NEW YORK — Somehow the two graybeards were not going to let the Big Three era end here in New York, not succumbing to the intimidation tactics and mind games of the New York Knicks, whose players all wore black to the game to mark a “funeral” for the Celtics and perhaps their golden era.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett fully realize their days as Celtics may be numbered, that their tenure as a dynamic duo may have nearly reached its end, depending on the decisions of president of basketball operations Danny Ainge this summer.
But for two more days at least, Celtics faithful can beam with pride that their band remains together. When the circumstance seemed most unlikely, the combination of Pierce and Garnett was stellar in key stretches of a 92-86 Game 5 win Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks’ once insurmountable three-games-to-none lead is now 3-2 as they were decimated by the clutch shots of Pierce and Garnett, still feisty in their old age.
They combined for 32 points and Garnett collected 18 rebounds and Pierce canned four 3-pointers, shaking off a 0-for-6 start as the Celtics rallied from an early 11-point deficit.
Friday night’s Game 6 at TD Garden could be their final game as Celtics, and the atmosphere should be raucous. While this shorthanded team was considered lifeless just five days ago, they have revived themselves behind their ancient duo, giving the organization something to ponder as the summer of decision approaches.
“Everybody in here wants to win; everybody wanted to get this game back to Boston for Game 6 and see what happens,” said Pierce, who prevented another second-half breakdown with 10 third-quarter points. “We just keep trying to find a way. We just keep finding out more and more about this team, more about the guys that we put out there. Just their will and not wanting the season to end right away. When it was 3-0, we could have packed it in, but this team has the will.”
Hours earlier, Pierce discussed his future with the Celtics. The final year of his contract is not fully guaranteed, a rarity when All-Stars sign extensions. The Celtics are on the books for $5 million if they want to rid themselves of the final year and $15.3 million of his deal, and the decision has to be made by June 30.
So while Ainge wouldn’t discuss Pierce’s status, saying he has talked about the possibilities with no one in the organization or Pierce, the end of the Big Three era could be approaching.
Pierce said at Wednesday’s shootaround that he fully plans to play next season, whether the Celtics retain him, buy him out, or use his expiring contract to acquire younger assets.
There is a strong recognition that Pierce may not retire a Celtic, despite his desire to end his career where it started. Basketball is a business, expiring contracts are valuable, and Pierce honestly believed if Garnett had not re-signed last July, he would have been traded then.
But he wants to play next season, despite struggling in the postseason.
“Right now it’s year-by-year,” he said hours before Game 5. “I expect to play another year next year and then evaluate after that. I always said I wanted to end my career as a Celtic. But they are the ones [with the decision]. I have a year contract for next year but it’s not guaranteed so the decision’s in their hands. But whatever decision they make, maybe, if they trade me somewhere or I end up somewhere else, maybe it could be a situation where I come back for a one-day deal and retire a Celtic.”
Or course, Pierce hasn’t been a major part of those roster decisions before. He opted out of his contract three years ago but quickly signed the four-year extension he is playing on now.
“I’ve always been a guy that’s said things happen for a reason,” he said. “I was a No. 10 pick, I didn’t anticipate that. I just always feel like throughout my whole career everything is going to fall into the right place for me. I don’t really put much thought into after the season but I know at the end of the day, whatever they do, whatever I do, it’s going to fall in the right place for me.”
As for Garnett, he has two more years left on the three-year, $34 million contract he signed last summer and there may not be much cap relief for the Celtics if he retires. He now has a whopping 52 rebounds in the past three games and is averaging 14.4 in the series, nearly doubling his season average of 7.8.
When the Celtics desperately needed a hoop after the Knicks scored 7 straight points to cut the deficit to 88-83, Garnett went vintage for the sold-out crowd, draining a 20-footer off the dribble for the game-sealer with 48.3 seconds left. He pumped his fist in satisfaction. The old man still has something left.
“I think that’s because of his greatness,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of why so much is expected of Garnett. “Michael Jordan later in his career when he came back, he was really good but he wasn’t Michael. But he was better than 90 percent of the league. And that’s Kevin. Kevin is better than 95 percent of the league. He made the All-Star team this year and that’s the curse I guess of being one of the greatest of all time.”