MIAMI — It was less than five months ago.
We were Celtic-centric. We were still stinging from another Super Bowl stunner, surprised that the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins were eliminated from the playoffs, and somewhat concerned with the increasingly goofy behavior of Bobby Valentine.
But we had the Celtics. They were everybody’s favorite team in New England, enjoying a feel-good run through the NBA playoffs. They had defied the critics in taking a 3-2 series lead against the supposedly indomitable Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. It looked like the Celtics would close out the choking pretenders at the Garden in Game 6, but LeBron James went into Wilt Chamberlain overdrive and knotted the series.
And so we all took our talents to South Beach for Game 7. Anticipating a lengthy road trip that would take them to Oklahoma City for a couple of games after winning in Miami, the Celtics packed string ties and Buddy Lee shirts. We reminded ourselves that the Celtics were 21-7 in Game 7s. The Heat would undoubtedly choke in the big one. Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. We were all going to Thunder Road.
It looked good for a while. It was tied after three quarters and there were seven lead changes early in the fourth. But Boston’s old bones got cold and creaky down the stretch. Miami closed with an 18-6 run. It was awful. We were watching the final moments of the Duct Tape Five. Trailing by 11 with 28.3 seconds left, Doc Rivers cleared his bench.
Game over. Era over. Doc hugged Ray Allen . . . one last time.
Upstairs on press row, Bob Ryan — a.k.a. “the Commissioner,’’ the greatest basketball writer of all time — filed his final NBA game account on deadline.
A lot has happened since that night. The Heat won the 2012 NBA championship with Pat Riley receiving the O’Brien Trophy from commissioner David Stern. Allen rejected an offer from the Celtics and signed a contract to play for the Heat — triggering the worst Boston fan backlash since Johnny Damon went to the Yankees. Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics roster in brilliant and bold fashion. Commissioners Ryan and Stern both announced their retirements (we still see Ryan on these pages most Sundays, and Stern will be on the job until February 2014).
And now we are back in South Beach. The Celtics are here. Ray Allen is here, wearing No. 34 (he was No. 20 with the Celtics). We are here to watch the hated Heat get their rings and raise a banner at AmericanAirlines Arena. Maybe local promoters will produce one of those fog-and-mirror shows and LeBron can tell the crowd, “not one, not two, not three . . . ”
Paul Pierce (beginning his 15th season with the Celtics), Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo know what it’s like to raise a banner. They are the only remaining Celtics from the championship team in 2008, back in the days of Ubuntu.
It’s amazing the Celtics are still in the championship conversation. When Garnett and Allen came on board in 2007, we talked about a three-year window. It became a five-year run. And now, with Allen defecting to the Heat, the Garnett-Pierce-Rondo axis goes into its sixth season with great expectations. The Heat, Lakers, Thunder . . . and Celtics are the talk of the league on the eve of the season.
“I like our team,’’ Ainge said Monday. “I feel like we’re very deep and we can overcome some challenges and health and limit minutes and play a lot of people this year. We believe we have a chance to win a championship. We have to pull together as a team.’’
Ainge is bullish on his veteran leadership.
“It’s a credit to KG and Paul,’’ he said. “KG was one of best big men in the league last year. All year long and in the playoffs. Paul was NBA Player of the Month late in the season. Those guys have shown they still have a lot of basketball left in them.’’
As for the disgruntled Allen, Ainge said, “I haven’t really paid attention to it. I haven’t really read any of it, the things he said. I know players do get emotional. I was a player who was traded. I was a free agent. You sort of get over it in time. Ray was a great player for us. You don’t win a championship without him and I’ll never forget that. He was also incredible in our community and that will never be forgotten.”
But Allen is gone. Now he is the enemy.
Say hello to Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa, Darko Milicic, Jared Sullinger, and Fab Melo. Tell Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox it’s nice to have them back. Sports Illustrated says the Celtics are the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference, behind Miami, Indiana, New York, and Brooklyn. We think they are 1-A, right there with the Heat, ready to challenge now.
Starting tonight. After the rings are handed out.