?
It’s not standing pat and bringing the Big Three back intact for an encore. That’s a nice notion, but not a winning one, so says NBA history.
The early 1970s New York Knicks were supplanted by the Tommy Heinsohn-coached (where do you think he got his ever-lasting ire for referees?) Celtics in 1974. The classic Big Three Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish gave way to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in 1988. Those Pistons were preempted by Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1991. The Core Four Celtics usurped Chauncey Billups’ Pistons, who had advanced to six straight Eastern Conference finals.
What all those clubs have in common is that they never bounced back to beat the teams that superseded them.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he plans to offer contracts to free agents Kevin Garnett, 36, and Ray Allen, who is slated for ankle surgery Wednesday and his 37th birthday next month.
If the Celtics can coax a resurgent Garnett, who averaged 19.2 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game in the postseason, back in green for another season then the idea that the Celtics can attempt to merely retool San Antonio-style instead of rebuild has validity. The Celtics have no viable replacement at center for Garnett on the horizon and legitimate NBA big men are scarce.
If KG retires or decides to bang his head into the basket support and pound his chest elsewhere then dark days are ahead for the Parishioners of the Parquet, including a possible trade of Paul Pierce. In that Banner 18-razing scenario, Rajon Rondo really is, as hizzoner referred to him, “Hondo.” It was John Havlicek who served as the bridge connecting the Russell-era Celtics and the title teams in the mid-70s.
There was a reason that Allen was red-eyed and reflective in his post-game presser. He has likely played his last game in green, the most dispensable of the Big Three at this point. The Celtics already have his successor in Avery Bradley, whose emergence was the most significant development of the season.
Allen, who will draw interest around the league, is not returning unless he takes a hometown discount in both contract value and length and a reduced role to match.
Funds for Allen would be better spent trying to upgrade elsewhere. Making a run at restricted free agent centers Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee could be worthwhile, but RFAs on the level of Jason Thompson of Sacramento and J.J. Hickson of Portland might be more realistic big man options.
Brandon Bass worked out well, but overpaying to retain the power forward, who is likely to exercise his opt-out, would be regrettable, especially because for chunks of the playoffs coach Doc Rivers was loath to use him late in games.
More athleticism and depth are essential to the Celtics. A healthy Jeff Green who resembles his Oklahoma City animus would certainly help there. Green is technically a restricted free agent, but after the Celtics stuck with him through his heart ailment it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t reciprocate their loyalty.
Rondo proved this postseason he can be a go-to scorer when needed (see: Eastern Conference finals Game 2), but the Celtics still need more players who can create their own offense against Miami.
Ainge has always been infatuated with O.J. Mayo, a restricted free agent. He reportedly tried to send Allen to Memphis for Mayo at the trade deadline.
Mayo was a highly-hyped high school hoops prodigy who drew comparisons to LeBron, but has never lived up to that promise as a pro. Still, he can be a volume scorer -- he averaged 18 points per game his first two years in the league -- who can get his own shot. He is also a career 37.5 percent 3-point shooter.
Mayo has been marginalized in Memphis. In Boston, he’d still be coming off the bench, but with a green light to shoot.
The Celtics have also been linked to San Antonio RFA Danny Green, who besides having a perfect name is a strong defensive player who can stroke the three.
The Celtics also have a pair of first-round picks in a deep draft (No. 21 and No. 22) to play with.
Ainge has a lot of options to improve his team, but Year Six of a Three-Year Plan isn’t really one of them.